2009 was quite a year, wasn’t it? Harmonix sacked 39 people. Funcom has announced plans to send 20% of its workforce home for the Long Weekend of No Return. EA sent an astounding 1,500 people to the unemployment gulag. Newcomer Endrant Studios used the dreaded Scythe of Headcount Reduction as soon as Wolfenstein launched. Avalanche Studios just caused 20 of their employees to become jobless. Midway fired everyone at its headquarters before the company disappeared down the gullet of Warner Bros. Gearbox pink-slipped 25 people. And that’s not anywhere near the full list. The year was a bloodbath for people in the games industry, and while I hope the worst is over, I expect more people to lose their jobs in 2010.
So I thought I’d offer the games industry a little friendly advice as we head into the new year. Here are my suggestions for how to save money and make more money without needing to shed any more blood. A lot of this might seem to be aimed at EA, but really this advice applies equally well to all of the big players.
Stop spending so much on graphics.
As I have said before, we’re way past the point of diminishing returns. The difference between “good graphics” and “crappy graphics” is far more about art design and far less about exploring new frontiers in real-time ray tracing.
You’ll be amazed at how much faster your artists can work when they’re not being handed a whole new set of tools to learn every eighteen months.
Don’t abandon everything for casual gaming.
Warning: I hate, hate, hate the term “casual gamer” because it’s so often ambiguous and condescending. However, I’m going to use the term in the following paragraph for the sake of getting on with this article and not boring you with my usual tirade. Okay? Thanks!
EA bought up casual game developer Playfish for $300 million. That’s a lot of fish. The Wii is already trying to be the console for casuals, and there are a lot of other casual developers on the scene. This is in addition to all the stuff going on with portables and in the indie scene, both of which overlap more with the casual market than with big-name AAA gaming. Everyone seems to be trying to “go casual” at once, and there is a serious risk that this will lead to a glut. Casual gaming has been on the rise for years. Companies jumping on the bandwagon now are like the guys who started buying dot-com stocks in February 2000.
Maybe you should focus on improving your existing business instead of trying to take over a new market. Get good at one thing before branching out.
Stop buying companies. Idiots.
You may have read about it as recently as two paragraphs ago, but EA bought up casual game developer Playfish for $300 million. This is the same year they let 1,500 people go.
So… you’re firing people on one end, and then paying for an entire company and all of its IP and hiring all of their employees on the other end?
EXEC A: Why did you sell your truck?
EXEC B: That thing guzzled too much gas.
EXEC A: So why did you buy a gold-plated SUV?
EXEC B: Well, I needed something for driving to work.
If you can’t afford to employ people, then why are you buying companies full of people? And if you can afford to employ people, why did you just unload a bunch? If those 1,500 people weren’t making money, then who should get the blame? Were they all no-talent hacks, or were they working on unprofitable projects? If the former, then why did you hire them? If the latter, then isn’t it your fault they were working on games nobody wanted?
You couldn’t make money with the 1,500 people you fired, but now we’re supposed to believe that you’ll be able to do so with the people at Playfish? Is your profitability problem really the result of just not having the right group of artists and software engineers?
Or are you just moving your ever-dwindling piles of cash from one side of the room to the other to make it look like you have a plan?
Lower your prices.
Really. Just try it. Put a new game out for $30 instead of $60 and see if you don’t sell enough units to make up the difference. You are not the only industry with money troubles. Things are tough all over. Lots of people are broke. Wouldn’t it be better to sell customers your game at half price than to sell them nothing at all for the full price?
You keep getting excited about how much money casual games are making. You know an amazing fact about casual games? They’re cheap. Maybe you should try imitating that before you go nuts spending enough money to make Modern Warfare 2 six times over in order to get your hands on a casual games company.
Stop firing people.
Okay, maybe this one won’t save you money.