Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Gaming + The Internet = Sadness (Part 3)--We're Driving Developers Away from AAA

It’s fitting that in my blathering about how sad the internet makes me about games, I’ve left the developers for last. Because they are the lifeblood of the gaming industry, and we are killing them. Developers of big-budget games for console and PC are leaving to work on smaller games, and not just because of the reduced financial risk.

So, let’s start again by assuming we all like games, which is why we play them, as well as read and talk about them so much. And yet, we treat most developers like Gordon Ramsey treats chefs on Hell’s Kitchen. With disdain, condescension and impossible expectations.

When I say developers, I mean everyone working on a game. The writers, artists, programmers, etc. These people spend years of their lives working ridiculous hours to craft an experience that we can immerse ourselves in for hours and hours.

For many of them, their games will not even be covered by mainstream gaming outlets. Worse still, they may get a dismissive mention in a “new releases” article, or a gaming website’s podcast, implying that they are not worth a gamer’s time. If they do get covered (which usually means they are a bigger budget title), they still have big hurdles to clear to be successful.

First, they must hope that their game scores an 8 out of 10 or higher, or most gamers will assume the game is not worth their money. If the game scores lower than a 7, it’s pretty much considered garbage, and word of mouth about what a failure it is will spread across the internet like wildfire. Not much room for error there. Even if the reviews are good, the developer must hope that none of the negatives in any of the reviews become a hot button issue for gamers, or once again, the internet wildfires will rage.

From a publisher standpoint, the industry has become a nuclear arms race of annually updated franchises, which forces developers to churn out slightly different flavors of the same thing every year, with little room to stray from the formula. You can’t blame the publishers, because we are the ones buying the same games every year. There is little room for innovation or new IP, and when something new does come along (like Kingdoms of Amalur, Dragon’s Dogma or Gravity Rush), much of the gaming press and many gamers will assume it’s not worth their time until proven otherwise. There is no level playing field for new ideas--it’s an uphill battle all the way. Unless the games press really gets behind a game before it releases (like with Dishonored), there’s a good chance the game will be dead on arrival, and all the positive reviews in the world can’t help it.

Not only has the current state of console and PC gaming brought about the closure of many game studios, but it’s also created an exodus into the mobile, casual and free-to-play gaming arenas.

On the mobile side, developers are more free to take risks on smaller projects, and they are creating for an enthusiastic audience that has reasonable expectations. Not to mention, there’s money to made, as the combination of lower development costs and huge install bases create the potential for big gains. In July, well-known PC and console developer Epic Games announced that their iOS game Infinity Blade was their most profitable game ever. Ever. Not Unreal. Not Gears of War. A mobile game.

Both the PC and mobile platforms have also proven to be fertile ground for the free-to play model. Mobile devices are littered with free games that are either supported by micro-transactions  or offer a premium version for a price. On the PC side, free-to-play MMOs are proving very successful, and are one way for developers to deal with the piracy issue that has plagued PC for years.

So in my mind the question is this: If the games press and gamers themselves have made developing big games for console and PC a losing proposition, why would developers keep doing it? I don’t think many will, and I think the next three years will see an even bigger migration away from big console and PC development, while the mobile and free-to-play markets continue to grow.

The sad thing is, we as gamers have brought this upon ourselves. We’ve created two categories for games today. Either a game is awesome and everyone needs to buy and play it, or it is awful and doesn’t deserve to be played at all. Everything is between is getting squeezed out.

Over the next few months, I’ll be posting about some of the overlooked games of the past few years that I’ve had a lot of fun with. Games like Legendary: The Box, Velvet Assassin, Raven Squad, Dead Island, The Saboteur and Binary Domain, to name a handful.