April 9, 2013

“Is the game industry crashing?” - forum post on Jul. This was my reply.

It’s crashing, but not like ’83, and not catastrophically.

1983’s crash was caused by consumers having too little information about too many products, buying expensive, bad games at random, and then returning them to the retailers. The retailers got burned by all the products being returned and said “no more games,” which meant that even the publishers that had some quality standards were hurt.

In today’s situation, consumers have a lot of information and can opt to pay at lower price points through sales and bundles. There are reviews, trailers and demos, live streams and playthrough videos. A downloadable option is expected now. So the scenario of retail abruptly closing its doors to the industry just isn’t going to happen - a game being a mess like Simcity is going to hurt EA and not the whole industry.

However, we still have a retail-oriented business model - that is the entire console business. That is the area that’s at risk. Top-to-bottom, the consoles we have today, and the games made for them, are made for how retail used to work:

In any given store there’s a fight to retain shelf space. To get the most space for a given SKU, publishers have to spend big on marketing. Spending big on marketing leads to a correspondingly bigger development budget because of internal politics. (In the typical budget, marketing costs are much bigger than dev costs) Bigger development budgets lead to a desire to lower risk. The easiest way to lower risk while ramping up budget is to make the graphics better and add more cutscenes - doing this makes the marketing more straightforward as well. This has cumulated, over the course of the generations, in our current AAA games.

But now both the publishers and the console manufacturers are caught in a trap in trying to move towards the online-centric model. Shelf space is no longer at stake online, and that one little thing collapses the whole pyramid that justified building the organization around AAA projects. As well, if there’s no more AAA, then our attention has to turn to what else is going on - with indies, with the console makers, and with the digital storefronts themselves. I’ll address them one by one.

The original premise of consoles as devices preferable to a PC - plug and play for the user - is not so interesting to indies since there’s even better plug and play now(apps and browser games) and consoles came with the expectation that the developer would put in tons of extra fit-and-finish work to fulfill TRC/TCR standards and make sure that nothing terrible happens if a player opens up the console while the game is saving to the memory card and starts rewiring it(or something equally ridiculous); costs like that are things that indies are desperate to get out of the budget since their games are small relative to such overheads. The main thing that still interests them about the consoles is the control scheme, which is what’s causing this group of Android microconsoles to suddenly appear.

The microconsole makers, along with the mobile and web developers, are each cutting out slices of the market that used to be just one segment of the traditional console business - Ouya is the closest to still covering all segments and it may be trying for too much. What are these segments? Retail itself - shipping and selling the product to stores - is a big one, totally bypassed now. Player accounts and services like XBox Live can be done by a storefront, a third party, or omitted entirely. The concept of a set-top box, replaced by the “Smart TV” or a tiny plugin like Gamestick’s solution. And input devices, which are increasingly diverse - we have options now like Sifteo and neurogaming headsets. The old console makers want to protect the market they had, upsell everyone on a bigger package with more stuff, and at the same time dip a toe into digital. That makes them less focused, and their cost structure a lot higher - there’s basically no chance, over the course of the coming generation, that they’ll succeed “like they used to,” if at all.

But of the big three I do think Sony has the best shot, and MS the worst. Sony has taken a lot of positive moves to get more developers and especially small ones on board, starting at the beginning with the hardware spec and ending with their funding a lot of new, smaller titles(most will be unannounced at this time and I don’t know their contents, but I’ve heard a few numbers through the grapevine). Nintendo, like the others, has too high of a cost structure, but they aim lower and don’t bleed money, and they’ve already started chasing after Sony’s strategy. And MS is angry, confused and disorganized as with pretty much everything it’s done in the past 5–10 years.

The digital storefronts have an interesting story. Although there are dominant storefronts for some platforms, this is a scenario where, in microeconomic terms, the marketplace as a whole is starting out very monopolistic and then gradually diluting into perfect competition, because the friction isn’t there to keep capital pooled like in the situation of, e.g., Amazon.com. The major differentiating factors are price, exclusives, quantity of DRM, and additional services like stats, achievements and friends lists. Of these, only the community-building parts are truly sticky. Valve recognizes this and is trying to get a step ahead of the coming dilution of the market, which is why Gabe Newell has been talking recently about how they want to host user-created marketplaces on Steam and get away from being the gatekeeper.

In the very long term - possibly a period of decades, if people intrinsically demand huge productions - the downloadable games market will become increasingly like the recorded music market. It will support the little guy slightly better(more ways to get your work out there) but it won’t be a career for most, and definitely not a “big business.” This will occur because production costs are only going to go down in the future; commercial games will have to push towards a higher level of production to be differentiated from free ones, and production values do have ultimate limits, although they’re still quite far away. With enough premade assets, procedural generation tools, and commodity engine tech, today’s AAA production values will someday be doable in a solo game jam project.

At that point you are presumably only left with games as a service, which is a very different approach to gaming. Currently, that market is mostly focused on dumb monetizing tactics because the operating costs are really high, so nothing too innovative can break out. If those costs plummet that market will change too.

Anyway, this whole chain of events is basically a huge lowering of barriers to entry. It’ll kill the companies we knew but in general it’s going to be better, with something for everyone. And if you want to make games but aren’t making them now, you probably will be soon. It’s going to happen fast!

Copyright James W. Hofmann 2010-2012.