Archive for July, 2012
Independent game development, it’s the uncharted frontier in gaming. More and more teams are choosing to bypass the rank and file rat race in favor of realizing their passions on their own. But even the independent route has its share of pitfalls and obstacles that are just as disheartening. While it can be very fulfilling, it’s still a very difficult area to achieve success, and even more rare for sustained success.
Indie developer, Polytron, is one of the lucky few to deliver a smash hit called Fez exclusively on Xbox Live Arcade (XBLA). But Polytron recently Initially, Polytron posted a patch (i.e. an update which resolves glitches) which fixed many existing glitches but it also created an entirely new one that corrupted saved games. A few days later, Microsoft (and Polytron) decided to pull the patch citing that this new problem could be resolved by clearing the console’s cache (basically deleting cookies from your console) which returned the game to its earlier version. But now, Polytron posted a note indicating they would be re-deliver the original patch, but it would not correct problem with the corrupted save files. This decision is based on the amount of money (“tens of thousands“) needed to re-certify the game through Microsoft. Additionally, the bug affected such a small amount of people, not making worth Microsoft’ time nor Polytron’s already empty wallet. It’s not as though Microsoft is being completely inflexible and open to working out the issue. Regardless, it still appears Microsoft is the big, greedy bully that won’t play fair and give the little guy a break.
Now let’s look at this situation. Most games need to be patched after they’re released. Every bug isn’t going to be captured in a standard QA cycle. And from my understanding of the XBLA certification process, developers not only need to meet certain AAA standard but also have a fair amount of income to be allowed on stage. On the one hand, I understand the Microsoft’s stance. If Microsoft were to waive or cover the re-certification costs, they would have to do this with the literal hundreds games on XBLA. That cost starts to add up very quickly. It may be that Microsoft designed the certification process and fixed costs in a way that weeds out less committed developers. But once you stumble upon a critically acclaimed game that’s proven to have a solid base of fans, it may be worth re-visiting for some indie developers. When considering the amount of revenue and traffic Bethesda games (Fallout, Elderscrolls series, etc.) brings to Microsoft, it almost seems moot. Granted Bethesda is a major developer with a large bank, their games constantly patched on a regular basis.
Many would say Polytron should have known what they were getting into before deciding to go exclusively with Microsoft. Fez is a platformer that is more suited for a console gamer. And given the large segment of Xbox owners, this makes it a very lucrative opportunity as opposed to going with other avenues such as Steam. And while Steam is great, you’re just not gonna catch as many flies, no matter how good the honey is. At least not in today’s market landscape. Despite delivering a massive hit, this puts them in a crappy situation. On the upside, Fez is out there and garnered a great amount positive buzz. On the down side, the game still has a potential game breaking glitch they can’t afford to patch, despite steady game sales. And on top of that, they can’t option out the game to other distributors. But these situations are popping up more and more, and there are no shortage of stories about the Microsoft’s tumultuous process getting your game posted on XBLA / XBLIG (Xbox Live Indie Games). So other alternatives are needed.
Enter the player Ouya. This $99 console is designed as a Android based gaming system that will offer F2P games (Free 2 Play). And honestly, it’s something game publishers need to take more seriously. As of now, many people across the industry are blowing it off as vaproware or doubting it’s viability in the market. But take a moment to consider how much of a game changer (no pun intended) this could be. A system that will allow developer to produce their own games without as many hoops to jump through and minimal costs of entry. Not to mention on the consumer end, being able to play games at a more affordable cost. As of now, most of the titles being thrown around are more geared toward the uber-casual gamer (more of the Farmville & Cafe World). But they’re also attracting major developers as well (despite its hardware specs). People also doubted Steam and it has proven to be a very solid and sustainable business. The important thing to take note of is that, allowing more players like this is good for the gaming business. It could help stabilize the ecosystem. As I said before, traditional gaming is real danger. Production costs keep increasing but sales have flattened and starting to dip. More, cost conscious, alternatives could help re-invigorate the playing field.
I can’t stress how important the indie game market is to the future of gaming, especially in economic sense. Game companies are essentially leaving a ton of money on the table in this space. The problem here, just like the app market, is that it’s flooded with too many imitators and pure waste. Once someone figures out a way to separate the chaff from those key few apps / games that are worth investing and promoting, then the business will start to see more maturity and growth.
I believe the Ouya could work despite the naysayers valid doubts (how will developers make money? will real hardcore gamers find value in it? How will it scale in the future? etc.) We’ll just have to wait and see. Even if it fails, it can still provide a valuable learning point for the future. It is a risk worth taking. Until then, more situations like Polytron’s will occur again. And you know what, that’s totally fine. It’s just one of the pains that comes with a relatively young industry. I love gaming and despite how childish the culture is at times, I believe everything will balance out eventually.
A few weeks back, I read an article with EA head honcho, Frank Gibeau. And one statement especially jumped out to me:
“In general we’re thinking about how we make this a more broadly appealing franchise, because ultimately you need to get to audience sizes of around five million to really continue to invest in an IP like Dead Space. Anything less than that and it becomes quite difficult financially given how expensive it is to make games and market them. We feel good about that growth but we have to be very paranoid about making sure we don’t change the experience so much that we lose the fanbase.”
This strikes me as odd and flat out preposterous. I’ve always been curious about video game budgets. They just keep growing and growing. I’ve tried poking around for a few detailed breakdowns with no avail. But something is not adding up. These budgets run more than many Hollywood movies. That alone is crazy. Once all the costs for licensing, royalty fees, art, QA, post release support and all that is factored in, you’re already looking at pretty chunk of change. And don’t forget marketing / PR, that alone is sometimes more than the cost of the game itself. Talk about outrageous, but we’ll save that topic for another time. In the end, the budget for a standard console/PC game shouldn’t run more than a few million. So where are they coming up with these inane figures like $25-$100 million? And what kind of metrics ans analysis are they doing that indicates the need for so many buyers to justify a franchise. In fact, I’d really like to see a case study detailing video game production costs & sales in contrast to other industries particularly movies and other technologies (laptop, mobiles, etc.). I realize that sometimes there is a price to be paid for quality; but worth 500 million users? I highly doubt that. Again, something is NOT adding up.
And is it really necessary? The need to appeal to a broader audience is just a systemic of business in general. But many franchises, and games in general, are starting to suffer with dwindling sales month over month. Typically these days, a standard AAA game starts out as a first person shooter (FPS) built on an Unreal Engine with a tacked on gimmicky multiplayer mode. And now it seems, they’ll be more co-op. I, personally, love co-op mode; but it seems that co-op today translate more into action shooter. That aside, including all these features quickly add up to a pretty penny. But do these companies even considered if it’s germane to the business or the final product itself ? Why does a game such as Dead Space and Assassin’s Creed need MP modes? TellTale is already making a phenomenal Walking Dead game, is it really necessary for Activision to make one as well (which, surprise surprise, will be a FPS)? To me, it seems like a massive waste time and resources when they would be better off capitalizing on different markets. Do they really think they’re gonna capture that many more gamers with such a such a commonplace format? I’m not saying they should ignore these kind of opportunities. You never know what could happen. Case in point, I thought adding MP to Mass Effect 3 would be a colossal failure. But it turned out to be a massive success. So I’m all for trying new ideas, just maybe in a different manner. In fact, I’d love to see the numbers around these figures. It may be worth holding off some new features as optional DLC only to be included in future installments based on a scale of their popularity.
But even if that were the case, it still doesn’t account for the absorbent budgets. Countless indie developers have found marginal to great success producing games on a shoestring budget. Why don’t major publishers release smaller titles in a similar manner more often? Everyone wants to produce the next biggest hit, but wouldn’t it be more prudent to release a string of lower budget titles to help back bigger releases? Movie studios release generic romcoms (romantic comedies) and other low budget clunkers all the time. That’s possible because studios know there’s a market out there willing watch them. Even though movies and games are two different monsters, studios should know there’s a similar (huge) contingent of gamers that’d like low budget title. Low budget titles doesn’t mean low quality. If you need proof of that, look no further than the countless indie developers and other standard titles that have found great success with not even a 1% of the budget. Just like mindless popcorn flicks, sometimes all a gamer wants is just a regular game, not an over-produced blockbuster. But game studios are very risk adverse. The common excuse is that the physical production and release costs is not worth it, especially if it flops. That and they’re pushing gaming more to the digital front. Regardless of the chosen avenue, companies are missing out on a sizable potential market. They already have a dedicated segment of gamers on lock (and potentially more). Gamers like me aren’t going anywhere. This is no excuse for developers to become complacent and produce cookie cutter crap. But it could allow studios and developers more opportunities to take new risks.
All said and done, something needs to happen with the heavy imbalance between budgets and the decreasing sales. I sure as hell don’t have all the answers but based on declining sales, the business aren’t just as clueless in some ways. Right now, there are more than a few lucrative opportunities and markets the game industry capitalize on they’re just ignoring or frankly how no clue how to. But I just hate seeing the traditional console market suffer from their inability to stick to basics and not take advantage of an already, dedicated fan base. Like the saying goes: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. And right now, there’s too much fixing going on.
What do you think people?