The Gaming Industry: Portents of Impending Doom

Note: [All opinions expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect that of GamerXChange]

Not Doom 4. Actual Doom.

I open this post with a small history lesson. In 1982, a movie was released called E.T. We all know it, most of us love it. Much like any successful summer blockbuster, it had a tie in video game. Atari secured the rights a mere 5-6 weeks before the game cart had to hit production to make the holiday season, and so naturally what was turned out in those few weeks was shovelware of the highest calibre. Not just shovelware, but a game regarded as one of the worst pieces of software to ever hit the medium. Naturally it was commercial failure, the second of the year for Atari  following their port of Pac Man (though how anyone can mess that up, answers on a postcard).

This, combined with what can only be described as an unholy amount of consoles on the market (13 at rough count, most of which were just clones of each other), as well as the competition from the growing home PC market led to the video game industry crash of ’83-’85 (hereby referred to as the Dark Ages). It was only when a hitherto unknown company called Nintendo released the Nintendo Entertainment System in ’85 that the industry started to pull itself out of the Dark Ages. Of course, if you’re reading this, you probably knew all that. It’s not some kind of deep dark secret. It is however, good to have some context. This industry is not bulletproof. It’s crashed before, and it’s going to crash again. It’s not a case of if, but when. I’ll give you a hint. This upcoming generation. The defining factors may be different, but the result will be the same.

First off, let’s get the big one out of the way: Consumer apathy. Sony alone is releasing three titles this year (The Last of Us, Beyond: Two Souls and Gran Turismo 6), that in any normal year would be considered a very strong line up. Move The Last of Us from early summer to holiday season, and Sony has pretty much guaranteed cash in pocket. And while Microsoft has no megaton titles up for this year (saying this in a pre E3 landscape of course), the third-party titles confirmed for this year not hitting next-gen consoles means there is more than enough to be getting on with. So why buy a next-gen console? Yes the features may be a little more fancy, but most of Microsoft’s Xbox One features have been confirmed to be America only for the first few months anyway. So why bother? Sony has been putting a lot of stock in Ubisoft’s big Q4 titles (Assassin’s Creed 4 and Watch_Dogs) for the PS4 launch. But they’re coming on PS3 as well. So why bother?

This could be perhaps the issues facing the Wii U right now. Let’s not mess around here, the Wii was primarily a kids’ toy. Cheap, user friendly and fun for all the family. So when the Wii U came out, there was naturally some consumer confusion. Is it an add-on for the Wii? Can it play Wii games? It’s how much? Many factors are playing against the Wii U, but arguably the worst is when consumers give you the pass. Not to mention the sheer amount of pre-owned games available for the Wii. It’s mind-blowing. I can walk into the local second hand games store and pretty much outfit a Wii library of all the top titles for less than that of a Wii U. Anyway, back on topic, so what’s to say that doesn’t happen with the PS4/Xbox One? Yeah, the core will buy them, they always do. But mass market. That’ll be a harder sell. Especially with the next Call of Duty coming to the current gen. Not to mention both console’s back catalogues, which will start to plummet in price with the advent of the new boxes. For the average console user, that alone means there’s no reason to upgrade this year. Which brings me onto my next point.

The biggest games in the world, the games not by just the core but the consistently biggest selling titles of the year, every year. They’re all cross gen for this year. Yes, to ignore this current generation in favour of next may be too heavy a cost to bear, but they don’t make the console desirable. I don’t see the Call of Duty after Ghost coming to PS360. But the length of time between versions (the traditional annual release cycle) means that the average consumer has no need to pick up a next gen box until at least holiday 2014. The multiplayer on Call of Duty, Madden and Fifa will see people quite comfortably through the year. Those casual player are the key to any company’s success, and they’ve all been given a year to forget about it. However, while it’s easy to just talk about the bro and his sports, you’d be remiss to forget the kids market, and a little billion dollar industry called Skylanders. New Skylanders this year means another year of fighting in Toys R Us over the latest figures. Not the latest consoles. So much easier to placate little Timmy Casualgamer with a new plastic dragon thing than a £/$400+ box none of his friends have.

Now, we move on to the hot button topic of the moment. DRM and used games. Microsoft’s policy on used games is something of a clusterfrak at present. Over the past week, their stance has shifted from no used games, to used games reactivated for a fairly substantial fee, to retail stores set their own prices and finally to we have nothing to disclose as yet. If you had nothing to disclose, you should have kept quiet. Just like Sony, who in the event of what could have been some easy publicity, a massive middle finger to the competition and some easy sales, have kept quiet. Which gives the impression of a company trying to avoid saying something people don’t want to hear. To those people who say Sony won’t have some sort of used games DRM, I say, don’t be naïve. This is a business, arguably the biggest business in the world run by companies who want to protect their interests. And if Sony wasn’t playing ball, then they wouldn’t be getting the games. Like Nintendo it seems. EA says they currently have no games in development for the Wii U, including its big sport franchises. This could be because they can’t get the new engines running on such underpowered hardware. But they managed during the Wii era with some caveats. Or could it be that Nintendo has no system in place to prevent used game sales (not prevent, more hamstring with a large fee)?

EA recently announced that it was stopping its online pass system. The scheme that has helped contribute to their being awarded Worst Company in America the first time around. The only reason they could have to stop this is that a system driven from the actual console was incoming. It just seems like too much of a coincidence that as soon as they stop online passes, they suddenly have no games in development for Wii U while the other two platform holders are busy dealing with this used games issue. Ironically enough, the anti consumer practises this used games reduction scheme uses could drive consumers to the Wii U, the only platform without this in place. Assuming of course they never want to move their online purchases from one console to another. Ever.

But all of this has a point. The power of the publishers is astonishing. Between pre order exclusives split up piecemeal between several different retailers, and the moneyhatting from various platform holders (Microsoft and Call of Duty have a partnership that will last until time itself explodes). The big publishers clearly have the influence to drive decisions within development of the next gen consoles, and it appears to be a case of do what we say, or you’re out in the cold. However, this industry is driven by publishers desperate to squeeze every last penny out of consumers, more so than any other industry, yet consumers are getting fed up of buying substandard, sloppy and in some cases, downright unfinished products. All it will take is another big Atari sized failure and companies start going bankrupt.

Look at THQ. UDraw worked on the Wii. They bet the farm on it replicating that success on PS360 and they paid for it with their life. The biggest game in the world is Call of Duty, and if that fails, it’s goodnight nurse. The cracks are starting to show, when the highlight of your first next gen game is a dog (no matter how good it is), you have real problems. And when you rely on casual gamers, and those who only buy maybe your game every year, as soon as they check out, so do you.

So in summation. Our industry is on the brink. This next generation could bring about a renaissance in terms of game design how we use our consoles. It could also however, crash around our ankles in a wave of apathy, DRM and misery. Which is looking more likely so far. Maybe we could be surprised, perhaps its not beyond the realms of possibility for the platform holders to listen to public opinion. Now who’s being naïve? Anyway, that’s that. Have I missed anything? Buying either box day one? Completely eschewing the next gen in favour of mobile games? Give me your opinions!

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2 Responses to “The Gaming Industry: Portents of Impending Doom”

  1. Daniel Gurfinkiel Reply May 30, 2013 at 2:48 pm

    “The biggest game in the world is Call of Duty”.

    No, it isn’t. Nintendo has, not one, not two, but SEVERAL IPs that outsell any given COD title in the long run. Whereas Black Ops sold around… what 15, 16 million copies in total between PS3 and Xbox 360… New Super Mario Bros, Wii Sports Resort, Wii Fit and Mario Kart Wii all sold more than 20 million copies each, and those games were released on a single platform.

  2. Maybe CoD isn’t the biggest in terms of sales, but in terms of pop culture relevance, how many casuals it’s brought to the medium and the fact that every launch is always the biggest launch of the year across any media it’s definitely up at the top end. Biggest game is not decided on simply sales alone, but in terms of how big a deal it is. You use sales figures across lifetime, which doesn’t really apply here, given the lifecycle of a CoD game is one year, vs Nintendo maybe putting one title per IP in a given console cycle. Black Ops doing a few million less in a year than a Ninty game over maybe 3+ years I’d say would make it bigger. Plus it’s doing that every year, which would definitely make it a more valuable franchise in terms of cash value, and audience mindshare. Plus I reckon if you did a straw poll in any games store across the world, what game are you most looking forward to this year (well maybe not this year, GTA V and all that) the answer would mostly be comprised of Assassin’s Creed, that country’s respective EA sports preference (Madden in the USA, Fifa over here) and CoD.

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