Jim Sterling has a video up on The Escapist that is really interesting. It’s also below. If you don’t know or care about video games, maybe skip it because you might not understand the context. Or go ahead, because you’ll definitely understand the theme.
Okay, it would have been only nothing I’m doing will embed from fucking Escapist. Here’s the link.
God, anyway, if you watched it, I’m sure you noticed a similarity to a few of the things we talk about in self publishing. For the uninitiated (in gaming, anyway, I’m assuming if you’re here then you care about self publishing), Irrational Games announced it would be downsizing, and ultimately closing. I was, and still am, heartbroken by this. Bioshock is, as far as I am concerned, pretty much perfect. It is the perfect mix of deep storytelling, visceral combat, and a world that I will never forget. Even with two sequels, I have never been able to relive that experience and I will never see anything like it. Irrational brought it to me and I am a better person for having experienced it.
A lot of developers, and no small number of publishers, have closed in recent years. Normally due to financial hardship. Not so here. Ken Levine, the head of Irrational, wants a more entrepreneurial feel to his work. His company was owned by Take Two Interactive. This is the Publisher behind such games as The Elder Scrolls and Grand Theft Auto. Note I said the Publisher. The Developers are the ones that made those games, the Publisher just provides the finances and the production support.
And, notoriously, the control. The direction. The marketing. (Sound familar?) In gaming, they are responsible for some of the most heinous abuses in business, both toward their Developers and their Consumers. EA, the major competitor of Take Two, has been voted the worst company in the world two years in a row. Whereas most companies would see this as a nightmare, they laughed it off.
EA is the worst at this (seriously, what they do to franchises is worse than what literary publishers have dreamed of) but video game publishers in general are showing a greater and greater trend of this type of business ethic. Part of the problem is the cost to make a game and the reliance on blockbusters (in our world we would call them bestsellers). A publisher puts out a dozen games, hoping one will become the next Call of Duty and pay for the rest.
Because if they don’t, they’re ruined. It’s a viscous gamble. A publisher can just barely perform this type of gambling, for a Developer it just takes that one lagging game to send them into bankruptcy. Book publishing is bad enough, imagine if you had to put up 100k for every book. It’s why you see games filled with particle physics, lighting effects, everything a focus on visual horsepower. It’s why games are becoming more and more about spectacle and explosions. They have to make sales, and if they don’t make those sales within the first few months, it’s over.
What you’re seeing now are the biggest developers in the industry, the leads anyway, breaking away from the publishers to do their own thing. Mr. Sterling’s video discusses how the money that gives them the ability to do so much more with their product, also constrains them, forcing them down an avenue of creation.
And the Publishers, they don’t really care. EA in particular stripmines developers, a vulture stripping the bones from a cow, the only difference being the cow is still alive and trying to get away. For now, the public demands big budget Triple A titles, games that cost hundreds of millions of dollars to create. This has resulted in games that are, at least, sixty dollars a piece with more and more seeing in game purchases, the publishers trying to squeeze every dollar out of the consumer.
What do you know, another familiarity.
That is changing, albeit slowly. As technology advances, it takes less people, less time to make a decent game. Steam has already positioned itself as being THE distribution system for games, indie or otherwise. I’ll be the first to admit I haven’t really looked at indie games. A lot of them seem like really good titles, but so many are in genres that are easier to make, puzzle games and platformers, or they’re artsy first person adventure games, things I’m not all that interested in. That’s a really unfair generalization, there’s a lot out there I just haven’t looked for. The point is, that’s changing. Publishers are not keeping up, they’re doing too much to control content (don’t even get me started on what they’re doing to control content to the consumer), they’re sending their industry in a tailspin that Developers and creators will take advantage of.
It just keeps getting more and more familiar, doesn’t it?
Update: Hugh Howey published a post quoting Peter Moore (Microsoft) saying some similar stuff. The way Microsoft and EA in particular have gone about digital distribution is, by and far, not the model the industry needs to pursue, but I think it shows the waves that are running through the industry.