Wednesday, December 10, 2008

money money money: gaming in hard times

We've talked about Gamestop's robust performance during this Economic Crisis, but how's everyone else doing?

Factor 5, developer of Playstation 3 flop Lair, is reportedly canceling projects and not paying its workers.

Industry giant Electronic Arts lost $310 million this past quarter. This comes just as the House that Madden Built and Continues to Finance finally begins to take chances on interesting (and less interesting) new intellectual properties.

Sony, purveyors of all things Playstation, is cutting 8,000 jobs from its electronics division between now and 2010.

Microsoft is shutting down Ensemble. Publisher THQ has closed five of its sixteen development studios. Midway is in the toilet. Countless developers are cutting jobs or cutting projects or being swallowed whole by people bigger than they are or closing their doors entirely. The outlook, as it is in so many places, is bleak.

In an industry already prone to sequel-itis and disdain for new IP, I fear we're going to see fewer ballsy AAA titles in 2009. We can expect sequels to games and names that perform reasonably well, that don't take many chances with their respective established formulas, and they will likely sell enough to be considered successful. This is already a common developer/publisher modus operandi and we can expect it to stay that way.

It isn't just bold new IPs which have been failing lately - the latest Rock Band and Guitar Hero refreshes have failed to impress, and the sequel to the only PS3 launch title anyone had anything nice to say about hasn't done so hot either. The thread most of these retail disappointments share is that they were released during the holiday season, in a continuation of the awful ritual that sees 75% of the year's biggest games squeezed into 25% of the calendar year. Lots of stuff falls through the cracks, even titles that don't deserve to. When faced with holiday shopping in this deepening recession, are gamers and their parents going to be more inclined to pick up two new games for $120, or are they going to see all the stuff they've missed in the last twelve months sitting in the bargain bin and jump on that instead? On the day after Thanksgiving I helped a certain relative purchase four games from Amazon for $55. None of them were new releases, but there were four of them. Paying $60 for Mirror's Edge suddenly seems irresponsible.

Even with the underperformance of new property at retail, innovation is by no means dead. There are many constants in video games; one is that Madden will have its roster updated once a year, and another is that someone (or someones!) will come out of left field with short and sweet projects which manage to turn the industry on its head. In 2007, Portal, the shortest game in Valve's delightful orange grab bag, showed exactly what well-executed writing and voice acting could add to a simple but stellar concept, while challenging preconceived notions about game length. This year, Braid managed to prove that (1) Xbox Live Arcade titles can sell for prices over $5 and (2) that downloadable is not synonymous with shallow. Mega Man 9 challenged conventions by not just going back to its roots, but to the series' very seed, bringing old gameplay back without making it stale. World of Goo (which has a PC demo you can't afford not to try) sparked hope that Nintendo's WiiWare service could deliver in spite of technical limitations, and Audiosurf pointed out how very limited our fifty-song Rock Band discs really are. All of these games go for $20 or less, all have made money for and directed well-deserved attention toward their respective developers, and all are titles that you really shouldn't go without playing. I don't know whether 2009 can deliver as many well-crafted indie efforts, but I sure as hell am expecting it to.

2008 also saw big gains in the casual market, that strange new blue ocean foretold by the gods. Are these casual gamers, lured in by brain training and the shallow promises of Wii Fit and Cooking Mama, in it to win it? The traditional set, the ones who cut their teeth on Doom and on the SNES and the Playstation, may be in Gamestop dropping money on a $55 used copy of Fable II, but is Fixed Income Grandma or Girlfriend Who Has a DS Because She Wanted to Play Pokemon going to keep spending on the crap that Ubisoft shovels out when money gets tight? I wouldn't bet on it, especially if this recession settles in for an extended stay.

We can expect a fuckton of warmed-over SNES ports from Square.

I don't expect sweeping changes or huge surprises for 2009, even with a recession on. We certainly won't see the extinction of the big-budget blockbuster or the return of the $50 new release. As with anything else, we'll just tighten our belts and do with what we have until things turn around.