Monday, 29 April 2013

Top 5 Reasons Why the AAA Market is Crashing

Back in the 1980s, when the video game industry was young, it suffered a pretty massive crash. Between 1984 and 1985 total revenues dropped by a whopping 97%, and people thought the fad had passed until the NES came around. Back then the industry had no infristructure and basically subsisted on Pac Man clones. Things are very different these days, but still people constantly claim that the market is headed for another crash. I don't personally believe this is possible any longer, now that we have things like indie developers, digital distribution and a generation of people who grew up playing video games. None the less, I do believe that the AAA market, big budget games, are headed in a bad direction. While I don't think you could call it a "crash", it seems to me that AAAs are in the process of "crashing". In no particular reason why, here are my top 5 reasons why:

1) DRM / Piracy

Piracy has become an incredibly common thing in recent years. It's quite easy to get an illegitimate copy of anything digital, and the chances of any real repercussions are incredibly slim. As a result, there is a large number of people playing games for free, depriving the developer of that sale. I don't think there is any question that this is a bad thing, good games can't get made if developers go broke. However at the same time, there really isn't any proof that piracy actually negatively effects a game's sales. It can be argued, for example, that a person who pirates a game may have never bought it to begin with. Nobody can say for certain what effect piracy has, but what we can say for certain is that game makers (understandably) don't like it. In fact many of them end up sinking ridiculous amounts of time and money into trying to prevent their game from being pirated. This is known as DRM.

DRM comes in many forms, but all of them are designed to bar illegitimate owners from playing a game. The problem is, it doesn't work. Not for video games. There are some very smart people out there who treat DRM like a challenge to be overcome, and working pirated games are usually distributed on the internet within hours. So if DRM doesn't restrict pirates, who is there left to restrict? Only legitimate users. The issue here is that while piracy probably isn't good for the industry, DRM definitely isn't. Game makers obsess over the potential loss of income that piracy may or may not cause, and as a result waste time and money fighting a battle they will always lose. The fact of the matter is that it's not uncommon for legitimate owners to suffer at the hands of DRM, while pirates have no such restrictions. The game experience is actually better for the people who obtain the game illegitimately.

2) Publishers

Now I want to start by saying that publishers get a pretty bad rap. They are often seen as "the enemy", the evil greedy businessmen pulling the strings from the shadows. In reality however, publishers are not all bad. In reality, many (perhaps even most) exceptional games would never have seen the light of day if not for publishers. However with that said, which games publishers do and do not choose to fund has a very real effect on the direction that the industry goes.When all is said and done, publishers invest their money in a game in order to see a return on that investment. AAA games are expensive, and publishers have to choose very carefully where to spend their money.

Creating high caliber games is a risk. The reason this is a problem is because it means publishers aren't as likely to invest in a game that can't guarantee success. Games that aren't a sequel or a Call of Duty clone could lose a publisher a lot of money, those risky investments aren't attractive. However on the flip side we see mobile games rising to prominence because they aren't so expensive. Big studios can sink a relatively small amount of time and money just spitballing. The problem with all of this is because the market is now being driven by things that don't necessarily appeal to "core" gamers. As the risks inherent to a AAA title increase, the kind of titles we see become less and less creative, and more and more samey. Gaming has become a mainstream hobby, but those that made the industry what it is today aren't who publishers are worried about any more. It's not wrong for publishers to want to make their money back, but the unfortunate fact is that ever increasing aversion to taking risks is leading to a market that is increasingly stagnant.

3) Pre-Orders

The issue with pre-orders is actually one that has only really cropped up in the last couple years. I've never really seen an issue with putting money up front for a game I know I want day 1. I still don't see an issue with the core of this concept, but the problem is that publishers (and retailers) are catching on in a big way. It seems to me that the entire way that a game is marketed is shifting. Perhaps I'm just being naive, but I feel like the focus used to be on selling copies by making a good game, whereas now it's more about hype. It seems like every game these days needs to have some fancy pre-order bonus, and a different reward for buying from Gamestop, Best Buy and Amazon. It's all about convincing the consumer how much they want the game before it's even released, and some games sell millions in pre-orders.

That's really where the problem lies here. Publishers want to cement the financial success of their game before it even has the possibility of being panned by reviewers. That's ok, marketing, building hype, and selling as many copies as possible are all their job. The problem is that the consumers are falling for it. We get so wrapped up in the hype, we have pre-order bonuses waved in our face, and we don't even know if the game will be any good. We live in an age where mediocre, or even bad games can be financially successful if they are marketed well. Apparently we can't even trust the truthfulness of trailers and demos. Why would we then continue to pre-order games instead of waiting at least a few hours after release? Maybe if consumers had a little more patience and were a little less obsessed with pre-order bonuses we wouldn't have to worry about another Aliens: Colonial Marines.

4) Bad DLC / Microtransactions

I want to be very clear upfront here: DLC and Microtransactions are not inherently bad things. The concept of spending $5 on a game I love is actually pretty appealing to me. If the developer did a good job, then they deserve a little extra from me. Having that secondary form of monetization can go a long way too, and it makes selling a $60 title a bit less of a crapshoot for the developer. The problem is that microtransactions have proven to work pretty well, and now everyone wants a piece of that pie. As a result it feels like every other game out there is either pay to win, or chopped up and sold as DLC. It's surprisingly rare to find a game that lets you spend $60 and be done with it, and even more rare that the base price is dropped as a result of them nickle-and-dimeing you.

The problem here is that the core of a game has to be able to stand on it's own, and has to be a complete package. If you chop off an important part of the story just to charge $5 for it, that's only going to make people mad. If you chop any piece off, really. DLC is supposed to be an addition to the game, not something that say, is already on the disc, but can't be accessed without a fee. Poorly implementing your paid content is one of the best ways to really wreck an otherwise decent game. I don't want to get a megabeamsword +6 when I pre-order the game, I don't want to pay for an in-game currency for a title I already spent $60 on, and I don't want to feel like my game is incomplete without the $20 season pass.

5) Graphics Over Gameplay

This is an argument that has persisted for a long time now, and yet it only gets more and more true each year. Graphics are always marching forward, it's virtually the only reason we even need another generation of consoles or better graphics cards. Yet if you were to ask anyone who has been gaming for at least 10-15 years, chances are they would say that the best games were released in the 1990s and 2000s. Granted a lot of that is likely nostalgia, a lot of those games were graphically impressive for their time, and there are certainly recent games that are also very good. However despite all of this, it seems like the AAA industry doesn't know how to make a game without blowing most of their budget on polygons. Plenty of people will tell you that gameplay is what makes a game good, and they aren't wrong, but the spending is where I feel the real issue lies.

The fact that AAA games are so expensive to make isn't doing anyone any favors. Good graphics can add to an already fun game, but they can't make an experience. If anything, style and aesthetics are more important than fidelity, and they are both less expensive. This all leads back to what I've already talked about in regards to publishers. Expensive games are risky, risks are bad when you want to make money. When you can sell 3.4 million copies of a game and still consider it a failure, then you have a real problem. It's hard to imagine a world where AAA games having lower expectations and more reasonable budgets wouldn't produce better games.When every title doesn't have to be a smash hit to succeed, you can afford to take bigger risks. That is the path back to an industry with imagination, niche appeal, and AAA titles that can actually make games that are as good as the indie developers who have a fraction of the budget.  It sure would be nice to see more titles that focused on fun instead of explosions.

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