Is the games industry on the edge of a precipice, or will it just mutate into something new?

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Is the games industry on the edge of a precipice, or will it just mutate into something new?

Studios keep closing, games keep slipping, and developers keep getting screwed. So what's the future of the industry that we all love?

It’s pretty common to see bull-ish articles starting with the line ‘Gaming is big business now’ or something like it, and going on to be pleased at this evolution from sub-culture into mainstream. But there’s a dark side to being big business, one that is increasingly showing the cracks in the AAA gaming system.

Big businesses fail, and when they do so, the systems they support are changed forever. Worse than that, people get hurt, careers spiral to nowhere, and whole economies can collapse. Look at the Global Financial Crisis, or any other big financial backslide, to see how interlinked systems can fall apart like a badly made Rube Goldberg machine.

That’s kinda how gaming looks at the moment, though admittedly the industry’s seemingly forever caught in the very moment of crashing, stumbling forward like a runner not yet fallen after breaking stride.

The wave form hasn’t collapsed.

Yet.

Gaming is big business now
But what does that mean?

For anyone in the business of making games, especially at the AAA end of town, it means that each release must be bigger, better, brighter. Well, okay, perhaps not better. Call of Duty has been putting out yearly titles, and even more regular map packs, at a rate of knots, but I’m not sure if the quality has been on the rise since Modern Warfare. Rather, Activision, the game’s publisher, has been running to catch up to a demand that it itself has created.

Before the age of yearly game releases from big publishers, most gamers were content to see their favourite titles released every few years. I doubt anyone was really calling for a mere year between CoD games, but it’s certainly a money spinner. Thus, Activision and its two CoD developers, Infinity Ward and Treyarch are locked into the cycle. They have to keep going, because that’s what businesses – especially publically traded businesses – have to do.

Having something to say, or possessing a drive for quality, doesn’t really come into it. I'm sure there are many devs behind CoD that are making the best game they can, but you will never, ever see a CoD game get delayed – the cost to the company, and the shareholders, would be too high.

If you want to see a case in point, all you need look to is fall in Ubisoft’s share price when it announced a delay for Watch_Dogs, its game of open world hacking and vigilantism. After pushing the game back from this year, and the launch of the next-gen consoles, Ubisoft’s share price dropped more than 26 per cent.

While more than one observer has noted that bringing out any open world action game within a month or so of the $1-billion-making Grand Theft Auto V could be considered a rough proposition, Ubi’s claimed that the game simply isn’t ready.

“The tough decisions we are taking today to fully realise the major potential of our new creations have an impact on our short-term performance,” Ubisoft’s chief executive, Yves Guillemot, said in the delay announcement. “The additional time given to the development of our titles will allow them to fulfill their huge ambitions.”

But here’s the thing – the guys at Ubi aren’t dumb, and a GTA game is always going to be a big ticket item. Rockstar’s open world games, with one or two notable exceptions (*cough* LA Noire *cough*) rake in money like it’s going out of style. Of course it was going to be big. If you assume Ubi knew what it was getting into, and was confident – months ago, at least – that it could compete...

The alternative is to believe them – the game just needs more work. Which leaves Ubisoft an invidious decision. Any delay is going to cost them, both in terms of lost sales, now, and will hit their share price. But releasing an undercooked game... Well, that was the start of a string of disasters for late, lamented THQ, with its Korean-invasion-themed Homefront.

Polygon put together an outstanding article called Death March: The Long, Tortured Journey of Homefront, and it really is essential reading. It paints a terrifying picture of a development culture that is, fundamentally, broken. A game that was in constant crunch just to deliver code to E3 – code that was not even going to make it into the game! A game that had a marketing budget bigger that would make a some countries blush.

When it racked up a 73 per cent score on Metacritic, its shares went into freefall – overnight it dropped, coincidentally, 26 per cent. The rest, as they say, is sad history.

History which rather conveniently shows just how damned Ubisoft is if it does or doesn’t release when promised. It loses a tonne of cash either way. In fact, looking at THQ in hindsight, delaying is the only choice.

In fact, THQ got off lightly - at least a lot of its studios were bought up. If you want a real horror story, look at Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning.

Big Huge Fail
On the 25th of May last year the staff at 38 Studios and Big Huge Games got a rather unwelcome email.

The Company is experiencing an economic downturn. To avoid further losses and possibility of retrenchment, the Company has decided that a companywide lay off is absolutely necessary.

These layoffs are non-voluntary and non-disciplinary.

This is your official notice of lay off, effective today, Thursday, May 24th, 2012.

By most sensible reports, Reckoning, supposedly the first of many games in the setting, was a success. It reviewed well, EA was happy with it, it made money... but not nearly enough. The aftermath was grisly – developers who’d moved entire families to the new Rhode Island office lost their homes, had their healthcare cut off, and had no chance of ever recouping the money that had been owed them for a long period of unpaid, hard work.

Big Huge Games & 38 Studios lay off all staff, Amalur 'failed'

By all reports, however, everyone in the side company had no idea that this was really a problem. On the one hand, these were all passionate people, a team of great, creative developers. On the other, they would have all understood they dark truth of game development at that level – they were lucky to have a job in an industry which is hyper-competitive, and that doesn’t value the work of developers nearly as much as it does the cash-drop of a successful, timely, game launch.

I’ve touched on this a couple of times, but the mis-placed pleasure that some marketing type at Crytek felt at proudly announcing on Twitter the over 10,000 meals served to crunching developers is breathtaking. As many responders on Twitter pointed out, that’s meals missed with family, hours of personal time sacrificed for a game that about as cookie-cutter as they come.

Which is not to say that overtime itself is wrong; it exists in every industry where you have to create a product to spec in a timely manner. Man, the 1am pizzas I’ve had while getting a magazine to bed! But the issue in the games industry is how this has somehow become a perverse badge of honour. You hear some developers talk about crunch as rite of passage, something you’ve just got to Man Up! and deal with.

And, unfortunately, the toxicity of that culture is a vicious spiral. You slave over a game, in a poorly managed project. Game fails. You get laid off. You flock to the next project... rinse, repeat, cry.

This is exacerbated in the land of the franchises, where the idea is push out game, after game, after game. And sometimes, when those franchise spin-offs just don’t work – not through any fault of the hard working devs, more often than not – they’re the ones left looking for work.

Pretty much anyone who’s been to any E3 in the last four years has likely thought the XCOM shooter, what finally became The Bureaux: XCOM Declassified, was possibly not the best idea in the world. While other E3 games were shown off and released, this one kept being held, back, changing form ever so slightly each showing – never a good sign. Following another in-depth marketing campaign, complete with star-studded, live-action trailers, the game garnered less than positive reviews and a similar response from the gaming public.

2k Games will not say if that was the nail in 2K Marin’s coffin, but it must surely have been one of them. The studio closed last week, with only a handful of its staff transitioning into a new role in the just opened by BioShock producer Rod Ferguson.

Something similar happened with EA’s Danger Close studio following two very lacklustre Medal of Honor games. The franchise is now ‘out of rotation’, Danger Close no longer exists, and most of the staff were left in the wind. Only a handful were brought into the new DICE Los Angeles studio, and they’re now focusing on BF4 and Star Wars: Battlefront.

Sometimes can even be a success, in every way, but a complete game does not need the same staff as a game in development does, and a lot of companies just cannot afford to keep peek staff numbers in play. This is especially true of MMO titles, which despite needing – in an ideal world – a more constant rate of staffing to keep fresh content rolling, often over-estimate their player numbers at lunch. Warhammer Online started haemorrhaging staff about the same time it started cutting down game servers, and this year the game itself finally followed suit.

So here’s a depressing picture. As a game developer you’re going to work long, unpaid hours of overtime; you’re going to be expected to trade family time for company time; you’ll be following a vision that is, sadly, all too often adulterated by the needs of franchise-creep, rather than creativity; and, at the end of development, one way or another there’s a good chance you’ll be out of a job. All of this in an industry that is continually touting itself as an outstanding career choice, with thousands of fresh-faced kids taking the bait in ever-multiplying game-development degrees.

This isn’t a career – it’s a meat market. It is, simply, unsustainable.

Hope > doom and/or gloom
All this said, if the AAA industry collapsed on itself over night, while the fallout would likely be horrendous in the short term, it wouldn’t all be bad.

We already have a number of really good models for game development and creation that aren’t soul-crushing hell-pits. Indie studios are putting out great games on every platform. Valve is continuing to open up and democratise PC gaming, and is even now starting to creep into the console space, with its Steam Machine plans. The mobile market and the rise of app stores is allowing smaller, agile developers to make smaller, more agile games.

For a growing market, no less. The recent Digital Australia 2013 survey showed that more of us are becoming gamers than ever before; and those new gamers, the older ones, the younger ones, they’re not playing Call of Duty or Battlefield. They’re playing fresh new games on a variety of fresh new platforms.

If some strange virus wiped out every big-name game studio in an eye-blink, these gamers wouldn’t even notice.

More likely, though, than that apocalyptic vision, is a more natural cell-like budding of two embryonic forms of gaming. Just overnight Mark Rubin, a producer at Infinity Ward working on the nearly complete Call of Duty: Ghosts, admitted that CoD players are not hardcore gamers. In and interview with OXM he admits CoD players “aren't hardcore gamers, or even gamers, but they play Call of Duty every night. And those guys are going to continue to play regardless of platform.”

He goes on to explain, basically, how locked into the core gameplay CoD is, and that’s a fascinating thing. CoD, as it exists now, is Farmville for people with an advanced twitch-reflex – it uses the same risk/reward cycle that cuts right through to our mammalian hindbrain, making its fans log and do the same thing over and over, just to unlock stuff that doesn’t even exist. Which certainly makes me look at World of Tanks in a new light, but DON’T YOU TAKE MY TANKS AWAY!

Ahem.

Follow that rabbit further down the hole and you come to a really interesting place. If CoD players aren’t gamers... does that mean Call of Duty isn’t a game? It might, actually. In a game there’s an element of chance, of choice, of strategy, and whole CoD offers that in the short term, it’s ultimately shallow. We’ve all seen the playthroughs of Black Ops levels that have been completed without firing a shot, and I’ve certainly had some horrendous rounds in such games, but still walked away with an incremental boost to my XP or advancement. It’s not gaming, it’s a treadmill – the illusion of motion that leaves you pretty much where you are right now.

The other evolutionary avenue is far more interesting. In that you’ve got intensely personal gems like Journey; amazingly open and physical experiences like Ingress; moody, colourful explorations of nature and movement like Osmos... the list goes on, including the recent iOS hit Towncraft, a sim that harks back to classic city managers, and put together by Leigh and Rohan Harris, who’ve both written for Atomic, and made their game right here in Sydney. These are the games that are going to make people identify as gamers, and I’d argue that this is the future of gaming as a growing, vibrant industry. 

Because the alternative – a gaming market driven by monolithic franchises, shareholders, and a casual disregard for its workers – is simply too awful to contemplate.

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