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Does Anybody Know What The Hell They’re Doing?


Last week, in the midst of one of my caffeine-fueled rants about some publisher or the other defiling the very essence of video games, I mentioned that the industry bigwigs don’t know as much as they think they do.

Which got me thinking – does anyone, really?

Kotick might be lighting his cigars with $100 bills and Notch may build forts in his living room with pallets of cash, but are these success stories due to business savvy, talent and hard work…

…or is it just dumb luck?

Alright, alright, settle down, I didn’t mean to call everyone’s favourite not-so-little-developer-that-could a talentless hack.

Notch is great for the industry and seems like an all-around nice guy. And Minecraft is… well, it’s Minecraft. It’s an ugly as sin indie that has grown men playing with digital lego they have to collect themselves.

It’s also one of the most successful video game franchises of all time, despite being a “franchise” consisting of essentially a single game ported to every device imaginable. Hell I’m still targeting 2017 for my Minecraft toilet, as soon as Notch returns my phonecalls.

The point is, on paper, Minecraft looks ridiculous. Go back a few years and see if any publisher would want to touch that unpolished turd with a hazmat suit and a sterilised broomstick – my guess is not.

And yet, here we are. A world where Tim Schafer can’t sell a cheeseburger to a dying man but a forum-lurker with a two-week course in computer programming can get the world excited about a goat simulator.

The mobile app stores are flooded with amazing quality games with hundreds and hundreds of hours of work, but instead we lose our minds over a poorly-rendered bird flying through Mario pipes.



Are you seeing a pattern here? I’m not. I spent a good six to seven minutes thinking about it too.

I thought that a successful game could be built on the foundations of hype and franchise loyalty, but I’ve realised I’m wrong there too.

There’s Call of Duty and Battlefield and Guitar Hero for us to point to as beacons of franchise dominance, sure. But there are other high-profile releases that didn’t exactly enjoy as warm a welcome as they expected.

Bioshock Infinite came straight from the AAA stable, with a helluva pedigree and a lengthy development. It was well received by critics and seemed to be liked enough by the nitpicky fans. However, it posted fairly modest sales of around 4 million units.

Now that might not seem all that bad, until you consider that creator Ken Levine told publisher Take-Two that the game would sell 200 million copies.


The fact that anyone would actually entertain that idea, or consider it even remotely possible, speaks volumes about the people financing game development right now.

Of course, there’s no real proof that people exactly believed Ken, but they certainly believed the game would do better than it did. Four million sales just wasn’t up to scratch for five+ years of development, and Irrational Games shut its doors not long after.

There’s a lot of conspiracy theory and rumour around the studio closing down, but the truth is it’s not because Infinite lost money – we know that it didn’t. However, it seems like it may not have made that much money either, and the bigwigs at Take Two may have felt the need to rein Levine in after his last promise was somewhat optimistic.

Levine, as pictured in the comfort of his own insane delusions.

Levine, as pictured in the comfort of his own insane delusions.

There’s other huge franchise titles which were straight up miserable in the sales department, like Capcom’s Resident Evil 6 which was a let-down both commercially and critically. This was particularly surprising after Resident Evil 5 was the best selling iteration to date.

Then you get the overhyped new IP, a group which has seen so many flops that honestly it’s not surprising to see publishers trying to play it safe.

Hey, remember Beyond: Two Souls? Man, how boring was that game? Arriving in an avalanche of anticipation, excitement and that-kid-from-Juno, this was a game that was going to give us all aggressive, story-driven aneurysms before the first play-through. Nope.

How about Remember Me, that ambitious new IP that no one wanted to touch because it had a female protagonist? That game got mountains of free marketing from the sexism angle alone, but dove off a cliff once it hit the shelves.

Are you starting to see the pattern yet? No, I’m still not either.

Kotick in his younger years, choosing which war the next CoD will be set in.

Kotick in his younger years, choosing which war the next CoD will be set in.

We have crappy mobile games that make millions, and good mobile games that make nothing. We have games like Draw Something that cannot hold public interest for more than a few months, and games like Candy Crush Saga which never seem to get old.

We have reheated franchise turds like Modern Warfare 3 that sell 30 million copies, and then we have solid franchise instalments like Bioshock Infinite that sell 4 million.

We have ambitious (yet terrible) new IP like Beyond: Two Souls that sells terribly, as well as ambitious (yet brilliant) new IPs like Psychonauts – that also sell terribly.

When it comes to developing and selling games, you might as well consult your lucky 8-ball.

You know what they say; it’s better to be lucky than good.

  • FanieNel

    “We have ambitious (yet terrible) new IP like Beyond: Two Souls…” You, dear sir, are just so wrong. Sure, it wasn’t as good as heavy rain, but this is exactly what makes this game awesome. It is something new, and a perfect example of being an interactive movie.

    The decisions you make doesn’t effect the overall story that much, but when you take in the scale of the story and the amount of time it covers, it is still really good. I’ll play this game over and over just to see if I can find something new I missed the previous time. The story is intriguing and the graphics are also incredible. I have never been this emotionally attached to a game since Heavy Rain.

    Most people don’t like new IPs in general, they tend to like the sequels more. I’m going to talk about movies for a bit. Take Pacific Rim as an example. It first released in the US only, and they weren’t happy with the amount they made with the film and decided to not do a sequel. Then it released internationally and they made more than it did in the US alone. Then they confirmed that there will be a sequel. (BTW, Godzilla’s sequel has been confirmed, yay!) People tend to like sequel more than the original.

    Most of the success stories in the game dev scene is based on pure luck and excellent marketing skills. If you don’t market your game, it won’t be sell as good as you might have hoped. People like Notch just got lucky. People like to play boring and annoying things than highly polished and good looking games with great stories in it. I’m actually sad about this.

    • Chris Kemp

      I’m a sucker for story, but to me I just found the gameplay completely lacking. I feel like you need to balance both, or it just becomes a little tedious. Still, perhaps “terrible” was a little too harsh :)

      As for luck and marketing, I think you’re dead on. You either need a massive marketing budget, or luck, to actually have a CHANCE of success – not even guaranteed success.

      Which is sad, because it means the huge publishers force out all the middle-of-the-road guys who don’t want to make an indie, but don’t have hundreds of millions of dollars either.

      • FanieNel

        The gameplay was a bit lacking at some stages, and a bit limiting with what you could do, they could have added some more abilities and things to do. Near the end of the game it was a bit repetitive but not so much as other games tend to do.

        Publishers are greedy and doesn’t understand the gaming industry at times. They rarely want to take on something that is new and possible game-changing and they are scared they might not make a profit, even if it takes time.

    • Wesley Fick

      I like to think that Pacific Rim found more fame internationally because it was a homage to anime like Neon Genesis Evangelion and when people were waiting for Attack on Titan they whiled away the hours with this. Such a fun movie even though there are plot holes the size of mega-Kaiju everywhere.

      • FanieNel

        Yeah, I agree with you there. For me it was just a awesome movie, who doesn’t like monsters and robots fighting each other to the death? Apparently some people didn’t like it. It just looks good and is fun to watch, with plot holes and all.

        • BinaryMind

          Too many cliche’s – just too cheesy for me :P

  • Wesley Fick

    David Cage is the Manoj Shyamalan of the gaming world, so you’re on to something there. Remember Me had promise, but the game tried to appeal to too wide an audience and had very few great moments in between.

    • Chris Kemp

      Holy crap, is that what the M. stands for? :D

      Remember Me really was a disappoiontment :(

      • Alex Rowley

        I too have just found out that what the M stands for. I kinda didn’t even think it stood for anything and his mother just called him M.

  • Alex Rowley

    Ken Levine said it would sell 200 million copies!?!? That was straight up delusional.

    Also this article is pretty much how I see the videogame industry. These companies like to think that there is a blueprint for a successful game and if you just add big guns and throw the word cinematic around it will sell like CoD.

    Things are unpredictable as hell mainly because of the casual market, nobody has a single clue what would make a 100 million people buy a game and the companies that try and make games off a checklist to try and get these people to buy it.

    I do think though that originality and presentation is everything, the firs modern warfare game was unlike any game that came before it and that franchise is still riding the wave of it’s success. Minecraft was a freaking revolution and changed the way people though about user created content in the fact that you can create ANYTHING.

    The only thing I can really predict about games is that good games sell (Unless they are mobile trash that inexplicably grabs the damn worlds attention)

    • Chris Kemp

      I agree the casual market is even more unpredictable than the “core gaming” scene”, but unfortunately I don’t think “good games sell” is really true either :(

      Lots of games that are really rather good don’t have the marketing budget or the exposure to really make a mark, and a bunch of crappy games that do have those things do well. Except, there’s exceptions across the board, which makes things even more hilariously confusing :D

      • Alex Rowley

        Well i haven’t really seen any good games not sell, yea the they don’t meet the expected amount of copies the devs wanted but to me when a game sells a million copies it doing something right.

        Interesting thing I found when I tried to find Ken predicting the 200 million copies sold is that he has no clue what he is doing either

        • Chris Kemp

          Haha, he seems to have a tragic case of foot-in-mouth disease. Perhaps he’s been spending too much time with Peter Molyneux.

          I think for the most part the best of the best games do relatively well, but there are plenty of solid, good games like Mirror’s Edge, Brink, Bulletstorm etc. that just seem to fall flat.

          • BinaryMind

            Mirror’s Edge fell flat?!! That’s one of my BEST games!!

          • Alex Rowley

            Brink was a major disappointment though.

            I really really wish that Bulletstorm got a better reception though because currently it’s probably the most annoying cliffhanger ending I have played and I know it ain’t getting a sequel :(

  • Squirly

    Are you sure he said “200 million” and not maybe “20 million”? Because that’s also unrealistic without having to rely on Alice in Wonderland levels of ridiculousness.

    • Chris Kemp

      Haha he apparently did, yeah. Apparently when asked about it after, he said that he was maybe a little optimistic, but the next game will sell 100 million :D

      • Wesley Fick

        He might have hit that number for the multiplayer if it was free to play and download.

  • RooiBosTeaBagger

    So Ken thought that 1/35 of the population would buy his game?

  • Squirly

    If a game sells a million now, it will sell 2 million with the sequel. And 3 million after that. And as long as they keep doing the same thing, with MORE, it will sell MORE, even if you reach market saturation, which is apparently a term that game publishers don’t know.

    Do they not know that there are literally only so many people buying games and that sooner or later you’ll hit a ceiling, which only the most ridiculously successful and off-the-wall phenomenons break?


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