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.
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.
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.