Garwulf’s Corner #22: Genre Killer
Originally published January 6, 2016
HAPPY NEW YEAR, my dear readers — I hope you had a wonderful holiday season! And now, it’s time to start 2016 by talking about how video games are dying…well, some of them, at least.
It has become popular in the last couple of years to talk about an upcoming video game market crash. A number of arguments have been made for this, some of which are quite strong, and some of which don’t make a lot of sense (for example, I may have a number of books on my bookshelf that I haven’t read, but this is not a sign that the book market is unhealthy).
But the fact is that the ground is shifting once again. It doesn’t take much to feel it. Thanks in large part to services like Steam, the indie game market is as strong as it has been since the late 1990s, when anybody who could put out shareware could probably make the leap to the commercial market. But the cracks are showing in the AAA market, and it won’t be long before it begins to crumble.
It’s a matter of mathematics. Any video game needs to be profitable for its studio to go on making games. So long as the game makes more money in sales than it costs to develop and market, it will be profitable. And, the main way that a game becomes profitable is through sales.
When a game can be made for a few hundred thousand or a couple of million dollars, it doesn’t need to sell too many copies. But, modern AAA titles cost tens of millions of dollars to make. Some have even broken the $200 million mark, such as Grand Theft Auto V, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, and Destiny. At budgets that size — before marketing — it’s not hard to reach the point where it is mathematically impossible to make your money back.
And, we may have already reached that point. AAA developers are trying hard to squeeze every cent they can out of their games, with in-game purchases and the like. Alien: Isolation sold over 2.11 million copies, and was declared a failure. With 3.6 million copies sold, Hitman: Absolution was similarly deemed unsuccessful. Resident Evil 6 managed to move 6 million copies, and was also declared to have failed to meet sales expectations. And this is keeping in mind that these are not priced like movie tickets, affordable to all — these are titles that can reach $60 or more in price.
The seismic shift is coming — of that there can be no doubt. The AAA publishers are faced with rising budgets, large enough to make them increasingly risk-averse. It won’t be long before we see the end of major franchises, not because of any lack of fans, but because they collapsed under their own weight.
This is one of the ways that franchises, and even genres, can die. And, in the long history of video games (and at over 60 years and counting, it is indeed long — the first electronic games showed up in the late 1940s and early 1950s), genres die and are reinvented all the time.
Back when I started playing games all those years ago, the pinnacle of game complexity was King’s Quest. It was the 1980s, the big crash of 1983 was about to happen, and most of the console game market was dominated by simple arcade shooters and side-scrollers — after all, that was about all the Atari 2600 and ColecoVision could handle.
Then the crash came, and while the shooters and side-scrollers survived in the arcades, their time in the home market was done. The main action was on the PC, where the adventure game was king, and Sierra On-Line dominated. As graphics technology got better, the text adventures died and the simulations rose. And soon, the things that the adventure games did could be done in other genres, and they passed too — after all, why do a straight up adventure when you can also have a role-playing game? The final AAA adventure games of the late 1990s were probably the best — or at least the most sophisticated — ever made. They had also been supplanted by the rise of the first-person shooter and the real-time strategy game.
Genres die. Sometimes it’s from collapsing under their own weight, as appears to be happening with the AAA publishers, and happened during the crash of 1983. Sometimes it’s from becoming obsolete, like the adventure games. Sometimes it’s because the well has run dry, as happened with the pre-Bioware role-playing games in the mid-1990s. It’s a healthy sign, really — it makes room for new blood and ideas.
Nobody could have predicted the success of Minecraft, or the rise of a genre that might be best described as the “physics simulator,” with fantastically creative offerings such as Besieged or Kerbal Space Program. Likewise, nobody could have seen Diablo — a throwback to the Rogue-like genre of the 1960s and ’70s — reinventing and resurrecting its genre to the point that for years any RPG was judged on whether it could be a “Diablo-killer.” And nobody saw the Real-Time Strategy game, born out of Dune 2 and Warcraft, turning into the juggernaut it became, until it too faded into the occasional offering.
I don’t know what the world of video games will look like ten years from now. Nobody does. What I do know is this: the final games before the upcoming collapse will likely be some of the most sophisticated — and expensive — ever made in their genres. The ones in the new genres that follow will be wild and creative, and then they too will grow in sophistication and expense.
And the cycle will continue, as it always has.