Video Games Are Dead, Long Live Video Games

By  |  Monday, August 10, 2009 at 3:29 pm

GamingDigitalTrends’ Scott Steinberg is trying his best to be provocative today, releasing the first part of a video documentary entitled “Video Games Are Dead.”

Of course, they’re not. The online video is a clip reel of talking heads — analysts Michael Pachter and Jesse Divnich, Epic President Mike Capps, Wired GameLife editor Chris Kohler, among others — jockeying for the best sound bite on why video games could be, but mostly aren’t, headed for disaster.

It’s familiar ground to industry watchers. There’s too much risk and not enough innovation, the interviewees say; publishers got too ambitious, but they’re still making money; developers aren’t getting paid properly, but that’s changing; the dedicated gaming console will be replaced by cloud gaming, or gaming through cable, or it won’t be replaced at all.

What the documentary leaves us with is a lot of ideas, but no big picture.¬†I have a feeling Steinberg and his crew will try to tie it all together as the documentary continues, but I’ll take a stab at it now:

Video games will stick around even if the industry crumbles. By sheer coincidence, I got a press release today from Nielsen Games stating that console gaming increased by 21 percent in June, compared to June 2008, even as sales figures took a historic dive. For this entire year, it seems gaming is bigger than ever.

But we are starting to see a shift. The time is quickly approaching when development costs escalate beyond viability. This was foretold by veterans like Greg Costikyan, whose four year-old essay “Death to the Games Industry, Long Live Games” inspired my headline. That’s why every console maker is shooting for the 10-year cycle, backed by new peripherals with games that are cheap to make and fun to play. In this economy, there’s not too much room for blockbusters to thrive.

This isn’t a gloomy scenario, though. It’s actually a good thing, because we’re seeing a resurgence of smaller-scale downloadable games that are just as enjoyable as their big, boxed counterparts, with less overhead. Shadow Complex, a downloadable Xbox 360 game due out next week, is being marketed as such.

The future of the games industry is too sprawling a topic to cover with sound bites (or with a short-form blog post, for that matter), but am I worried that my favorite pastime will die? No.

 
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5 Comments For This Post

  1. Seumas Says:

    Production costs exceeded viability for all but the biggest a long time ago. We’ve gone from the guy making a videogame in his spare time at home and bundling it in a zip-loc bag with a hand-made manual and map that he sold for ten bucks to massive production houses financed by multi-billion dollar companies that make or ruin careers in a single title with a $50mm budget.

    Not only are fewer risks taken, but there’s less variety and less advancement even with each iteration (see the Call of Duty series, for example). Every game ends up playing like a movie and the ultimate goal seems to simply make games interactive movies.

    There are indie developers out there, but even that is not cheap. You might be one guy making Braid, but you’re still going to have to put your house up to raise capitol to make the game.

    Videogames aren’t the only arena where this has been seen, though. A lot of technologies that once catered to the enthusiast with an idea and a passion are quickly becoming out of reach. For example, it is less rare for a single guy today to just pop out an idea on the internet and have a new sensation. A decade ago, a couple guys in a dorm room could manually add some websites to an index and call it a search engine and a decade later they’re billionaire search engine moguls. Today, you have to either know every aspect of the backend technologies and develop them yourself as well as all the front-end presentation and interface technologies or you have to pay through the nose for a team to help implement your idea at a couple hundred bucks per hour.

    It’s myopic to say “everything has already been done”.

    It’s realistic to say “pretty much all of the easy, cheap, low-entry stuff has been done”.

  2. AJ Says:

    @Seumas,

    Good comment. I agree, the high development costs sometimes get away with innovation in games.

  3. mathiastck Says:

    Now is a great time for a 1 man or small team to put out an Iphone or Android game (according to preference).

  4. Seumas Says:

    It’s unfortunate that they have to settle for making little time-wasters on cell phones, though. And even then, something to seriously compete costs a nice chunk of money to develop. You’re competing with actual companies.

    It used to be that you could develop on the main gaming platform with little or no investment cost in a team of as little as one person doing it only as a hobby (as mentioned previously).

    Now, you can’t even develop for the main platform(s) without spending tens of thousands of dollars for their development kits. That’s assuming you just happen to know how to use their tools.

    You can’t even be a Carmack or Cliffy B anymore. You don’t just strike out, make something cool, found your own company along the way and become successful development/design gods. Those paths have already been taken. It’s like a lot of other aspects of the tech industry. Two decades ago, you could get to the top with some ambition and self-education. Now, most people have to go to college for a degree specifically aimed at the career that didn’t even exist a couple decades ago. Then — and this goes both for game development and most of the tech industry in total — you step into a bottom-end job and work your way up in a big fat corporation where everything is structured and every move has to impact the corporate bottom line and some day you might have a break through and get noticed and get your own project. It strike me as becoming a more traditional work path and less an art. Like being a public accountant and joining a company that needs an accountant. Nothing more.

    There are some indies and some under-dogs, but as I mentioned, it seems like even those guys — aside from knowledge — need massive investments of cash to do their thing. Didn’t Braid cost Blow well over six figures? And that was a one man operation that took several years.

    I would be interested to know what the smallest game production company is that ever got a game published on the 360 or PS3 as a retail full item (or for that matter, even on the playstation network store or xbox live arcade). I bet it would still be a multi-million dollar company — other than Blow’s Braid who I guess just lucked out and had the right connections or something.

    I understand a lot of this is because we, as gamers, demand a lot out of our games now. Even though they’re ridiculously short for the most part, we demand great music and sound tracks and voice acting and graphics… but still… why does a game like Grand Theft Auto IV *have* to cost $60,000,000?! What exactly about it necessitates that much money?

  5. Teddy Software Info Says:

    all video games are now days is movies you can play LOL and 60million dollars?

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