Big publishers with big budgets scramble while indie guys shoot for the stars

Platforms like Facebook and the iPhone have made video games more accessible than ever before, while the PS3 and Xbox 360 promise to keep offering the biggest and best ‘AAA’ games money can buy. But what happens when these two clashing sides of the industry continue to pull at the same tug-of-war? Well, there were two headlines in the news this week that might seem unrelated, but they're the perfect comparative example to what's happening in the world of games:

Above: Canceling a game after $50 million had already been poured into production is enough to make anyone sober up

First, an anonymous source tells us that Warner Bros dumped $50 million into a just-canceled game most people had never heard of until yesterday. That's a huge number even for today's big-budget standards. This is Vegas has turned into a seven-figure piece of vaporware. Investors in the game had a better shot at profit by putting all their money on 00 on the roulette table in a real casino.

Meanwhile, a tiny Finnish independent games studio called Rovio is going to Hollywood. According to Variety, the creator of a little iPhone game known as Angry Birds is so pleased with his success that he is now envisioning a future with an Angry Birds movie, TV show, comic book series, and line of toys. It's a mission that could lead to millions of dollars in revenue... from a 99-cent app.

Above: A movie based on this game? Well, if they can do it for Missile Command, why not?

The huge uptick in independent game development and publishing has turned the market of video games from an industry of a few dozen competitors, to one of thousands. At the same time, revenue for the entire industry is only growing at a rate of 6 percent, according to 2009 year-end data from research firm NPD Group.

Clearly it’s time for the big publishers to rethink how they operate, and they are. EA has declared video game production budgets have peaked. They simply cannot get any more expensive or they will never become profitable. Fellow AAA publisher Square Enix has already said it has to take a new shift in gameplay for Final Fantasy XV, after FF XIII took an unparalleled amount of time and money to complete and didn’t sell as well as expected.

Above: Final Fantasy XIII looked really cool, but was it worth more than five years of work and tens of millions of dollars?

We also can't forget the instant demise of the ambitious MMO game studio Realtime Worlds, which went under faster than it takes an uncoordinated gamer to feel embarrassed on a DDR machine. On the flip side, do you see anyone spelling out doom for the unbelievably successful Facebook game Farmville? No one's feeling sorry for the relatively small team at social games developer Playdom after it was bought by Disney for more than a half million dollars.

And now that Google (more commonly referred to as God), is moving into the video game market, where is it heading? Yep, social games. It's just tough to be a video game console right now. Sure, your Killzones and Halos will still bring in enough money to keep the high-tech platforms alive, but just like anything else, the more mainstream gaming becomes, the less tempting it is to cater to the hardcore crowd.

We don't know who will be first in line to see the Angry Birds movie. Nor do we think any top-level publisher is brave or stupid enough to stop making epic, $50 million games for a chance to earn hundreds of millions. But we can say with certainty that every gamer should be expecting changes to the industry to continue. These massively expensive and long development cycles just can’t continue.

Okay, lecture's over.

Aug 25, 2010

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  • RoxyWolf - August 31, 2010 3:10 a.m.

    If Farmville is normal I'm clinging to my abnormality. Really though. The Publishers ALL need to take a bit of a break and just stare out at the rain for a few hours, then look at everything from a new perspective. Games are being dumbed-down instead of made more accessible, and a focus on graphics and cinematics has begun to overshadow the importance of playability, and the ability to just enjoy the game on it's own. Whether it's a sprawling and serious-toned RPG or some offbeat, trigger-happy FPS (that doesn't sound half bad, actually,) games still need to be considered as GAMES. Art or not, "Accessibility" be damned, make something good from the mechanics up and people will take notice. As long as the graphics are sufficient enough to tell what one is doing on-screen, we will be okay. It's the Gameplay and the Storyline (if there is one to be had) that matters most. ... On that note, there's no need to portray story with elaborate cutscenes. It can be quite a bit jarring, after all, to be transported into a world of highly-detailed characters and (hopefully talented) voice acting after three hours of in-game graphics burning into your retinas. Cut down on the cutscenes and you could save quite a bit of your budget. The saved money could then be used to add to the game play (and no, I am not referring to tacked-on Mini-games,) or perhaps to fix something you're not quite satisfied with. But, ah... forgive my ranting. Truly, I have no idea what I am saying, only opinions. Good Night, all.
  • Cyberninja - August 26, 2010 3:12 p.m.

    @cwf2008 if that happened i would give up life
  • roosterdip - August 26, 2010 1:30 p.m.

    Another problem is this "we are a form of art like movies". a lot of these studios are trying to act like movie studios who throw money around like they have a printing machine out back. Take MW2 and their cut scenes... kinda movie like. They are spending a fortune on this sort of thing for no reason.
  • roosterdip - August 26, 2010 1:27 p.m.

    the beginning to the problem is the dumbing down or simplifying of 'hardcore' games. Even if they don't all start making kiddie games many devs are starting to make their games more fun and easy to play for the masses. Take Killzone 3 for instance... a lot of people complained about how hard the game was to pick up and play for MP. they are now making the game more "user friendly and casual" to gain more sales.
  • MasterV - August 26, 2010 10:22 a.m.

    Hopefully devs will realise actual FUN gameplay is more important than any semblance of "cinematic" feel. Or the will continue down the spiral of destruction they are following right now.
  • CurryIsGood - August 26, 2010 5:06 a.m.

    i hopw there will be more plants vs zombies
  • garnsr - August 26, 2010 3:47 a.m.

    Facebook games have no story, or end. They're completely different from real console games, except for multiplayer parts of games, which have no story and never end. I don't want to play something that doesn't do anything but fill time. But smaller games are fine with me, I'll happily play through Scott Pilgrim, as well as Red Dead Redemption.
  • kriscotw9 - August 26, 2010 3:20 a.m.

    @Sillypigeon, I myself thought the same about assassins creed and bioshock and now the both have successful sequels. Impossible is nothing
  • CaptCOMMANDO - August 26, 2010 3:18 a.m.

    I completely agree with this. But what does this mean for the Video Games Industry? I'm kind of scared guys. Our favorite hobby and medium might not exist anymore the way things are going...
  • SillyPigeon - August 26, 2010 3:06 a.m.

    I've been thinking this for awhile now and totally agree. I wonder if we might see big companies spend more time on download games like Scott pilgrim, sonic 4, bionic commando. Although I enjoyed red dead redemption I couldn't help think "they can't possibly do something like this again, it's just not practical". Can you imagine the effort and cash it will take to make a similar game on the next generation ps4/xbox720, it would be insane.
  • Onepersonwithnoopinion - August 26, 2010 3:01 a.m.

    Where does that money even go? The people that work on it? And who's up for a playthrough of Shenmue?
  • keefster - August 26, 2010 2:44 a.m.

    What cwf2008 said.
  • Cwf2008 - August 26, 2010 2:32 a.m.

    If Farmville becomes the norm i would probably give up gaming
  • Schnipke - August 26, 2010 2:15 a.m.

    i like casual games, but I get bored of them quickly, especially those on facebook, I haven't played any of those games for months now
  • axelgarcia1 - August 26, 2010 1:08 a.m.

    just like Metal bands, i guess devs are finding that the mainstream makes more money :( but at least the hardcore games will remain... i used to play farmville... i used to play the MMO's Tibia and Fiesta... but i would never give up a console :/
  • JohnnyMaverik - August 26, 2010 1:04 a.m.

    @ StrayGator & Anoymouz Anybody who says AAA hardcore games will no longer be made needs to get their doctor to check for concussion, we know that's what we want, and tens of millions like us, and that's what a lot of developers are interested in creating as well. But I really don't think Tyler and other's from both the journalism and development/publishing side of the industry that have voiced similar opinions are saying that, what they're saying is that studios and publishers can no longer support and sustain 5+ year development cycles and development costs (if you don't factor in marketing) of 25 million dollars or more, which you will be paying on these kinds of projects if they run for that long these days.
  • JohnnyMaverik - August 26, 2010 12:55 a.m.

    True, I also find it slightly bizzare that some studios are spending 25, 30, even 50+ million on projects that others manage to pump out for half that price (ok sure they aren't the exact same proects but they are similar). Anyway, while I hope big AAA titles continue to get made, I agree that 5 years and over 20 million isn't a great idea no matter who you are, sure some studios get away with it but not everybody can be Rockstar and Blizzard. 200+ studios are a disaster waiting to happen as well.
  • AnonymouZ - August 26, 2010 12:47 a.m.

    casual gamers cannot keep up with the shovelware, sooner than later, "the fad" will wear out, and they'll come back to us "gamers", not people who play games. on the other hand... i'd spent 5 bucks on a casual game made by squeenix anytime they come up with it. if, like you say, they have the balls to go ... little.
  • StrayGator - August 26, 2010 12:46 a.m.

    ...and soon the common social gamer will scoff at the elitist console gamers. We've heard these stories before.

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