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Putting Your 'Call Of Duty' On Hold
by Alan Youngblood on 01/25/10 04:39:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

Why is the industry so bass-ackwards right now?  My tag line for this article is: “Why big publishers are doing what indies should be doing, and indies are doing what big publishers should be doing.”
Let me explain: Big game producers (ActiBlizz, Ubi, EA, Take2, to name a few) are going with the 'safe bet' corporate risk strategy.  They have all the resources anyone in the industry will realistically be able to muster to invest in smart things like innovation, research and development, or generally speaking beneficial risks.  On the other hand almost every indie developer I am aware of is practically going out on a limb to ruthlessly innovate and risk as much as possible just hoping for a payoff.  Most indies don't break even.

This is an all around bad business move for the industry.  The people who likely care the most about the industry, the indies, are basically living out of friends and family's residencies whilst trying to scrape by with enough to feed themselves something slightly more substantial than ramen.  The big studios are comprised of people who once cared but gave that up when their insidious management waved bonus checks near them like carrots on a stick.
I can't fault either of the two groups of people to be honest.  The indies that still live the dream even if they are barely making a living, and the industry 'pros' that understand the importance of making money and providing for themselves and their families.  Everyone's got to eat, and no one wants to be soul-less.

The good news is there's a compromise that's really just an improvement for all said parties. It involves two things happening: a switch in big studios being the innovators and indies using the proven strategies/get paid scheme for a change.  The second thing is having good management.  I cannot say this enough to the industry right now.  
Have good management. If you don't, do something about it.  It is really killing so many great things in the industry.  If the recent Rockstar San Diego fiasco isn't case and point then you people need to see your local optometrist because I can guarantee you are going blind.

The 'Kotick Doctrine' as it has been coined will ultimately bury itself soon.  Take heed now and cut your losses people.  If you aren't looking at the long term effects they will eventually eat you alive.  Taking the fun out of games and making them milk loyal fans will backfire in the end.  In fact, I doubt it will even take that long.

Also, this isn't just a message to big publishers.  Indies, know your role too.  Innovation is fine, but you don't have to re-invent the wheel all the time.  Have a plan like: "We will make a game like 'game X' and add this one really cool new feature to it.  We will make sure that new feature makes it a way better game than 'game X' and we will plan how many copies we can realistically sell.  That way we can budget to pay ourselves a decent living wage and still make games that rock!"
I guess a simple way of saying all this is to reorganize and shake up production management at your company such that you are certain everyone where you work gets paid a fair living wage and has a reasonably good quality of life.   

There was once a phrase in the middle ages of Europe, “Know your place.”  It was not condescending like it is today when someone who presumes power assumes to put down someone who rises up above the inhumane dignity that was dealt him.  It simply meant there was a greater chain of beings and knowing your place meant knowing who's above and below you and how your actions affect them.  Knowing your privileges and your duties, and not ignoring either.  
Your call of duty should you choose to accept, is to know your place in the industry and make sure that you strive towards better working environment for yourself, your coworkers and everyone in the industry.  It is to create an environment where creativity and fun flourish such that others quit looking down on our industry and start to look up to us for advice.  There's a 'call of duty' that will set you back 60 bucks, and there's a 'call of duty' that is invaluable and will cost you and the industry everything we've worked for if you ignore it.  
Your duty and privileges call, are you going to keep putting them on hold?

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Adam Bishop
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While what you say here is essentially considered to be common knowledge, I've been thinking about the issue of "innovation", and what I find is that - while there is indeed some innovation in indie games - innovation more frequently comes from the big developers. Indie game developers often have what's been termed a retro fetish, and I think that's often quite true. Indie devs are often obsessed with games they loved growing up like MegaMan and Super Metroid, and there seems to be much more emulation of those kinds of things than there are people breaking out of the mold. For every World of Goo that does really interesting things, there are ten or twenty indie games that are just (S)NES retreads.

On the other hand, I can think of plenty of interesting games to come out of fairly sizable developers in the past couple console generations. Okami's beautiful painting mechanic and art style, the constant pushing of narrative in game by the guys at Bioware, the attempts to bring more emotional story-telling from David Cage, the birth (popularisation) of open-world gameplay from Grand Theft Auto III, the fantastic art style and unlikely themes of Bioshock . . .

Yes, there are AAA games like Darksiders and Dante's Inferno just trying to cynically cash in on trends, but there are at least as many challenging, innovative games coming out of major publishers as there are from indies.

Tyler Glaiel
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I dont see why big publishers taking more risks means that indies need to take less risks.

I like taking risks personally, and I'm not about to go the "safe route" just to make some extra money.

What I'd like to see, personally, is big publishers supporting our risks

Bryan Taylor
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The biggest problem I see is not with the developers, however. Most developers are just like you and me to a certain extent. We all want to make kickass games that are ambitious and ground breaking in one way or another.

The problem comes in when the marketing and management teams try to make the product feasible. That's when everyone miraculously agrees on taking the safer roads, because R&D is costly when you already have a "system" in place. And changing your development process can render you very unstable. This means the balance between artists/coders can get shifted... or the balance between features/polish can get ignored. The big guys know all about volatile production... I don't blame them one bit for trying to avoid the dangers.

That said, I've always liked Google's approach. 1/5th of your paid time as an employee is spent on miscellaneous projects of your choice, pending company approval. This encourages innovation and experimentation while also providing a great therapeutic outlet for employees to stay sane with. And many times these side-projects eventually get turned into great commercial success! That... is what the game industry needs most.

Alan Youngblood
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Thanks for the comments guys!

@Adam: There are occasionally great titles from the big guys, but Okami may not be the best example. Not because it's a bad game, but because there's only a handful of people like us that liked it and bought it. You are somewhat right about the indie games as well. Being somewhat guilty as charged for that retro-fetish I'll have to explain why it appeals to a lot of developers: New games aren't fun. By and large they keep coming at us dark, with bland color palettes and a supreme lack of challenge. Is it any wonder people go back to Megaman and Metroid? Also, retro is easier to develop.

This leads into what I'd like to say @Tyler: Keep doing what you are doing. Don't let me stop you. It sounds like you've got a good thing going. I'm just saying what I said about indies cause we need to eat too. Making enough cash to pay the bills is very important. If you feel confident that you can do that, take all the risks you like.

@Bryan: Google has done a lot of things right and that workflow is certainly one.

And an addendum to the article: as a friend of mine told me on facebook after reading this, gamers need to fix it. They need to quit buying 'AAA Uninspired Rehash #14' and start buying real games. Point taken, I just don't have an easy solution to convince enough of them. Also, the whole point of this article is to seek balance. Don't work too much. Don't work too little. Don't make perfect games (you'll never finish them), don't make crappy games (you'll finish, but with no reason). Don't assume your customers are idiots and will let you milk their bank accounts dry with rehashes either.

Joshua Sterns
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I like the idea projected in this article. Everyone needs to have the necessity of life covered in order to produce quality work. It's so basic yet seems to be quickly forgotten.

My other comment is about gamers buying the same old same old.

Gamers are having fun with their AAA Uninspired Rehash. Halo 3 and MW2 have thousands of players on each night. I'm sure God of War III will be a hit because of the franchises success so far. EA sports games continue to sell well--at least FIFA is in Europe. World of Warcraft is basically rehashing the original game world, and is still the most popular mmorpg. Even series like Bioshock and L4D will appear like Uninspired Rehash in time.

I'm all for innovative games that break the mold, but lets not kid ourselves. There are tons of people out there who like AAA Uninspired Rehash.

E Zachary Knight
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I think the key to convincing gamers to buy new games rather than "Sequel #27: the Prequel" is to build your brand around your studio not the game.

Look at movies for examples. Did people go to see Wall-E because it was a sequel to an already great movie? No. They saw Wall-E because it came from Pixar, an animation studio that produces quality work on a regular basis. If you look at Pixar's production history, they have only 1 IP franchise that has received more than one movie. Toy Story. Everything else are one off movies.

If game companies would take lessons from them and other great movie studios, authors etc, they will be able to convince gamers to branch out of the familiar IP comfort zone and experience new things. Of course you have to convince many of the publishers and developers that have the resources to really do that, that it is worth it.

Stephen Northcott
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I quite like what Tyler had to say on it all. I didn't really "get" this article.

Why don't we leave things as they are? Seems fine to me.

At the end of they day if you want to be successful it's all about marketing these days.

A large part of Indie innovation I see today is the different ways they use to get people's attention.

Big publishers could sell crap / do sell crap all the time, simply because they have the resources to market stuff effectively.

People, at least in some large part, will buy what they see.

Bryan Taylor
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I really like your idea. I've always placed a great deal of loyalty in whatever studios produce games that hit my fancy for style points. Kojima Productions has had my attention for quite some time, though they risk losing it now that things are getting very busy for them. Squaresoft back in the day. Retro Studios, Valve, Naughty Dog, etc. Many of these studios are now spread too wide to be considered solely responsible for their successes. In the end i find myself researching the individuals who share responsibility for the games i love, even if those games were only a mere shadow of what they should have been. Chrono Trigger/Cross, Xenogears, ICO, SOTC, Deus Ex, Mega Man, Oddworld, etc. There are plenty more games that exhibit a great "idea" but fell short of the greatness intended for whatever reason... i like to keep my eye open for developers behind such projects as well. You never know where they might turn up later on.

But now i'm rambling. What I really wanted to explore was the idea that a developer could earn 'brand loyalty'... while i can't see any reason disagree with this... i doubt it could ever work until we find a publisher that earns that loyalty first. Too many developers fall victim to the overruling power of the publisher's final say... and usually that final say is completely shareholder driven. How many of those shareholders play games? How many even own a device that could play those games? I fear the answer to those questions is probably very depressing.

The only publisher that has ever come close to impressing me in its risk-taking and ambition is Sony... with such a wide spread of games like God of War, Shadow of the Colossus, and Little Big Planet. Thats a pretty ambitious mixture of games to throw your financial weight behind... but then they do so with the specific objective of monopolizing the IPs to insure sales of their console system, the PS3. I'm not even a Sony fanboy... I simply just can't think of any other publisher that has done something like that. While i'm commending Sony for this... i feel that we need more options.

Like Tyler said, we need to see more publishers supporting risks. If a publisher becomes known for supporting and nurturing 'innovation'... and they do so on a balanced playing field... we might begin to see a 'brand loyalty' form. Not because they produce games everyone will play... but because they produce games you've never played before. The problem is the share-holders. If it isn't a game that will secure tons of sales... a share-held company will not support it. They can't, It just doesn't work. They have to grow, like a virus, if they don't they cry really loud about all the money they could've made and then they leave. No, a public interest company is probably not a realistic option for a Publisher who wants to build 'brand loyalty'.

So, what about a private company? What private company you may ask? How many privately owned video-game publishers even exist? Of the ones that do, how many have the money to go investing in high risk ideas? Off the top of my head, only Valve comes to mind. A company like Valve can get away with Publishing high-risk games... partly because the additional distribution costs on their own proprietary Steam platform would be negligible... but mostly because they can regularly offset the cost of publishing high-risk games via the sales royalties they collect from sales of games they didn't produce. So why doesn't Valve do this? Why should they? They are doing fine without changing a thing.

No, in the end what we really need is a company that can do what Valve can do, but can do so without feeling the need to make an ever increasing pile of money... They need to be satisfied with a basic maintenance profit.

So, hypothetically... what would happen if a community organization... ruled by gamers. Were to arise, and internally develop an alternative to Steam, but then isolate the revenue stream for use on maintenance, basic staff, and so on. And then take the additional profit and isolate it for use in investing towards community driven projects... where every member gets coin for vote. With enough profit and votes... we could have whatever game we, the community, wants most. This could only work if the people running it are gamers themselves... not shareholders. I don't mean to suggest that the community actually makes the games... i simply suggest that they become directly involved in deciding which projects get how much money for production.

Sean Farrell
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The problem with big publishers and developers is simple and it is called Shareholder Value. Most big publishers and developers are publicly owned cooperation and they get a tremendous amount of pressure from banks and shareholders to maximize their profit. The quarterly report is really "important" and they do everything to maximize this (even if it might hurt them in the long run). This is how big cooperation fall, they maximize their short term profits to the point where there is nothing left and then suddenly they are out of the market. If they are lucky they get a bail out from the government, see General Motors for reference.

Sometimes there are people in the key positions that see the problem and innovate, but is not often and very hard for that individual. I work for a MAJOR cooperation (not games) as a day job and have to fight with the idiosyncrasies of "profit maximization" that are really not pretty. Up to the point of pissing off a major user base. And when you come up with the problem, the simple answer is "we don't have the money for that"; well if we piss off most hardware developers, we won't have a competitive product to sell...

Toby Hazes
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This is true across all industries, take hollywood versus arthouse for example, so I don't think it will ever change.

Big studios don't want to lose millions of dollars, and if indie developers wanted to make things the safe way they would go and work for a big studio

Bryan Taylor
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I think it could change if gamers take control. But that is unlikely to happen unless the big corporations start pissing everyone off too much. Which, by nature, they tend to ride a thin line to avoid such an occurrence. Things would change if gamers became the effective shareholders.

Jordan Grable
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This has special relevance to me as I've been awaiting the beta opening of Battlefield: Bad Company 2 for a few weeks and after reading this I took a long look at my favorite franchise of all time, Battlefield.

Starting with Road to Rome all the way up to now Bad Company 2 I've loved every re installment instituted and they've never felt rehashed to me but they are all built upon the previous game with in some games cases a few tweaks, and with others revamps in how the game works.

Although another thing keeping me into such a game is probably the Frostbite engine and its awesome displays of destructive force. I'm only using BFBC2 as a reference but I think everyone can relate to a franchise that touches home but on a second look seems to be it's own AAA title.