Saturday, February 4, 2012

The curse of sucessfull blockbusters

I recently read a really interesting editorial over at 1up. The premise of the article is that video games are falling into a trap that has already affected the movie industry and the music industry. The audience for video games is larger now then it has ever been, and the willingness of that audience to try new products is lower than it has ever been. For the most part, gamers are only buying the same games that everyone else is buying like the newest iteration of Call of Duty, Halo, or Madden. It's because humans want to be able to participate in shared conversations. As a consequence, the more socially connected we are (as a society) over the net the more monolithic our tastes become.

This really favors big publishers like EA and Activision that can put out games with production values that appeal to the masses, and still afford the advertising blitz or IPs (say Batman or Star Wars) that will attract the attention of the masses. Mid level publishers like THQ are being pushed out, they just don't have the budgets needed to compete at that scale. What we will soon be left with is a few big publishers selling safe bets with high production values to the masses (think summer blockbuster movies) and indie titles with low production values and miniscule budgets.

To me this seems to be a pretty accurate description of what is happening in console game space. I like to think of myself as an independent minded gamer. However, the games I have played in the last few years on my X-box 360 are generally ones you have heard of and likely ones you have played (e.g., Dragon Age Origins, Mass Effect 2, Halo Reach, Half Life 2, Fallout 3). The only things I could find in my disk collection that weren't connected to wildly popular IPs or from studios that have legions of fans (e.g., Bioware, Bethesda, Valve) were Crackdown and Borderlands. The more obscure games I have played were all downloads from small publishers.

And now we come to the point of the post, which you likely suspected all along. Is this going to happen to MMOs as a genre? I think a lot of the angst currently being directed at Star Wars the Old Republic has to do with this issue. The formula for a summer blockbuster movie seems to be: (1) rehash at least part of the story arc that Campbell outlines in The Hero With a Thousand Faces, (2) glam it the hell up with fancy special effects, a high profile IP, and/ or a huge ass advertising budget. The future that I feel a lot commentators are dreading in MMO space is the following formula for MMO blockbusters: (1) borrow a lot of mechanics and game design elements from World of Warcraft, (2) glam it the hell up with fancy graphics, a high profile IP, and/ or a huge ass advertising budget. This is very much the formula that SWTOR (and LoTRO and Rift for that matter) followed in the eyes of many MMO enthusiasts.

From there it follows that if SWTOR succeeds the formula for an MMO blockbuster will have been established. The financial success of SWTOR would be the first step down a path that inevitably leads to the place video games in general seem headed: all we will have available are predictable blockbusters or (more innovative) indie projects with lower production values.

So how do I feel about all this? I really like SWTOR. I also go out and watch all the Super Hero themed blockbusters in the Spring/ Summer with glee. I also recently bought Arkham Asylum (I won't pay $60 for a console game, I wait for them to go down), and I'm really looking forward to it. At the same time, I think Myst Online is a great MMO if you can get past the clunky controls (it must have at least ten players), I watch a lot of indie and foreign movies through Netflix (recently I watched "Super" and "The Girl who Lept Through Time" and enjoyed them both), and I really enjoyed Braid on my X-box.

I can't say that everyone panicking at the possibility that SWTOR does well is wrong. We may well be entering an era where all big budget MMOs are Diku style. I also can't decide whether I really care. The small guys will still innovate, just like they do in the music and movie industries. Let the giants spit out their predictable fluff, enjoy it for what it is if you can, and support the little guys with your time and your wallet when they make something you like. Hardly sounds like the apocalypse to me.


  1. The thing is MMOs have a very long production cycle. The ones that will come out this year and the next will be influenced by WAR and AOC, not SWTOR.

    Looking ahead we have medium size companies offering This Secret World, Domminus, Guild Wars 2 all of which I think are likely to more than cover their costs. And none of which would have made more money using a cliched IP and a WoW clone format.

  2. That's a really good point, I don't think medium budget MMOs are going any where in the short term. If Secret World and GW2 do well (and I suspect that they will) it may take a lot longer for MMOs to trend in the same direction as video games generally...if they ever do.

  3. As the video games business has grown, it was inevitable that things would consolidate to the same extent that TV and movies have. But even with those media, there is a diversity if you look for it.

    If we as gamers want more diversity in our games, we need to put our money where our blogs are and support indie games. Which, considering how well several indie games do, I think we're doing pretty well.

  4. @Anjin: I totally agree. Want more innovative products from little guys? Vote with your wallet.

    One sort of related point I wanted to make but couldn't quite fit in to the post is that as technology improves the budget that you need to create a game with pretty graphics is going to go down. I can forsee a future where indie studios will be able to put out games with perfectly acceptable production values that cater to all sorts of niche audiences.

    Heck, we may already be there. While it's not a game I'd play, Darkfall looks really good for something put out on such a small budget. World of Tanks looks even better, and it came from a small indie studio. I can also think of a several games from small studios that use a cartoony style to get away with low poly counts and system requirements, and it can work quite well (e.g., Puzzle Pirates, Wizard 101, Allods Online). And of course Minecraft looks like a Super Nintendo era game and sold like hotcakes just on gameplay.

  5. I think one of the biggest points you hit on that list is the massive budget for advertising. Only the bigger companies can afford plastering their product everywhere. I mean, we never saw commercials for MMOs until recently, starting with World of Warcraft. Their ads still get played constantly, which probably helped draw in the more casual demographic that's not already tied down to their computers and haven't seen the web ads. If you can afford it, that's a pretty huge advantage.

  6. @Mmogamerchick: I think you are absolutely right. WoW is pretty much the only MMO you generally see advertised in mainstream media. That has to have something to do with it's success.

    I would also be really curious to know how that Southpark episode affected the trajectory of the populations. It was ostensibly a pretty strong anti MMO message. However, there have to have been some viewers that weren't familiar with how MMOs work that saw the episode and thought "Holy cow that looks like fun."