How to avoid the next game industry crash

Bill Harris thinks the videogame industry is heading for a crash. I’m not sure if I like Bill, but I do respect him. His general antisocial ways probably appeal to my misanthropic nature and so I try not to have too much positive personal bias, but I can rarely argue with his analysis. He makes some good points about a potential looming crash, though I don’t think he goes far enough.

I don’t like to rehash other people’s blog posts, so I don’t want to talk about why we’re heading for a crash, just that I do think we’re heading for one. Right now the four big players are playing a four-way game of chicken except the only way to win is to not veer off course, crash into your opponents as hard as you can, and hope you’re the one who can still walk away. While there is the possibility that one or more participants could survive such a contest, a far more likely scenario is that all four wind up on life support.

Then it occurred to me this week that while the crash is almost certainly inevitable, there is a way for at least one company to win.

Instead of playing this four way game of chicken, one company needs to reverse course and completely change their whole approach. Almost every strategy being proposed by EA, Activision, Ubisoft, and Take Two focuses on nickel and diming consumers if not outright treating them like garbage. If one company starts to focus on making consumers happy, they win. That’s not a minor proposition though because it flies in the face of everything the movers and shakers in the market are working in.

Quit spending money on day one DLC. Either it’s in the game or not. Drop your prices for 360 and PS3 games to $50. Stop development on every game we all know is not going to sell. Do we really need a Kane and Lynch 2? Quit worrying about the secondary market. I’m not saying embrace it, just quit drawing attention to it and quit making it look like your trying to screw consumers. In general, start looking at ways to make gamers feel good about spending money on your products. Also, let’s face it, the current release model is unsustainable and the current economy will only make it worse. I don’t have the answer to how, but these companies are supposed to be full of smart people. Figure out how to make the “long tail” work for you and quit this ridiculous death march of trying to sell a million copies in the first two weeks of release just to break even.

Also, I know I didn’t spend much time on the above points but I’m sure the price point thing is going to stick with some people. Look, $30, $50, or $60, the actual price doesn’t matter so long as a game recoups it’s development costs. Once a game gets past the cost of development it is essentially printing money. Valve has proved time and again that lowering the price of games increases sales exponentially. $60 is an off-putting price. There are many more games I’d be willing to buy on day one for $50 instead of $60. There are many games I do buy when they hit $10 off. The difference to consumers between $40 to $50 is not the same as $50 to $60. It is not “just $10 more” in the minds of consumers. I’ve worked in software development for over a decade now and I promise you that a piece of software is only worth as much as someone will pay for it. Trying to sell $20 games for $60 is part of the reason the videogame industry is struggling so much in today’s economy. Trying to market $20 games as though they are worth $60 is just throwing money down the toilet.

The overall strategy needs to be a shift towards doing something good for the consumer.

Mirror’s Edge on the Go

We kind of had a little bit of a love/hate relationship with the console version of Mirror’s Edge. Some arguments made online is that the game would have been better in third person. It looks like the game has been shrunk down, put in third person, and married with Canabalt for your iPod/iPhone.

It’s not out yet, but my guess is soon.

Feedburner sometimes does not play nice with video. If you don’t see it in your reader, come home.

Command and ConqueRED!

I have always been a huge fan of the C&C games. Command and Conquer 4 came out this week. I was contemplating purchasing it on Steam. At the bottom of the page, I saw this:

PERSISTENT INTERNET CONNECTION, EA ACCOUNT, REGISTRATION WITH ENCLOSED SERIAL CODE AND ACCEPTANCE OF END USER LICENSE AGREEMENT REQUIRED TO PLAY. SOFTWARE REGISTRATION IS LIMITED TO ONE EA ACCOUNT PER SERIAL CODE AND IS NON-TRANSFERABLE.

Thank you EA. The first three words helped me save $50. We’re reading about people raping Ubisoft all over the Internet about this. Why have we not heard anything about EA?

I’m going to be alarmist and state that PC gaming is going to look really different in the near future. It’ll be more niche, indie, and cheaper. I, for one, welcome it.

This makes me red.

Dragon Age First Impressions

Now that I’ve spent a little time with Dragon Age: Origins, I thought I’d post a few impressions.

Initially, I didn’t think Dragon Age: Origins was going to do it for me. Things started out really slow. I didn’t care for what at first glance appeared to be a rather generic story. Some of the graphics were distracting. Controls didn’t feel right. I was not impressed.

Now that I’m about five or six hours into the game, I’m happy to admit things get much better. The story, now that I’ve read some of the background (via the Codex) has me buying in to what’s happening. I quickly became comfortable with the controls.

Graphics are still a bit of a disappointment. It’s probably nit-picky and petty, but some of the character models look really bad. I know the game has been in development for a long time, but it’s surprising that Mass Effect, a game two years older, looks just as good (if not better) than Dragon Age. Maybe that’s due to the fact that this game was obviously designed for PC first, consoles second, but some of the models are very distracting.

I had read in more than one place (Josh most recently) about how Dragon Age had a potentially steep learning curve but I thought I was good enough to start the game at a higher difficulty level. WRONG. After an hour of dying needlessly I set the difficulty back to normal and moved on. I don’t know why I have this need to do things the hard way but I’m getting better. I’ve decided that after I gain a few more levels I think I’ll give the next difficulty up another try now that I’m getting the hang tactics system and my guys aren’t as squishy.

And one last thing. Normally with BioWare games, I’m almost always go with the “good” options. In conversation I say the “right things” and when offered a moral choice I “do the right thing”. This game, I’m trying to be a “bad guy” or at least not a knight in shining armor. It’s hard. On more than one occasion I’ve felt a twinge of guilt as I send an orphan packing or see a “-10 Alistair” after I make a decision. If nothing else, that’s got to count for something in terms of emotions in a video game.

Set your DVRs

Got this note from EA’s PR peoples and figured some of you would be interested. I know I am, but I’m also torn. I’ve been avoiding any and all info about Mass Effect 2 to go into the game pure and unsullied as possible. I have seen a few of the teaser videos for the game, so maybe I’m already corrupted. Either way, check it out:

Tonight the SyFy Network will debut the special TV documentary, Sci vs. Fi: Mass Effect 2 , featuring celebs, creators, and experts discussing 2010’s first blockbuster videogame, Mass Effect 2 and its place in the sci-fi pantheon. Tune in to the Sy Fy Network for the premiere airing on Tuesday January 19th at 11 PM EST/PST and 10 PM CET. The show takes an in-depth look at both the science and fiction of Mass Effect 2, and features interviews with in-game voice talent Tricia Helfer and Yvonne Strahovski, Sci-Fi fan favorite Wil Wheaton and journalists Jessica Chobot and Adam Sessler among others.

A grim time for gaming

Most of the time I prefer to link to Bill Harris then the actual news article simply because his commentary is usually worth considering. However, while I agree with his points and encourage everyone to see what he has to say I have better things to do then reiterate what has already been said. Instead I want to take some of the facts as we know them and shed some very painful light on them.

Electronic Arts just shed a large number of workers. I think the analysis at Dubious Quality is being conservative in saying they’ve released a quarter of their workforce. 2,600 people this year, around 1,300 in this most recent layoff alone. At a time when unemployment has hit double digits in America (I understand these were not just American jobs at EA) this is a terrible time to be looking for a job much less a job in an industry that is struggling to survive.

Hubris has destroyed many large corporations. I was there to see it bring AOL to its knees. Steve Jobs admitted outright that it nearly destroyed Apple. Yet at the end of 2008 and well into 2009 we had one executive after another talking about the “recession proof” gaming industry. How many development studios have shuttered their doors this year? I have actually lost count. Sadly, the nature of the gaming industry means that even beloved companies will close their doors in even the best of times. The epidemic of failing studios this year does not mean good things for gamers in 2010, and probably 2011. The real lesson learned though is that games are not recession proof. No luxury good is ever recession proof.

While people are out of work and budgets are tightening, the gaming industry is selling games at a higher price, targeted the secondary market, and looked at methods to put their hands in our pockets as directly as possible searching for whatever loose change they can find. One use codes, exclusive pre-order bonuses, and other strategies seem intent on making it clear that “buying new” is the way to go. I have to say that my biggest incentive to “buy new” is when a game hits a price I actually think it is worth. I didn’t hesitate to get Borderlands at $50, but the initial $60 asking price is simply too high to risk on a potentially bad game.

Questionable marketing strategies aside, the grim reality is that EA may not have any choice. At this point the gaming industry, like any industry, just needs to survive long enough for the economy to improve. This means less innovation, less risk-taking, and more “sure bets”. This means that we as gamers will have fewer choices and more of the same. After Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 sells a bazillion copies do you think Activision is going to tell Treyarch “Hey, people are tired of you guys making the sucky Call of Duty versions, so why don’t we just release every 2 years and you can go back to making games you actually care about”? NO CHANCE! Bobby Kotick is going to milk that cow with his calloused little fingers until the udders fall off.

I see fewer and fewer games of interest to me. I think it’s going to be a rough couple of years for my hobby. The good news is, this too shall pass. Like a kidney stone, it will pass.

Brutal Tweets

If you’re the tweeting type (and we are), you might be interested in checking this out (via EA):

Chat live w/Tim Schafer @ 7PM PST tonight. Send your Q’s after 6pm to #E3BL and watch them unfold live at http://tr.im/nbKW #E3

Catch me if you can!

I can’t stop laughing at this video from EA’s NCAA 09 (h/t EDSBS). I was briefly considering a purchase of this game following Bill Abner’s initial reports, but those became less enthusiastic. Then Bill Harris pretty much took the wind out of the sails. This video pretty much capsized the boat.

This is just ridiculous. Even if the CPU sliders were tweaked, this kind of behavior should never happen in a football game. Even Pee Wee football games aren’t this bad.

So now NCAA 09 is on my Gamefly Q, slowly bubbling to the top. I’m not particularly anxious to play it with so many other options at the moment. Which is a shame, because I’m a huge college football fan.

Video is embedded after the jump. (Thank you, EA, for giving us the ability to embed.)
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BANNED DEAD SPACE TRAILER!

Yeesh. Certainly not safe when kids are around. Or if you’ve recently eaten dinner.

Also, make sure to visit http://deadspace.ea.com/sweepstakes/ if you haven’t already to enter to win titles such as Saw, Alien, and 12 Monkeys in their 100 Horror and Sci-fi DVD Sweepstakes, chosen by Dead Space’s development team.

Customizable NCAA 09 Covers

First of all, did you know Wal-Mart had a Blog? Not just a blog, but a rather large, multi-authored blog? I sure didn’t.

Anyway, I’ve railed for a long time that EA should offer regional covers for their sports games, but more specifically, for the NCAA 0X series. I don’t mind buying a college football game with Reggie Bush or Jared Zabransky on the cover, but as a Buckeye fan, I’d be much more inclined to get one with Troy Smith or Vernon Gholston on my cover.

Well, this year for NCAA 09, you can do just that. You can “customize” your NCAA cover to fit your fandom. But, it’s exclusively available at Sam’s Club:

Sam’s Club will be the ONLY retailer to offer OFFICIAL EA alternative cover images. What does this mean to you? Well, if you are like me and NOT a Razorback fan (almost illegal here in Arkansas, I still will not to that “wooooo pig” thing), you can put an image from a selection of images on YOUR box front at no additional charge.

It’s a very cool idea, but it looks like it’s being executed poorly. First of all, the example posted at the Check Out blog, with the Lucky Charm Leprechaun, looks like a character model from the game. If they use mascots from the game engine as the cover pictures, that is pretty lame. If they’re not using actual photographs, this is a bad idea. And I know there are licensing agreements and NFL player associations to deal with, but it would be really cool if they worked it out to have a few fan favorites from each team available for covers. That would make it an instant buy.

And for those wondering, here’s my dream cover:

NCAA 09 Cover

(And by “dream cover,” I mean that literally. I dream about buying NCAA 09 with Mount Vernon on the cover. Nightly)

[Cross posted at my other blog, for obvious reasons]