You might think it was naivety that had many claiming games were immune to the economic slowdown. Yet I suspect the opposite: an over-confidence born of previous recessions, which ignored how the games industry has grown and the vulnerabilities that entails.

In praise of the triple-A behemoth

You can’t have your cake and eat it, as my grandmother used to say through mouthfuls of Victoria sponge. By going mass-market – by putting a PlayStation under every other telly and Tetris on every mobile phone – games have spread far beyond teenage males and kids.

The downside is that we’re now susceptible to the vicissitudes of that wider consumer economy. Equally, by becoming attractive to investors and growing (or surviving) on the back of cheap debt, certain firms have been exposed by the withdrawal of such financing in the past 18 months.

2008 was a record one for games industry revenues – over $30 billion for packaged retail games according to Screen Digest – but 2009 won’t be. And besides, with ever-bigger production and marketing costs, margins are all important.

I’m sure just as many young males are trying to get hold of Resident Evil 5 as hunted down the PlayStation original, but the margins are fattened by the masses, for whom games are just another entertainment choice. Without them, we’d be back to the spreadsheets of the mid ‘90s.

Some commentators relish the onset of such austerity – polygon rationing, re-use for victory, and careless talk in the negotiating room costing if not lives then missed targets and blown budgets.

I alluded here to the few benefits of a Great Depression several issues ago; chiefly, a refocus on cheaper innovation at the expense of lazy bloatware, and an acceleration of the disruption of the value chain, potentially clawing back revenues from retail and publishing.

But going further to halt the upward march of high-end video games would be an anti-climax. While we all get frustrated with credulous publishers telling us their next five clearly mediocre titles are all going to remake the medium, a Cretaceous-Tertiary style extinction event would be an extreme and counterproductive way to encourage new entrants. Morever, we need the expensive and faintly ridiculous big beasts of the gaming ecosystem to uproot further innovation.

True, the post-Atari slump of the 1980s cleared the way for a vast wave of start-ups in the 8-bit boom. But the Japanese also picked up the bat after Atari fell, with Nintendo continuing to drive forward game technology while the West re-gathered its strength. This time we’re all in it together.

Also, what would a world dominated by low-budget, easily distributed games look like? Potentially like the morass of Flash games today, or the already swamped iPhone roster.

The danger now is that publishing executives en masse lose what nerve they have and reign in not just cost but ambition. Because most of what made games exciting in the past two decades needs ever bigger development budgets and a market capable of supporting and paying for such out-sized creations. And that journey isn’t done yet.

Since Atari (and with a few honourable exceptions), cutting-edge innovation has generally meant not new ways to flip red tiles to blue, but rather immersing players into a more amazing world, whether in Elite, Gran Turismo or World of Warcraft. Better middleware and leaner teams will play a part, but the spiritual successor to Nico’s adventures in Liberty City won’t be realised by two programmers monetising their game through Google Adsense. Making the Fallout 3 or Fable 2 of 2020 will require an inconceivable budget, and a business model that funnels money towards it.

Yes, we can hope publishers get smarter about prototyping and financing games, and developers can do more to work efficiently. And excessive marketing costs and me-too release schedules will never be anything but a waste of time and creative effort. But give up on the big blockbusters, as some seem to be suggesting, and we’ll follow the footsteps not of Hollywood but of the boardgame industry, becoming an entertaining and frivolous diversion, rather than a fully-emerged artform.

So the next time you see a publisher canning a triple-A development team or saying it’s going to refocus on casual play, wince a little. Too much of that, and our industry goes with it.

About MCV Staff

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