Although the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 are the most recent video game consoles released by industry leaders Microsoft and Sony, the technology running the devices isn’t exactly cutting edge. The machines have been on the market for seven years, which is almost twice as long as the original Xbox’s shelf life. It’s been an extended cycle compared to what’s been done in the past, and while great innovation has been seen in its tenure, the industry has settled into a safe, predictable pattern.
Strong titles like Epic Games’ Gears of War and Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed broke new ground as this generation’s consoles grew in popularity. Creative cover mechanics in Epic’s shooter inspired dozens of other projects moving forward, and the Third Crusade setting found in Assassin’s Creed was one few developers even considered tackling in the past. New ideas were sparked by fresh technology, creative minds and greater mainstream attention, but in 2012, it’s titles that simply iterate on established ideas that rake in the profit.
“Larger companies do seem to be focusing more on known quantities these days. Game development is really expensive, so it makes sense that they’re unwilling to take a lot of risks with so much money involved,” Double Fine developer Greg Rice told StickSkills. “However, this generation of consoles has seen a real burst of new and original ideas in the downloadable space where budgets are smaller and distribution is easier to obtain.”
Downloadable titles, like Double Fine’s Stacking or Supergiant Games’ Bastion, have found a significant audience who don’t mind purchasing products via an online store, but the disparity between the sales of digital titles and big-budget retail games is clear. In its first 24 hours at retailers, Call of Duty: Black Ops II sold over $500 million in copies – shattering the previous record for an entertainment launch held by Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3.
Black Ops II marks the fifth Call of Duty title in as many years, and while the records the franchise sets each fall seem more and more difficult to surpass, this now monumental product hasn’t shown any signs of wear. People like what they like, but a struggling economic situation in America shouldn’t be discounted.
“A faltering economy certainly increases risk mitigation. Less money makes people less likely to take risks on purchases,” said John Laster, editor-in-chief of XBLAFans. “Consumers less likely to take risks will lead to companies less likely to risk AAA funds and assets on a new intellectual property versus continuing a proven one.”
Publishers are forced to consider risk management in order to stay profitable in what’s now become a difficult market to find a foothold. The difference between a flourishing studio and one that’s facing closure can come down to a single game, and Greg Kasavin, creative director at Supergiant Games, had to consider this fact when his team released its first title.
“When big publishers have to place a $50 million bet, or $200 million bet or whatever, those are scary numbers to be playing around with,” Kasavin said to StickSkills. ”It’s only reasonable for them to make the safest, most viable investment of those kinds of resources, so they do their market research and determine what type of product has the highest likelihood of success.”
The next wave of consoles is expected to bring new opportunities, both creatively and financially. New intellectual properties will appear in the coming years, but for now, Kasavin sees the most excitement in the independent scene. Supergiant Games’ Bastion wowed critics in 2011 with its creative aesthetic and twisting narrative, yet it’s just one in a long line of successful games crafted by smaller teams.
“I do think when new consoles roll around there will be a greater appetite for new IP, and we’re already seeing big new IP ideas like Ubisoft’s Watch Dogs getting attention at E3. That said, smaller developers will keep making creative stuff more regularly,” Kasavin said. “They have little choice but to try, as they know their only chances of success are through making something specific and different, since they can’t compete on budget or scope.”
However, it’s still unknown if either consumers or big companies will want new ideas when the next generation of hardware begins. Cory Davis, lead designer and creative lead behind this year’s Spec Ops: The Line, doesn’t have too much hope for the current landscape.
“Many publishers and developers are running scared, just trying to stay far enough above water to survive. Some have attempted to combat the sea of unknowns by leaning heavily on known franchises, even so much as to kill them entirely in some cases, while others have attempted to clone successful franchises,” Davis said in an email conversation. “Both publishers and developers have sought to bring in the more casual gamer with accessible controls and mechanics, all with the hope of helping their products succeed in the marketplace.”
What critics hail as creative isn’t what’s selling in many cases. A game can break ground in a handful of areas, but if the innovation is attached to an unknown name or niche genre, it’s unlikely that it’ll succeed.
“Turnover is high, quality projects are failing to succeed in the marketplace, and both talented game developers and forward-looking gamers are paying the price,” Davis said. “We need to push for these individual branches to continue to grow – propelling us to reach new places outside of our current sphere of understanding in game development.”
The general public, and even dedicated gamers, aren’t often willing to shell out $60 each month on games that haven’t yet proven to be quality purchases. Because of this, people will continue to stick with what they know until change is forced upon them.
“How often do people go to a restaurant they like and order the same meal despite 10 seasonal favorites being new? Comfort,” Laster said.