Black Ops II made $500 million dollars when it launched last November.
In a single day.
It should come as a shock to no one that video games are a massive business today and one of the most profitable entertainment mediums on the planet. But, just like any other business, videogame publishers want to ensure that as many of their investments reap the kind of Call of Duty benefits above, and that’s why year after year we tend to get a lot of games that, well, look and play kind of the same. It’s the same reason you’ll see Hollywood churn out derivative, formulaic summer blockbusters on an annual basis; They’re proven moneymakers.
But, that doesn’t mean big publishers can’t meet the demand of market segments that want original, fresh game ideas represented halfway and even do so without jeopardizing the bottom line. How? Glad that you asked…
Public Proof-of-Concept Demos
This was actually inspired by a recent article on Cracked about the greatest games we’ll never get to play. Looking at some of the concepts listed there it’s disappointing that some of these titles show such grand promise but won’t ever see the light of day. Either because the formula’s unproven or they’re not sure how it’ll sit with gamers. But what if there was a better way to gauge whether a full-blown game would be a financial success with more certainty than a focus group?
In a medium like video games, productions can (at least in some cases) be cheaper to produce than films. With that in mind, why isn’t there some type of widespread focus-testing in place to allow developers to create a proof-of-concept level that, instead of providing an entire experience just gives gamers a taste with the intention of evaluating their experience to determine its viability? They have the resources, a distribution model on the internet, and social media platform integration to convert feedback into a marketing opportunity.
There could even be incentives to subsidize the cost of the initial test demo’s creation like pre-order bonuses if players of the free demo opt to put one or two dollars toward funding the game. It’s a win-win in that it proves gamers are willing to invest to prevent an experience from becoming vaporware and fans get to be part of the inception of what could be a blockbuster new title.
Test a Cheaper Medium to Establish a Fanbase
Mirror’s Edge received mixed generally good reviews but was particularly praised as a creative jump forward for EA who had historically churned out games that were considered safe or at least members of well-established series. There are lots of examples of this but perhaps it illustrates a glaring weakness in how new properties are presented.
Focus group testing is one thing, but with the internet available there’s no reason these concepts couldn’t exist initially as a webcomic, online story, or simpler game before anyone even thinks of licensing an expensive game engine or drawing up marketing plans for a multi-million dollar launch. Instead of a complicated viral marketing campaign, why not frontload some of that exposure to see if there’s anything to be excited about before banking millions on a success that might not pan out?
For every Portal success story there are a dozen Psychonauts failures.
Imagine if EA had first made Dead Space an online comic illustrated by Ben Templesmith with a soundtrack by Daniel Licht playing in the background while reading it. Or what if Portal had begun as a point-and-click adventure through Aperture laboratories where you played as a test subject guided to re-activate a dormant GladOS before getting killed by her to set the stage for events in the Portal universe? These aren’t bad games by any stretch of the imagination but they were riskier titles that paid off big for their publishers. But for every Portal success story there are a dozen Psychonauts failures
If through these means a concept established a following of hundreds of thousands of people wouldn’t it be a little easier to justify the expense of creating a full-blown, 60 dollar game experience?
Why does Kickstarter only have to be for the development of indie games? If a publisher or developer wanted to make a game and they weren’t sure if people would pay for it, why not simply ask people to pay for it and throw them a bone with some zero or low-cost rewards? It’s working for Shadowgate so why couldn’t a game like The Last Guardian simply take to the internet to raise capital directly from fans? I’m betting there are some out there who would pay much more than retail even if they knew it would get the project moving and into their hands faster.
It’s almost as if publishers know the internet is a thing that reaches lots of people but they’re failing to utilize it to the best of its abilities. Direct, honest communications with consumers could yield untold benefits for the game production process, but not until some publisher steps up and is willing to be unconventional.
Ditch the Hollywood Talent
I’ve touched on this before and commenters pointed out that while it’s nice and novel to hear a celebrity’s voice or see their likeness in a game, it’s not strictly speaking necessary and the comparative cost adds little to the experience in terms of overall value.
While their performance could enhance the story, hiring a solid voice actor like, well, Mr. Baker for example and investing that money into a solid story would do far more for a prospective title than digitizing Ellen Page into it.
That’s not to say production values aren’t important, but there’s a reason games like Pac-Man still hold up today when their version of production values meant you had more than 4 colors on the screen at once. This isn’t a knock against the talent that some Hollywood actors bring to the table, but rather an examination of whether the considerable increase in cost for their likeness rights wouldn’t be better spent on a team of programmers to enhance a game’s physics or a creative team to add more content to the third act.
What are your ideas? How can companies indulge our hopes for the types of games we want to play without getting bogged down by the risk of an unprofitable title?