Firefall developer: "Consoles, I believe, are dead"

Former World of Warcraft lead on why you should welcome a publisher-free F2P future.

The humble home video game console and the traditional publisher-led model that supports it is on its last legs, so says Firefall creator and former World of Warcraft lead Mark Kern, with developer-centric free-to-play titles waiting in the wings to replace them.

Speaking in an interview with Eurogamer earlier this week, the Red 5 Studios CEO argued that the free-to-play model offers developers much more room to flex their creative muscles, rewarding gamers with more innovative gameplay experiences than risk-averse AAA console publishers can hope to offer.

"The model is transitioning away from these big boxed games where you're pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into a title, to these sorts of games that don't count on the distributor," he told us.

"They don't need the distributor to succeed, so a lot more money goes into the game rather than to marketing and you get to grow organically with your players. And as there's no barrier to entry for players you can start to compete on fun instead of marketing, which is really the area that we as developers should be in.

"We should be competing on the strength of our ideas and the fun of our gameplay, not the IP, or the license behind the title, or the size of the marketing push."

Kern went on to cite both the death of the middle-tier game and big publisher's relentless hire-and-fire cycle as signs that the traditional boxed model is, as he puts it, "broken".

"Look at the symptoms. Look at the fact that there's no middle ground anymore," he posited.

"You're either an indie game or you're a massive AAA, IP-backed sequel with derivative gameplay that's rehashed over and over again as it's the only safe bet you can make when you're spending hundreds of millions of dollars.

"The failure is that there's no middle ground. All the games in the middle that could have been made but have been squeezed out and we've seen all these independent studios get closed down over the last few years.

"The other troubling symptom is this wave of lay-offs we have after every product launches," he continued.

"People say 'Oh, that's normal, Hollywood does it all the time.' Well, it's not normal. It's a symptom of your business being broken.

"In Hollywood they work on contract - it's very different. They expect only to work from A to B. In games, these big publishers are hiring swathes of people expecting to have jobs long-term but then lay them off at the end of a project because it doesn't quite deliver. This is unsustainable."

As he sees it, this duly paints a depressing picture for the future of home consoles.

"It takes billions of dollars of investment to create a console and then you have to milk it for five to seven years in order to get your money back," he explained.

"I think the model is broken. You keep making these bigger and bigger bets and what that forces you to do is play it safer and safer. And if you play it safer and safer with your gameplay, people will get tired of the crap you're serving. When that happens, they get bored and they will leave. And you haven't fostered any of the middle ground innovation and new ideas that you need to tap into next.

"So something has to change. Consoles, I believe, are dead."

According to Kern, the future lies with mobile and PC, where developers can grow their audience by keeping prices down and focusing on creating new experiences.

"Isn't it ridiculous that you can buy these fantastic games on iPad, but then you get a publisher like Square Enix charging an astronomical price for an old game port? They just don't get it. They don't get that we have to lower the barrier for entry.

"You have to compete on fun as you no longer have a lock on distribution. Big publishers can no longer rely on the fact that they're the only ones that can get distribution for their titles. We have to compete on different things now, and get back to fun and innovation."

When asked whether he believes the three platform holders can turn things around with the next generation of console hardware, Kern offered little cause for optimism, arguing that organisations the size of Microsoft or Sony just aren't nimble enough to effectively move with the times.

"The problem is, even if they're aware of the issues, there's so much inertia that it's really hard to change," he replied.

"I'll go out and say it; even if the heads of these big organisations do get it - which is questionable to begin with - being able to turn on a dime when everybody's salaries and bonuses are vested in the old business models is a very difficult thing to do.

"I think they're at severe risk right now of being trumped by Apple, by Google, by Facebook. Look at indie games. Look at Riot Games and League of Legends. They have more users than World of Warcraft does. That's crazy. And they don't have a publisher.

"Who needs publishers any more? I certainly don't. I couldn't care less about them at this stage."

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Kern has no plans to bring Firefall to PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360, although he revealed that Red 5 did get a version of the game running on consoles a couple of years ago.

"Why would we? I don't see that [platform holders] see how free-to-play can fit into their model and the fact that they're royalty revenue share is not set up to take advantage of these types of games.

"There's no incentive for me to be on console. I'm more interested in getting onto the Mac OS or even iOS in some form. That's what's more interesting to me."

Red 5's bold, bright shooter, neatly touted by Kern as "like 300-player Borderlands", is currently in an ongoing, ever-expanding beta. You can request access over on the official Firefall site.

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