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One of the most disheartening things to happen to videogames in the last year is this week's announcement that Capcom's Clover Studio is being shut down, having recorded a 400 million Yen loss in the last year. On the face of it, compared to news like the delay of the PlayStation 3 in Europe, the demise of one studio doesn't seem like a major cause for sadness - but Clover Studio, in its short lifespan, demonstrated a level of creativity and innovation which made it into a beacon for the ability of games to leap beyond being pigeonholed as simple entertainment, and actually become a marriage of both entertainment, and art.
Founded in 2004 by Capcom in an effort to incubate creativity and address concerns that its portfolio was stagnating, Clover housed some of the publisher's finest creative minds - and set free of the corporate decision making structure, they proceeded to build titles which captured the attention and fired the imagination of game fans the world over. Viewtiful Joe and its sequels, Okami, and finally God Hand, are the lasting legacy of the studio - and while those titles may have polarised opinion, it's impossible to ignore the creative drive behind them, and would be nothing short of heartless not to give credit to the willingness to explore new kinds of gameplay and new visual styles.
Of course, in the final analysis, Clover Studio lost money - and thus Clover Studio was shut down, with Capcom marking its passing with a vague comment to the effect that Clover had fulfilled its purpose. It would be easy to mock such a statement, but that would be cheap. Capcom may have bottled out of the Clover experiment when the losses mounted a bit, but unlike most publishers, Capcom at least had the guts to try the experiment in the first place.
The sad truth is that the vast majority of videogame publishers, contrary to the lip service which they pay to innovation and creativity, don't actually understand what it takes to drive that forward. Projects are killed off when they look like they won't have the kind of profit margin a publisher wants, or when their project leads fail to stand up in front of marketing and reel off a deathly dull list of other popular titles which their game is "a bit like". Entirely original ideas have nowhere to take root in a modern publishing environment - originality means risk, and why allow your staff to take risks when you could be burning them out on a movie license with a guaranteed return instead?
It's easy to scoff, from a business point of view, at the pleas for originality. Sequels sell; licenses sell. Innovation is risk, and often it's bad risk - Clover's games, despite their critical acclaim, still saw the studio losing just shy of three million Euro last year. Not a vast amount, but then again, if they'd been working on a tie-in to a summer blockbuster, they'd probably have made a profit - right?
Such an argument is as logical as it is predictable, and as financially sound as it is utterly incorrect. It's the kind of argument made by videogame publishing executives who wouldn't dream of lifting a joypad in their spare time, who see the medium in terms of products, quarters and bottom lines, and manage to look, at best, incredulous but indulgent when developers, fans or, indeed, journalists mention the word "art" in the context of videogames. As well as being blinkered and short-sighted (never a good combination on the eyesight front), it's inherently damaging - short-termism at its very worst.
Look to the movie business, and consider their business models with regard to smaller films. Giant movie studios and the moguls who run them create incubators for talent, funding the development of risky films and supporting the rise of new talent, new concepts and new directions. When studios or executives choose to fund films that are artistic, or creative, or simply worthy, they don't expect to get their money back, and normally they don't. Games industry executives viewing this situation must feel their jaws dropping - the movie business keeps sending good money after bad? Why? Are they insane?
Of course not. It helps that movie executives are, in my own experience, much more likely to actually love their medium than videogames executives are - but more importantly, they recognise that while you might lose money on ten small projects, there's a chance that the eleventh could be the one that opens up a whole new market, creates a word of mouth phenomenon, makes your studio into the creative darling of the film world and sees a new talent explode onto the scene. Not to mention making you a great big bucket of money - and if it doesn't, well, what's a few million bucks compared to what you're going to make from that Johnny Depp and Ben Affleck starring summer blockbuster you've got lined up?
That, in essence, is why we should mourn the passing of Clover Studio. The 400 million Yen (about 2.7 million Euro) which the studio lost would have been buried in the money Capcom will inevitably make from the next Resident Evil game. Equally, Electronic Arts could easily afford to fund innovation from the proceeds of its big franchises (and letting Will Wright do a project every few years and then referring to it every time someone says the word "innovate" doesn't count), as could Ubisoft, Activision, Sega... The list goes on, until it encompasses practically every publisher in the industry.
It's counter-intuitive, and enough to make a business graduate gag - but until this industry learns to make games which it knows won't make money, this industry will always play second fiddle to every other creative industry.