Rock and a Hard Place
There's trouble ahead for the core games market - but it's wrong to blame social and mobile for these problems.
Anyone who has played Kairosoft's superb mobile title Game Dev Story (and if you haven't, you really should) will probably have experienced the same moment of hair-tearing frustration that I encountered a few times during the game. Having painstakingly accumulated funds, I threw vast amounts of capital behind the development of a no-expenses-spared blockbuster title - only to get the dreaded pop-up, weeks from launch, which told me that another company was releasing a very similar game within the same period, which would seriously damage my title's sales.
That crushing sense of frustration and unfairness - it is, after all, a random factor that's seemingly entirely beyond your control - came to mind as soon as rumours began to circulate that major layoffs were on the cards for Black Rock Studios, the team behind last year's superb but commercially disappointing Split/Second. After all, Split/Second unquestionably suffered from being launched opposite Blur, a very similar title from fellow British studio Bizarre Creations - which recently shut its doors after Blur, too, failed to meet expectations.
Yet as tempting as it is to lay the blame for this closure at the doorstep of such an unfortunate circumstance - two talented teams doing the same thing at the same time, leaving the pie divided into portions too meagre for either to get by - the underlying story of Black Rock's present troubles is much more interesting, and arguably more worrying.
The core market, with its tens if not hundreds of millions of players, doesn't go away just because another market sector has appeared.
Of course, studios shut down all the time, and studios make redundancies all the time. It's part of the inevitable cycle of what is essentially a hit-driven industry - if a company starts missing the target with its releases, it rapidly implodes, throwing off a cloud of talented, experienced development staff who quickly coalesce into bright new development studios or bolster existing studios as fresh hires.
Critics of the games media are absolutely correct to say that we focus too much on redundancies and never give the same weight to new hires and new start-up companies. This is understandable, of course - bad news is intrinsically of more interest to most readers, as any editor with access to his site's pageview statistics can empirically demonstrate, and moreover, journalists hear of redundancies far more readily than they hear about new hires. People made redundant quickly email their favourite news sites to let them know what's happening; those recently hired rarely, if ever, do likewise.
Such excuses aside, however, it's certainly true that this focus on redundancies over hiring casts an unfairly negative light on the health of the games business. So it's not simply the matter of redundancies at Black Rock which gives me, and many others within the industry, pause for thought. While everyone's thoughts, as ever, are with those whose lives will be thrown into upheaval by this latest round of redundancies, it's the apparent justification of studio owners Disney Interactive that's a really interesting indication of where the wind is blowing within the games business.
Speaking with Eurogamer, insiders at Black Rock confirmed what people familiar with Disney Interactive's strategy had already surmised - that the publisher, having acquired what was then Climax's racing studio in 2006, has now lost interest in full-price console titles and is enthusiastically pursuing digital distribution and freemium business models instead. Black Rock's IP didn't fit with that vision; nor, one suspects, did the entire development process in place at a company which has always worked on top-tier console releases.
One argument frequently made by supporters of the nascent and rapidly-growing social and mobile games market (myself included, on occasion) is that the apparent anger of core gamers at the popularity of everything from FarmVille to Angry Birds is misplaced. These games represent an extension of the games business - an expansion into a new realm, rather than cannibalisation of the existing market. The fact that millions of people are playing games on Facebook or iOS doesn't make the currency you're spending on core games any less valuable - the core market, with its tens if not hundreds of millions of players, doesn't go away just because another market sector has appeared. This is not a zero-sum game.