AAA Companies: Be Afraid...Very Afraid
Yup...it's all going down!
But why is that exactly, you may ask? Easy! A large number of gamers are getting sick and tired of the same, old iterations over and over again, year after year. Even if some of them don't vocalize their concerns, a call for the return of innovation has begun.
The Birth of Ingenuity
If you are in your 30s or 40s by now, you may remember that the entire video game industry was based on (wait for it...) innovation! In fact, the forefathers of gaming as we know it today have been building upon the medium since 1940, when Edward Condon designed a computer that played the game Nim. Even though players lost 90% of the time, they still played it by the thousands!
Later on, the advent of the BASIC programming language in 1964 by Dartmouth University's John Kemeny sparked an interest in coding. The language proved to be so easy to understand, that countless games started being made, with the first football game being made in 1965!
Another forefather of video games was the late and great Ralph Baer, who concocted the crazy notion to play video games on a television! Development of his now iconic Brown Box began in 1967, which featured tennis (of course) and multiple other "simple" games!
Now THAT'S a box of innovative AWESOME!
After securing a deal with Magnavox, the Brown Box then morphed into the nation's first home video game console: the Magnavox Odyssey! Even though only 28 games were developed for the Oddyssey, it set the tone for future innovations in the video game industry.
The name Nolan Bushnell may invoke many different emotions, but you have to give the man credit! He had the foresight to create a coin-op version of the tennis game, later known as PONG, after a visit to the "Magnavox Profit Caravan" in Burlingame, CA, in 1972. Due to his efforts, the nation was primed for the arcade craze of the 80's!
Yup! There's some more of that innovation!
Noting that he would be able to reach a broader audience if he were able to bring his brand into the living room, Bushnell got to work on his first console. The Atari VCS (later the Atari 2600), sold over 30 million consoles and offered hundreds of different titles during its lifetime. Notable titles included Adventure and Space Invaders, the latter being what prompted some buyers to get the console simply to play it at home!
However, citing poor working conditions, some former Atari developers broke off and developed their own games for the 2600. These former developers founded Activision, and consumers quickly discovered that their titles were supreme to those being released by Atari themselves! Atari attempted to block Activision from developing for the 2600 but failed, and it's a good thing they did! Notable titles from Activision included Kaboom!, Keystone Kapers and River Raid, all of which may not have come about if it weren't for these ballsy developers.
Following the video game crash of 1983, the market seemed like it would never recover. With an oversaturation of consoles released by multiple companies and poorly developed and rushed video games (I'm looking at you, E.T.), the industry needed some serious first aid. Enter the almighty giant, Nintendo!
Opting for a worldwide release of their Japan-exclusive console, the Famicom, Nintendo restructured the console as the Nintendo Entertainment System and began looking for American stores to stock it in. However, North American retailers, still reeling from the crash of 1983, were reluctant to put yet another video game console on the shelf. How did Nintendo alleviate their fears? R.O.B the Robot, come on down!
There he is!
R.O.B. was specifically designed to angle the NES as a "novelty toy" instead of a video game system. Though reviews on R.O.B.'s performance vary, he is definitely the product of innovation and helped the player get their Gyromite or Stack-Up on! Plus, Nintendo limited the amount of releases per year for each developer and ensured they met their standard of quality. The result? Nintendo sold seven million NES consoles by 1988, which trumped what even the Commodore 64 was able to sell in five years!
The NES became the host of many innovative and now iconic titles, including Super Mario Bros., Legend of Zelda and Metroid. Some sources cite Nintendo as singlehandedly reviving the video game industry, effectively showing the entire world that video games were here to stay!
Video games once again became a viable industry, with developers pushing current and subsequent platforms to their breaking point. Notable titles that pushed the boundaries of convention going into the 90's included Earthworm Jim, Toejam & Earl, Doom and many others.
Sega emerged as a direct competitor to Nintendo with the runaway success of the Sega Genesis/Mega-Drive console. Iconic titles released for this system included Sonic the Hedgehog, Castlevania: Bloodlines & Phantasy Star IV. What made Sega even more unique was their aggressive marketing campaign, which included everything from the tasteless to the outright brazen! The console wars were in full-effect and developers were at their peak!
Companies like Sony and Microsoft began manufacturing home consoles; the Playstation in 1994 and XBox in 2001, respectively. They entered the market more or less as the "new guys", and started out as innovators who released notable titles such as Crash Bandicoot, Metal Gear: Solid, Forza Motorsport and Ninja Gaiden: Black. All of these titles successfully sucked us in through their sheer use of environs and epic gameplay formulas. The transition from 2D to 3D may not have always been smooth, but that didn't stop developers from trying and continually getting better!
The industry was absolutely sopping with innovation, with developers and CEOs working in conjunction to come up with the next "barn burner" title!
However, dark times were ahead, ushered in by the almighty dollar...
In Swoop the Vultures
Armed with roughly 20 years of industry data, interested parties began to get a sense of what worked and what didn't. Stockholders began snatching up company shares and pressuring CEOs to take on less "risk-aversive" ventures. What does that mean, exactly? The death of innovation, of course!
Shareholders don't take risk lightly, and what's the worst part about being a publicly traded company? All decisions have to be voted on! Imagine being a fledgling developer who has an awesome idea for the next viral video game! It's an idea that has never been tried before, and you get to tell the Board, a random gaggle of shareholders who have never played a game in their life, about it. How do you think they'd react?
That looks about right...
To an investor who's never played a game before, the mere mention of the word "innovative" is poisonous. The heat's on the developer, who has to try and sell the Board on the concept. What usually happens afterwards is the equivalent of sticking a cat in a blender: blood and vitriol everywhere (I won't be linking that)! In reality, it's not the shareholders' fault, but rather the result of ignorance.
Since none of them can relate to the unmet needs of gamers, they can't see the benefit of investing potentially millions of dollars into a venture that isn't guaranteed to see a return of investment. Thus, the conversation ends before it can even get off the ground. Can I get a "Game Over"?
"Shit always rolls downhill..."
Yes, shit truly does roll downhill! So how does the CEO respond? Since they want to keep their cushy job and not get ousted by the shareholders, the shit is then passed on to the developers, who then create the same old franchises the same way, over and over again, with no end in sight! Why? Because it consistently makes money, it keeps the shareholders happy, and the CEO gets to keep their job...at the cost of innovation!
Why the Indies Will Win
Despite the corporate takeover of many development studios, there are still developers who believe in the concept of innovation. Despite his less-than-stellar reputation, Phil Fish has gifted us with an amazing game: Fez! Released in 2011, it flew in the face of established AAA convention and brought back established concepts, such as exploration and infinite lives, as well as introducing a new one: the innovative use of perspective 3D "shifting" on a 2D plane. In 2012, Digital Spy even listed it higher than AAA titles such as Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 and Spec Ops: The Line!
Another amazing indie game that has done surprisingly well is Super Meat Boy! Chock full of references that "old school" gamers can enjoy, Team Meat released the game in 2010 and received critical acclaim. In 2012, the developers announced that Super Meat Boy sold over 1 million copies!
I should point out at this time that these developers do not fall under the same umbrella that AAA developers do. They get to enjoy the freedom of creating their game, using their concept, on their own time! In truth, developers for large studios have to endure the hell that is "crunch time", all for employers who may not necessarily have to exercise it, but do it anyway. Perhaps these employers should look at the potentially dangerous side effects of overworking their employees?
Do the Math!
There you go! Like a homemade beer, indie games are crafted from the ground up and lovingly tended to, whereas AAA studios are forcing their employees to work unpaid overtime to meet project "deadlines". Where indies are able to express their vision, AAA developers are forced to conform. Indies can benefit from a relatively smaller, but highly concentrated fanbase, whereas AAA studios are at the mercy of shareholders, end of story.
Despite not having the international clout of AAA studios, indies are able to spread the word on their game via conventions, Kickstarters and social media. Much of their success can be attributed to word of mouth, which some developers, like Locomalito, actually enjoy! This means that they get the added benefit of a focused audience that truly enjoys their games, and aren't playing it because they feel pressured to by oversaturated marketing tactics.
Though one may simply dismiss Super Meat Boy's relatively low 1 million sales when compared to New Super Mario Bros. Wii's 27 million copies sold, indies don't have to worry about meeting some ultra-inflated financial goal that runs into the billions of dollars. As long as their able to recoup their expended resources, the rest can be pocketed as raw profit. Let's do the math...
A copy of Super Meat Boy costs $14.99 currently on Steam. Times that number by 1 million copies sold. That comes to approximately $15 million dollars! Considering the fact that the developers did their own footwork and utilized barter systems during their marketing phase, I'd say that this was a much more successful approach than an entrenched gaming giant spending millions of dollars on an advertising campaign thrown out into the general public, hoping to see a return on investment.
A lot of games with aggressive prices and marketing campaigns have tanked over time; just look at Action 52!
Bottom line: indies are addressing the true needs of long-time gamers and are not simply pandering to the masses. Their creations are truly their own as well as their marketing tactics, so AAA companies, pull your heads out of your corporate asses and pay attention to who it's really about: THE GAMERS! Lumpz the Clown OUT!