E3 2012: Triple-A Dinosaurs and Indie Mammals
I didn’t go to E3, but I’ve been reading a lot of the recaps on Gamasutra and elsewhere, and they paint an interesting picture.
More than one commentator thinks that the show is out of touch with reality. AAA games are being marketed, according to one writer, through “unabashed pandering to the lowest common denominator” – which is to say, killshots and boobs. Regardless of the gameplay in this years triple-A offerings, detailed killshots and bountiful cleavage are the marketing bullet points. This shows very clearly how the AAA studios see their core market. More tellingly, perhaps, it also reflects their opinion of their customers, which seems anything but complimentary.
A lot of the real creativity right now seems to be coming from the indie developers, with small budgets and big ideas. It seems to be a law of nature that when a certain budget threshold is crossed, fear overcomes everything else and a deep creative conservatism kicks in. The result is me-too products (“We need to mitigate risk by sticking to tried and true formulae”) whose only innovations are brighter colors, more detailed kill animations – and more boobs.
Does this reflect the true state of the industry? I doubt it. Heck, I sincerely hope not. E3 is out of touch with reality, says at least one industry figure. At best, the blood-and-boobs obsession reflects what the marketing folks are thinking, rather than what the developers are dreaming. Given the recession, sales are shaky, and I guess a lot of marketers are fighting over the safe, reliable core market: a market that, according to Gamasutra’s Kris Graft, marketers see as “Bloodthirsty, sex-starved teen males who’ll high-five at a headshot and a free T-shirt.”
Thanks a lot, AAA developers. It’s nice to know that you hold gamers in such high regard.
But while the dinosaurs are roaring and stomping, I think the real story is down among the mammals: the indie developers whose low budgets give them more creative freedom. Arkedo co-founder Camille Guermonprez likes the analogy as much as I do: he said “When you’re small you move faster, so when the situation is changing, you better be some kind of high-running little lemur than a big dinosaur, because you’re going to get a tree on your head, otherwise.”
E3 is big and expensive, and no indie developer has anything like the cash needed to get noticed in that bright, noisy jungle. But that doesn’t mean they’re not important. Angry Birds has made ridiculous amounts of money, and there’s a huge scramble for the mobile and handheld market right now.
At last year’s GDC, Nintento chief Satoru Iwata urged game developers to ignore smartphones. I wrote about it in one of the earliest entries on this blog. This year, Sony Worldwide Studios president Shuhei Yoshida said that small games and indie developers are vital. He didn’t rush to embrace smartphones, though, because Sony is pushing the Playstation Vita. Sony is still trying to be in the device business and the games business at the same time, facing itself with the same dilemma that prompted Iwata-san to rail against smartphones.
We’ll see how that works out for Sony: meanwhile Nintendo’s Eshop is averaging a mighty 4.7 lifetime (so far) sales per customer in the 3DS games category. I’d love to see how that stacks up against iOS and Android apps, but I haven’t been able to find any corresponding figures. Let’s just say it seems on the low side to me. But then, if you ring-fence your apps and your device together, you’re denying youself any additional app sales that might come from ports to other devices. With device sales, it’s trickier to judge: do people really buy a device because it’s the only way to play a certain game? That used to be the case in the days of the Console Wars, but today I’m less certain.
So there we have it. E3: full of sound and fury as always, but apparently signifying little more than a depressing race to the bottom as far as marketing is concerned. Meanwhile, the mammals are busily harvesting nuts and berries from the iOS and Android bushes, and not worrying about comets. A couple of dinosaurs have gotten smart enough to harvest nuts and berries, but they insist on designing, building, and marketing their own bushes that grow nuts and berries only they can eat.
Okay, enough. I know when I’m straining a metaphor. But you get the idea.
As snapshots of the industry go, the above may not be that accurate. It’s just what I gleaned from reading various articles that themselves were condensed through the lenses of the reports who wrote them. But it’s a picture, of sorts, and if anyone out there has a different view, then hey – write a comment and set me straight.