The Crash of 2015

Pure speculation post incoming.

By the end of this calendar year, all the new consoles will be on the market.  The 2013 holidays will see the “hardcore” gamers buy either a PS4 or XBone. True market penetration won’t really occur until the fall of 2014.  It’s cyclical, happens with most any product.  I would hedge my bet on a particular brand but that doesn’t really matter much for this topic.

What does matter is the cost structure of said consoles and games.  Microsoft has stated that their first-party games will be $60.  Sony has said the same.  I’m disappointed in the former since one of the main draws is the reduction in pirating/used game sales, therefore companies should be making a lot more money.  You’d think the prices would be lower.  It’s  a bit more expensive than today’s games and the dev costs should be lower since the architecture between PC, PS4 and XBone are near identical.  Game prices are part 1 of the problem.

Free to Play (buy to play, freemium, cash stops) is a still relatively new financial model that no one really has a good grasp on.  A company can get 1-2 years tops out of a cash stop before devolving into lockboxes.  There comes a point where there is simply nothing left to buy and the company still needs money to operate.  There are more games that fail this particular step than succeed (waiting on Marvel Heroes to discuss this point).  Part 2 of the problem.

DLC is bleeding between the line between core play, additional content and value.  Gone are the days of horse armor but here are the days of Protheans.  While Skyrim DLC can prove to add value to the entire game, the prevelance of in-media-res DLC (like Deus Ex) is disturbing.  Entire chunks of the game are missing.  Part 3 of the problem.

Micro/macro-transactions have yet to find a floor or ceiling.  LOTRO horses, EvE monocles, sparkle-ponies are in a class of their own.  Paying for crafting material in Dead Space 3, or simply having a cash stop button on every screen, regardless of the underlying payment model, is garish.  Paying for XBox Live and still getting ads is ridiculous.  Part 4 of the problem.

Disconnect with the core audience.  Back in the day, the core audience was 18 year olds sitting in a basement.  They still exist but the core spenders are older, those with more disposable income yet conversely less time.  An older person has a better understanding of value for service yet there is a growing divide between AAA developers and consumers.  Ni No Kuni, Tomb Raider, BioShock and The Last of Us are supreme examples of quality and sold extremely well.  Gears of War and God of War are cash grabs that are bleeding companies.  Part 5 of the problem.

Independent developers are the future.  It’s not a question anymore, it’s simple reality.  They cost structures are lower, they aren’t jaded, they target their games to a specific market and have lowered expectations.  The gate to entry is small (especially on PS) but the market itself is becoming saturated.  This makes it hard for a new indie game to reach the spotlight, outside of word of mouth.  Part 6.

A crash occurs when a bubble bursts.  A bubble occurs when reality is artificially inflated up to expectations, in order to turn a profit.  Gaming today seems to be heading farther and farther away from reality and more into slide decks for quarterly reports.  Looking from the outside, it seems more like a head scratching exercise of “did they really think that would work?”  The market is heavily saturated with the same product on every corner, with less features and more cost per iteration.  There are only so many SWTORs that can launch and fail before bankrupting a company (see THQ).  You can’t spend $100 million to develop a game that sells 100K copies or only provides income for 3 months.

The gaming paradigm that exists today is doomed for failure as it is simply not sustainable.  There’s no one single problem to fix, it’s a plethora of systematic failures driven by a core concept – getting more money out of gamer’s pockets.  We’re nearing the edge and it’s a hell of a fall on the other side.

Working Theory

Here’s my theory, and catch me if I’m wrong.  The typical gamer is easy to please on the short term, hard to please long term.  Halo, CoD, Batman – pretty much any console game has a ROI period of a few months at best.  Rarely are any played past the 1 year mark.  MMOs on the other hand, typically only get into the black after the first year.

While I love Rocksteady’s Batman series (really, it’s amazing), I can’t see myself playing it 4-8 hours a week for a year.  Only RPGs ever reach that height of game time and that’s due to massive grinding (I have over 200 hours in FFX over many years).  This is one main reason many games now have RPG elements – not so much for the customization but for the stretch in longevity.  If CoD had no gated content with multiplayer, there would be a whole lot less players after month 2.

So, MMOs require some RPG element to gate content and stretch out the life of the game.   Any game that does not do this, that gives access to everything on day 1, goes out of business on day 2.

MMOs need to make that RPG experience both rewarding in terms of goal but rewarding in terms of activity.  FPS games do this well through bite size pieces of adrenaline – combat lasts 10-30 seconds at a time but there’s always a risk of dying.  Hackers/cheaters break this experience though, so you do have massive bans from time to time.  Typical PvP MMO don’t have cheaters, they have system abusers/exploiters.  When you’re not beaten by skill but by some mechanical fluke, you’re less likely to continue to engage.  UO failed to address this issue properly and lost a lot of people because of it.  EvE has problems with this as well, since it’s a mob mentality.  When it’s 100 vs 2, then there’s not much fun there.  EQ took away the PvE zerg strategy because of this.  Really good PvP is not static and each experience has enough nuances to make it different from the pervious.  It also makes you a better player.  Bad PvP has you mashing all your buttons.  The rewards are certainly motivating but the actual ACT is motivating as well.  There should always be something new as you’re working against 100K+ brains.

PvE content in general needs a risk/reward system as well.  If you never have the chance of losing something, then the actual act is meaningless and only the goal is a reward.  You then pick the most efficient route to get to that reward.  Once you have it, then there’s zero reason to participate again.  Eg: why go run a dungeon again if you have all the loot? Achievements were an attempt to solve this problem, especially those that say “stand on one leg and talk like a chicken while surviving the dragon’s breath”.  It made you experience the content in a different light.  Still, once complete, why bother?

Good PvE has you gaining skill and situational awareness.  You should encounter different pieces of PvE abilities and be able to adapt on the fly to counter them. You can mess up a couple times but too often and you’re cooked.  Bad PvE has you pressing the exact same buttons over and over again.  The catch here is that there’s going to be a point where you’ve learned all you can and the devs can’t think of anything new as you’re working against 50+ brains.

A quality experience is defined by the journey and not so much the outcome.  We could all say we’re going to take a trip to Vegas and back but how we get there and what we do once we’re there will give us vastly different experiences.