Game Changer: Power Shift

THQ Logo

By Samuel Peace

While film and music have enjoyed a steady technological progression over the past two decades, it is probably the games industry which has seen the most growth within the entertainment sector. Just over 20 years ago, games were not much more than interactive pixels. Simple titles such as Pong and Space Invaders wowed people across the world with their never before seen virtual interactivity. The fact that you could play pretend table tennis on your TV was quite the phenomenon. The innovations continued and now we have beautiful 3D models which produce cut scenes with cinematics so good that they could be feature films themselves. Gameplay has become a lot more complex and varied, and the evolution of online has enabled people to play with strangers from the other side of the world. The future also looks quite bright as developments for a variety of different ‘virtual reality’ headsets seeks to merge real life with the digital world in order to make you feel like you’re actually part of the game. So while the whole concept of gaming is forever changing, one thing which has remained mostly the same until now has been who makes the games.

Most forms of entertainment usually have two main parts involved with its creation. There’s a person/team which develops the media and an organisation who publishes it for the world to see. In game terms we have development studios which make the games, and publishers who markets and distributes them. Development studios are usually owned by publishers, but if they aren’t they usually seek out a deal with them in order to get their content released. This had always been the way, but recent advancements are beginning to reshape the way things are done. The reason the old regime had lasted so long was because publishers were the only ones with the money to promote and mass produce the games. This monopoly made it difficult for many individuals and/or small studios to express their artistic prowess unless they were able to get backing from a publisher. However, this measure of control could be at an end due to the introduction of digital distribution, apps, kickstarter, and more. Never before has an industry which prides itself on offering limitless expression, and has seen so much innovation, been able to experience the freedom which it now has today.

This power shift has done wonders for consumers and developers alike. The creators can now let their imaginations run wild without publishers telling them what they should make. They can get cheap distribution by using digital services such as Steam, PSN and Xbox Live. Or similarly they can create apps on iOS, Android, and Window devices, or on web browsers. They can even get the fans themselves to pay for the production of a game by offering them incentives using a kickstarter website. As for the consumers, they not only get more originality from their games, but also a wider variety of platforms to play them on, cheaper prices, and also a greater relationship with developers by being able to fund projects that they want made. This newly found freedom is great for many people, but unfortunately there is always someone who suffers. The once dominant publishers are now facing a greater threat than each other. While their money may enable them to produce big blockbusters, it doesn’t however mean people will buy them. The production cost of these mega titles are not cheap, meaning the cost for consumers isn’t either. While this wasn’t a problem a few years ago, the new choices and the recession have now made consumers seek out cheaper titles. To make matters worse, major publishers prefer to churn out sequel after sequel rather than supporting an original concept because of the amount of money involved in developing these massive titles.

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To say there isn’t room for ‘Triple A’ releases would be wrong as they still make up for the majority of sales despite recent slumps. There will always be an audience for big games such as Fifa and Call of Duty. The main problem is that the major publishers are finding it increasingly difficult to afford to make such games. The huge success of the new ‘indie’ development scene has caused big game sales to fall which in turn is a loss of profit. Although digital releases of these titles along with downloadable content can help recoup on costs, this however, is sometimes not enough. Because of this studios are closing and even some major publishers are faltering too. Hundreds of people are losing their jobs as a result which is causing stress and tension amongst the people in the profession. Just this week it was announced that publisher THQ was to close its doors for good following the auctioning off of their assets. THQ is probably the biggest casualty yet of this ever changing industry. They were once power houses who were able to rival the biggest and the best with famous franchises such as Red Faction, Saints Row, Darksiders, and the WWE games (which they held the licence for). However declines in sales for their iconic games and a risk with an original product (the uDraw tablet) which went horribly wrong saw them plunge into debt and unable to recover.

President of THQ Jason Rubin and Chief Executive Officer Brian Farrell wrote a letter to their employees explaining about the situation.  Regarding employment they said: “We expect that most employees of the entities included in the sale will be offered employment by the new owners. However, we cannot say what these owners may intend, and there will likely be some positions that will not be needed under the new ownership. You should receive notice this week or early next week if the new owners intend to extend employment to you.” Unfortunately those who were not in the sale were just told: “If you are an employee of an entity that is not included in the sale, we regret that your position will end.” This has become a common occurrence amongst studios and publishers in the industry, with more than 50 closures and major lay-offs over the past year. Other notable casualties include: Hudson Soft (Bomberman) who would have celebrated its 40th birthday this year; Sony Liverpool (former Psygnosis) famous for WipEout; and the more recent 38 Studios whose only game – Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning was a commercial flop despite housing some highly regarded developers and being a hit with the critics.

In many ways the transformation of this industry is a great thing, and no doubt it’ll help it to grow and flourish. But as the stakes are raised there will be more closures than ever before. Competition can now come from anyone, and with every success story there will be a failure too. Fortunately we’re in a time where new hardware is appearing and a console transition is taking place. This will give developers new tools and features to play around with ensuring a new wave of originality is on the horizon. Overall things have never been better for the consumer; however developers have their work cut out to stay ahead of the competition. You could say that the local multiplayer has now switched to online.

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