Lifer–The game companies want us in chains

Posted: 08.31.12

Developing a good AAA first or third-person game is expensive, takes a long time, and is tricky as hell to get right. You’ve got to have great (not just good) art; a really good, compelling story (wack-a-zombie doesn’t get it). And you have to use the latest hardware but be able to degrade gracefully to last generation’s so you don’t exclude any potential buyers. It’s really hard, and that’s why it takes a studio/developer/publisher two to four years to get a new title out. It’s as expensive, time consuming, and dangerous as making a first-rate movie. It’s worse because in a game you can’t clean up junk in post and take a day to render one frame—you’ve got to get it right every time, at least 30 times a second (and twice that if it’s in S3D). Why would any sane person or investor go into that business?

Well, if you get it right, the payoff can be tremendous: $1.5 billion for Call of Duty: Black Ops (2010), $1.35 billion for Grand Theft Auto 4, and World of Warcraft has grossed over $10 billion. That potential is just too big to ignore.

However, given the long time required to develop, the developers and publishers seek additional income to cover expenses and even out cash flow. To do that they bring out sequels, e.g., Grand Theft Auto 4. And they make two versions of the game—single player (against the computer) and multi-­player with and/or against the megasphere. For a lot of players it’s the most fun to be on a team and playing together against another. Some multi-players are just slaughterhouses for the amp’ed up snipers with the best weapons and a lot of experience in a map, so a newbie gets killed within seconds of entering. That’s no fun, and most newbies don’t stay or go back.

Stickiness is what all the publishers are trying to get. They want to get and keep any player who buys their game. The worst example of trying to get stickiness that I’ve seen so far is Funcom’s The Secret World, a massively multi-player online role-playing game.

We were advised to use the game as part of the testing of the new Nvidia GTX 660 ti, so I asked our friends at EA if we could get a copy. EA sent the CDs and said it was good for 30 days. When we tried to install it, the program asked for credit card information, which we gave it. But it wanted more, it wanted us to buy something. Which we declined. Out of frustration with Funcon, we went to Steam and bought it for $50, only to hit the same blockade. Getting on the game’s tech support chat line, we were informed that it’s $50 for the first 30 days and then $15 a month there­after—that’s $230 a year—you gotta be kidding, who the hell would pay that? I wouldn’t even pay that for Stalker, as much as I love that game.

We weren’t alone in our feelings.

The Secret World received mixed reviews after its July release, which Funcom blamed for much of its reduced share value. Former Funcom CEO Trond Arne Aas stepped down from his position for a different role in the company on the eve of the game’s launch.

Then last week Funcom instituted layoffs in response to poorer-than-­expected revenues for the game. But the studio did not comment on rumors of the changes impacting as much as 50% of the company. Free to play (F2P) is the new model, but Funcon didn’t seem to get the memo. EA got it, and announced Star Wars would be F2P. Guess what we’ll be playing?

A securities investor once advised me on the market: Bulls make money, bears make money, and pigs get slaughtered. Funcon is a pig, and even though they got $50 from us (because Steam doesn’t give any refunds—have a nice day), they won’t get another dime, and for sure won’t get any kind of a recommendation other than run away as fast as you can.

I’m also a little PO’ed at Nvidia for recommending such a rip-off for testing their AIB. Nvidia invested in the game and obviously wants to promote it—but they picked the wrong way to do that with us.

Don’t mess with grumpy old men, we just won’t take it, and we ain’t the sticky type.