The Sunday Times released its annual list of the 100 richest blokes in Britain last month. The list revealed that the creators of Candy Crush are more wealthy than the creators of Grand Theft Auto. Last year GTA V obliterated sales records, one of which was being the fastest entertainment property to gross a billion dollars which was achieved in a mere three days. It’s concerning to me that a game that has a 35 minute long credits sequence is less profitable than a match-3 puzzler. I don’t want to undermine Rock Star’s achievements. In fact, I want to highlight the fact that they crafted such an amazing piece of software that will be written in the annals of gaming history and yet King Digital Entertainment is the more profitable company per capita.
Dong Nguyen, creator of Flappy Bird, was making an average of $50,000 a day off the game before he removed it from the Apple App Store and Android Marketplace. More and more, these single-mechanic mobile games are proving that you don’t need to be a big studio to make big money. In fact, your game doesn’t even have to be good or even that playable. For instance, it is hard to find the original Piano Tiles on the app store. There’s a dozen or so look-alikes that all have different features and varying levels of quality. Either way, it doesn’t matter who the original creator is. As long as the player is happy, someone is profiting from it.
If the game creators are happy and the consumers are happy then what’s the problem? The problem is that for the most part, the people these mobile games cater to are not gamers themselves and there is a fear that major developers will chase the casual audience and abandon the core gamer. I think we’re beginning to see a push from developers toward casual games and I would hate for the type of games I love to decrease in number or dilute in quality because developers are trying to make a quick buck.
What if companies like EA jumped on the bandwagon of recreating popular mobile games? Imagine if Activision created a version of Flappy Bird that was rendered in 3D, had a catchy soundtrack, multiple game modes, online leaderboards and multiplayer. Let’s pretend that this was the definitive version of the game. They could build it in a week and would have the funds to properly market it. Even if they were earning half of what the original Flappy Bird was making at its peak, it cost them almost nothing to put out and it is consistent cash flow for an indefinite time. But let’s face it, a game like that would do very well.
Basic business theory is to spend as little money as possible while earning as much as possible. If a company could make millions of dollars without spending millions of dollars, why wouldn’t they? We’re already starting to see it. Sega put out the iOS game Sonic Dash which is an endless runner starring everyone’s favorite hedgehog. We’ve seen this game formula a thousand times,with one of the more notable examples being Temple Run. However, none of these clones starred the Blue Blur, which is one of the advantages Sega has over the little guys. Ubisoft also released Rayman Fiesta Run for mobile devices, an on-rails runner, taking most of its assets straight from its inspired console counterpart Rayman Origins. The fact that Ubisoft continues to update the game indicates that their stripped-down “port” is making them money. Brand recognition is key, which is why Nintendo has been urged by shareholders to make mobile games starring their most recognizable characters.
It definitely is alarming when a game like Candy Crush can generate more money than an Assassin’s Creed title which takes years and thousands of people and not to mention millions of dollars to develop. Surely this would suggest the decline of gaming as we know it, right? Maybe. This trend exists in other mediums as well, especially music. Popular music is generally not the most compelling or complex. Most every song you hear on a pop radio station is comprised of the same four chords. The lyrics tend to be shallow and often distasteful and the songs themselves are over-produced, opting for bigger bass over better musicality. This music dominates the charts, but good music is still out there and continues to be made everyday. Sure, some musicians venture into the pop genre to be more appealing. Coldplay’s latest single “A Sky Full of Stars” is as poppy as it gets and sounds uncharacteristic of their hits like “Yellow” and “Fix You”. And John Legend isn’t fooling me with “All of Me”. These are both paint by numbers tracks that feature that same four chord progression that’s just so darned catchy these past few decades. That doesn’t mean that people still aren’t making good music elsewhere, and for the record, doesn’t mean that Coldplay can’t still make good music either.
The same reason why I believe the music industry won’t over-saturate itself with garbage is the same reason why I have confidence that video games won’t see an untimely demise. Video games, like music, are an artform and people who are passionate about art will always find ways to push the medium forward. We’ve definitely seen some drop off with current free-to-play trends but we’ve also seen some amazing titles recently like Transistor by Supergiant Games and Child of Light from Ubisoft. And mobile’s not all bad; games like Device 6 and Blizzard’s Hearthstone have made hardcore gamers like Nick Robinson fork over hundreds of dollars for an iPad.
Many developers are growing tired of working on the projects their studio is asking them to make while others have great ideas of their own that they could never convince a big publisher to support. Former Irrational Games employees left the company to form The Fullbright Company, a three person studio. Gone Home was their first project that won over the hearts of many gamers for it’s progressive storytelling and for cleverly using the players own expectations of what a video game should be against them. Funnily enough, Fullbright lost a member who just started his own studio called Dim Bulb Games. In a similar vein, Ken Lavine, creative director of Bioshock Infinite has plans on creating download-only content with a significantly smaller team. So perhaps this is leading to a bigger question: are Indie games the real future of gaming? Who knows, but I wouldn’t doubt it. But we’ll tackle that one another time.