Looking at the situation in console video games right now, I feel there are eerie similarities to the time of “the great video game crash” of 1984.
Back then, we had a glut of games, clearly overwhelming the consumer, leading to less-than-expected sales. Just last year, we experienced a similar glut. Granted, it was a glut of high-quality titles. But even bloggers dedicated to gaming felt overwhelmed by the flood of it.
Back in ’84, we relied on a marketing gimmick to sell more – license of other IPs. Culminating in the now-famous ET game. These days, we instead license ourselves and produce sequels. But ultimately, we seem to be in a situation where pure merit doesn’t seem to be enough. Many critically acclaimed games from last year just couldn’t pull in enough sales if they didn’t have prior name recognition.
But even more importantly, back then the industry failed to see a new and coming trend for what it was – personal computers. It was the beginning of the heyday of the Sinclair, the C64, the BBC. And I think the industry is again failing to see a trend. At least the “old guard” is. We’re still producing first-person shooters, racing games, strategy games, etc., with a never-ending quest for graphic realism.
Meanwhile, the market shifted below our feet. Those games are becoming a niche market. What really sells are easily accessible games, things you can just jump in, have fun with, and be done after 15 minutes. Looking at the weekly charts right now, 4 in the top 5 and 6 (maybe 7, depending on how you count Super Mario Bros.) in the top 10 are this kind of games. Think that’s just a glitch at the top? 11 in the top 20. 14 in the top 30.
Even worse, #46 (Mario Party 8) has 6.3M sales. The three “traditional” games in the top 10 together just barely approach this number. And they contain two games that have almost cult status – Left4Dead (for its unique gameplay) and Call of Duty, a long-running and well-loved franchise.
So not only do these games take up half the spots in the sales charts, they outsell traditional games by a factor that’s not even close to funny. The first one on the list that you can’t disqualify by saying “but it’s a bundle”, Mario Kart 4, sold fourteen million copies. Grand Theft Auto IV, probably the biggest seller of last year, only manages 11. Meanwhile, Nintedogs sold 22 million copies.
And, like back in ’84, the thriving market has a low barrier to entry. Back then, with the PC surge, everybody could just buy a PC and write a game for it, while the console manufacturers closely guarded their secrets. Right now, traditional games have enormous development cost. GTA IV cost $100 Million. Meanwhile, the new crop of games is dirt cheap to create (in comparison), and they can be created rapidly, allowing for experimentation. (Brain Age took about 90 days for a prototype). Furthermore, DS development is easy to get started at home (It’s not exactly officially approved, though), and even the Wii is much less expensive to develop for than the XBox360 or the PS3.
And funnily enough, as it was in ’84, so it shall be in ’08 – while the rest of the industry struggles, Nintendo cleans up. They currently – with the DS and the Wii – cover about 60% of the console market.
Does that mean “traditional games” are dead? No, certainly not. Neither did the console video games die in ’84. But we need to rethink our approach to them, just as we did then. What we’re currently doing seems to be not working well enough. And it’s not going to work better if we just repeat the mistakes often enough.