While there are some good tidings in the news that 3100 jobs will be saved thanks to the investment group Opcapita buying a chunk of the GAME Group, the recent turn of events is only the tip of the iceberg in a series of developments that bear a startling resemblance the Hollywood crash of the 1970s.
This news means that 333 stores will remain open, but what it means to the ethos of the chain and its pricing strategy remains to be seen. A victim of digital downloading and high prices (not to mention annoying 19 year old staff who assume that just because you shave you know nothing about games) GAME should have seen it coming.
As we’ve seen already, SEGA is restructuring in advance of what is expected to be a horrifying loss announcement and there is a big feeling within the industry (both by those directly involved and those on the outside) that the current trend towards blockbuster games is set to come to an abrupt end.
Following Hollywood’s heyday of the 1950s during which time such vast epics as Ben Hur and Spartacus vyed for space with impressive sprawling musicals, the 1960s saw a slight decline during which time the big studios found their attempts at success severely reduced as the traditional cinema-going public on both sides of the Atlantic preferred to stay home and enjoy television. So highly was the threat considered that studios refused to allow their films to be broadcast on TV for some years.
We can see a similar shift in habits with the current state of gaming. Whereas a few years ago games were found on consoles (via disc or cartridge) and PCs, the regular business takes place on the mobile market with digital downloading. There are fewer supply chain overheads with digital downloads – the iPhone App Store has made mobile gaming highly popular with aggressive pricing, something repeated on the PC with Steam.
The result of this is many independent gaming studios – often small teams of programmers and graphic designers reminiscent of the pioneering 1980s – biting an ever-growing chunk into the gaming market at one end of the spectrum and huge monolithic entities adopting Hollywood-esque production qualities at the other.
As well as reawakening the legendary gameplay vs graphics debate (and Angry Birds can claim considerable victory over many PC and console titles of recent years) the whole situation is mirroring the studio system’s 1970s decline, a state of affairs that saw entire lots and sound stages sold off so that the likes of MGM and Paramount could focus on distribution, rather than movie making.
While there was the odd big movie in the 1970s that could be compared to those of the 1950s, these were the tip of the iceberg, rare events that the studios put a lot of faith in. Beyond Jaws there were few surprise hits in the 1970s, but the arrival of Star Wars enabled a new business model for movie making – that of cross-media synergy – that enabled an apparent recovery in Hollywood.
But the fact still remains that the big old studios haven’t been studios for 35 years or so. Instead, they manage distribution of movies made by smaller companies, dedicated film studios. This specialization enables those businesses to focus on what they do, from special effects and costume to providing the food for the actors. 70 years ago this would all have been managed under one roof, with immense waste and inefficiency. Since the 1970s, this is more closely managed and budgeted.
So where does this leave the games industry?
Like the big hitting movies of the 1970s, we’re reaching the point of a handful of big games being released each year on the high end platforms. It’s surely an unusual coincidence that one of the most expensive games of recent years was based on the 1970s movie The Godfather, and its sequel.
As FPS games take the high bar set by Half Life 2 and take it firmly into Hollywood territory and with MMORPGs become ever more multi-layered while striving to keep to the largely linear storylines that are available (a discussion for another time) the budgets on video games have become increasingly obscene over the past few years. While the sale price of these titles is set in order to clear these costs, the question has to be asked – are mobile and tablet games any less enjoyable or less playable than Halo or COD?
Hardcore gamers might say yes. Sales say no.
A revolution is due in the gaming industry. We’ve seen the birth pangs of a new dynamic in the last few weeks, and change continues to proceed apace…
(With thanks to James McLean)