To find out how discombobulated the videogame industry is these days, ask gamemakers what they think of their business. You’ll set off feelings of exuberance over how many people are playing, thanks to a variety of digital platforms — and frustration that the bottom line is dictating what titles get the greenlight.
Sound familiar, filmmakers?
Game publishers have managed the concept of franchises as well as any major Hollywood studio — perhaps better — with multiple teams working on sequels simultaneously so that a new iteration could be released annually. They’ve even embraced the reboot, with a younger Lara Croft refreshing “Tomb Raider,” and they know how to build up demand, too: RockStar’s “Grand Theft Auto V” was a billion-dollar hit in 2013 in part because five years had passed since the previous game’s release.
But franchise fever is taking a toll on creatives’ well-being. To keep such mega-successes humming, massive teams have been assembled to produce new levels in a seemingly endless stream of downloadable content. The point is to keep the games out of the “used” sections of GameStop stores and to monetize every digital platform from smartphones to next-gen consoles.
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Ken Levine, creator of Take-Two Interactive’s “BioShock” franchise, shocked the biz when he announced on Feb. 18 he would shutter Irrational Games and return to the way he started: with “a small team making games for the core gaming audience.”
Expect more shocks to come.
“It’s crazy out there,” says Shannon Studstill, founder and head of Sony Santa Monica. “The amount of investment people are putting into these IPs is amazing.”
Amazing but daunting at the same time for Studstill, who struggles with the expectations of the consumer. “Are they expecting endless gameplay or can they accept a high-quality nine-hour story-driven, character-driven experience?”
With so much on the line, losing a bit of the creative layer, as Studstill puts it, was always inevitable. When a small Finnish company like Rovio can launch “Angry Birds” and compete with anything from Activision or EA, all gamemakers wind up on a level playing field. The need to try something new doesn’t come as a surprise; the industry is encouraging it.
Over the past two years, the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences has awarded game of the year honors to thatgamecompany’s “Journey,” centered on walking and exploring desolate environments; and Naughty Dog’s thriller “The Last of Us,” in which character development and narrative heft are more important than blasting bad guys.
Both were risky projects that broke new ground in storytelling in their scripts and with their visuals. Hollywood sorely needs a similar injection of originality.
“Greatness is often built on failure,” Studstill says. “You learn from that and build on that.”
That’s a startling comment from someone who runs the large game studio behind hits like the “God of War” franchise, an exclusive series for Sony and a reason why some gamers buy a PlayStation. But it’s also refreshing that leaders in the games biz have the itch to innovate again — to do what got them into the industry in the first place. They don’t want games to become as corporate as movies now are in Hollywood. Creativity is the main attraction for them, not the ancillary toys or T-shirts.
Levine is ready to turn his back on the sure thing. When he co-founded Irrational 17 years ago, he said that making visually unique worlds and populating them with singular characters was his mission. “In that time, Irrational has grown larger and more successful than we could have conceived,” he wrote on his blog, adding that “BioShock” has become “the defining project of my professional life.”
Only time will tell if people like Studstill and Levine can succeed at going back to their roots and launching new hits that gamers embrace.
If they can, one thing’s certain: They shouldn’t be surprised if publishers come around and ask for ideas for a sequel.