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Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Games Industry

As game development becomes increasingly expensive, the issue of return on investment (ROI) has become of paramount importance. Notable development studios and publishers have been turning to the prospect of finding incredible profits in business models traditionally used for subscription based games primarily MMOs.

Although some gamers, if not many, protest the new schemes they are beneficial to both the creators and the users in many ways. Let’s start by looking at the business and development point of view.

Using your latest game as a platform for a long term source of profit requires, if embarked upon thoughtfully, an intention to start big and incrementally get bigger. This goes for anything from features to content and, especially, graphics. The ability to scale a game as hardware improves over the lifetime of your game is the key to a successful business venture.


This is a difficult process, as chances are the game being developed has enough unique or at the very least unusual gameplay features that an in-house engine need to be developed.

Valve and Blizzard have invested in engines in this way, Valve with Source which has been used to develop all their titles since 2004 and Blizzard with the engine used for World of Warcraft.

Valve has shown, with Team Fortress 2, it is possible to utilise old, scalable technology to create a profit making platform that keeps players coming back consistently as well as being able to incrementally increase in looks, features and content over time.

If you want to look even closer at Valve’s methods, they managed to connect the release of Half-Life 2 to their digital distribution platform Steam by requiring activation in order to play.

Although this isn't using a game as a platform in the sense I’m talking about, it’s important to note the launch of the largest online game retail platform almost certainly required an initial attachment to a popular title in order to launch.

World of Warcraft is possibly the best example of incremental change in order to continue profit making with a game as a platform title. The hardware available in 2004 when WoW launched was drastically different to that in computers today. The same engine has seen drastic upgrades
without excluding users on either end of the hardware spectrum.

Expansion packs have been the saving grace of World of Warcraft over the years, as they are the simplest and most obvious manner in which to deploy the larger updates to users with a decent price attached for the developer and publisher.

This means engine choice or development is key, and can make or break a game intended to become a platform for long term profits.

On the business side of things, it’s important to be versatile. As we have seen over the past ten years, MMOs in particular have had to change their entire business model based on audience response. An inability to change with the market has spelt doom for many a videogame intended for large, long term player bases.

So how are things changing now ? If Blizzard and Valve have been doing it for years, who is bringing something new ?

Well, to a degree it’s more about genres, these kinds of games and business models are familiar to users when it comes to Massively Multiplayer Online games. We’re not so used to seeing it with First Person Shooters and Real-Time Strategy titles.

Company of Heroes 2 has very obviously become a long term investment for Relic and Sega. It's no longer just a game, and it certainly isn't limited in its ability to increase in scope in the same way its predecessor was.

Company of Heroes 2 is undoubtedly a multiplayer focused title in the same way Blizzard’s Star Craft II was. Certainly both titles feature lengthy single-player content, but Blizzard knows it’s core audience lies in the addictive, highly competitive multiplayer. And now so does Relic.

Company of Heroes 2 features many incentives for playing multiplayer games, and as the first expansion pack for the title, Western Front Armies (which lacks a single player campaign), demonstrates, Relic want players to be focused on multiplayer.

Adding to the game’s status as a content platform, Company of Heroes 2 utilizes user generated content to keep users occupied between larger content deliveries from the developer.

It would be surprising if Relic moved on from Company of Heroes 2 in the next five years there’s simply no reason to. A scalable engine. Constant content increases. Regular unique gameplay experiences due to a multiplayer focus.

It’s a fantastic marriage of legitimately entertaining gameplay and a profit-generating platform for the developer and publisher.

Gearbox are another studio that has viewed a game as a platform. Borderlands 2 has undoubtedly been a cash cow for both the studio and their publisher, 2K.

Although Borderlands 2 doesn't feature user generated content, it does embody the kind of gameplay that hooks players and keeps them playing constantly. And downloadable content in the likes of aesthetic upgrades and new areas to explore makes the title an almost timeless game. Frankly, it’s surprising that Gearbox released a sequel after only two years given the highly upgradable Unreal 3 engine. The studio undoubtedly has toolsets capable of rapidly developing and deploying new content for the game; it’s likely these were used by 2K Australia when they developed the latest iteration in the series.

Despite the release of Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel, I think gamers and Gearbox know most of us will be continuing with Borderlands 2 for a long time to come. It’s not that the game is any worse (and this writer hasn't explored the new title, by the way) it’s just that Borderlands 2 is a platform. It’s the game we already have and play, and want more content for.

Star Citizen is an example of a title that will be released using an almost infinitely upgradable game engine (CryEngine 3.0). It’s been clear since the Kickstarter turned into the phenomenon that redefined Chris Roberts’ intentions from what was possible to the game he’d always dreamed of that it will almost never stop growing. The store for ships plugs in to a game that is destined to become a core profit vehicle for Roberts and company, and could very well be the last game he ever develops because it will never stop developing or making money.

It’s arguable that Kerbal Space Program follows the same model, and it is entirely plausible we could one day see an Elder Scrolls or Fallout game that lasts virtually forever by incorporating the UGC approach to the Steam version of Skyrim.

The final question, I suppose, is why is this good for gamers? Well, we can be quite the cynical bunch. And it seems some people will never be happy or understand that game development is, in the end, a business and compromises must be made. For everything in project development there’s a trade-off.

If you’re interested in gameplay it’s fairly easy to surmise that games as a platform is indeed beneficial. It is likely the trade off to long term existence is a tendency to trail behind the graphics trends, or stylise until it doesn't matter (WoW and Borderlands?).

However, if you love that one game you keep coming back to it’s likely the developer and publisher know it’s that good. And if they know, chances are they want to find the most cost-effective way to keep you satisfied, entertained and forever entertained.

Personally, I find that prospect incredibly exciting!

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