One of the biggest trends in gaming over the past few years has been the rise of the indie. With the advent of digital distribution and platforms like Steam, smaller developers have found it easier to sell their titles than ever before. This has introduced a hitherto unseen level of diversity into the industry; gamers now have more choice about how to spend their entertainment budget, which means that their entertainment dollars are being spread thinner. Mobile and social games also increase the number of options for entertainment. At the same time, the number of people playing video games has stagnated, so new money isn’t flooding the industry, but budgets on AAA titles have skyrocketed into the tens of millions of dollars. This situation isn’t sustainable. But there may be a solution: the video game industry needs to be more like the TV industry.
The television industry has found itself in a similar situation to video games. With the advent of DVRs and online viewing, the number of people watching network television live has decreased. Fewer eyeballs means lower ad rates, which means less revenue for networks. At the same time, cable TV has become a staple of many North American households, opening up viewing possibilities that steal even more eyeballs away from the major networks. The televisual equivalent of indie games, public access or local television, isn’t a significant player here, but the basic idea is the same: an increased number of entertainment possibilities, coupled with a stagnating or dwindling audience, has resulted in declining revenues for major publishers and major networks.
Diversity in entertainment is a good idea, because it gives people more options and exposes them to more ideas, but it does mean that niche TV shows and games with large budgets are a thing of the past; they simply can’t garner enough viewers or players. Meanwhile, the most popular cop shows and multi-camera sitcoms, like NCIS and The Big Bang Theory continue to achieve record ratings, and recently, Call of Duty: Black Ops II broke pre-order records. The most popular game franchises can still be commercial juggernauts. Audiences not looking for those experiences have to turned to cable TV and indie games, respectively.
But why did the television-viewing public turn to cable instead of some sort of “independent” television? That’s because cable television has allowed programmes that can’t be found on network television to flourish on semi-respectable budgets. Sure, they’re not working with network money, but it’s enough to turn out a well-made show. Publishers in the video game industry could follow a similar model. There has been an increasing polarization in the gaming industry, with skyrocketing AAA budgets making the biggest games even bigger and indie titles occupying the other end of the budget spectrum. But there’s nothing in the middle, akin to cable television, and that’s where publishers should step in. The industry should start creating “AA” games.
With budgets between those of AAA games and indie titles, developers wouldn’t be able to create anything massive, but they’d at least have some latitude to create games that don’t feel restricted. Genres that haven’t received much attention in the past few years because of limited audience size, like 3D platformers and real-time strategy games, could thrive in this space. With smaller budgets, AA games wouldn’t need to reach such a massive audience in order to be profitable. Moreover, these smaller budgets would present smaller financial risks for publishers, so they would be free take larger creative risks. AA games could be priced at $30 to $40 instead of the typical $50 to $60, making them more attractive to budget-conscious gamers. And just like how cable TV seasons are typically shorter than network TV seasons (approximately 13 episodes vs. approximately 22 episodes), they could have shorter campaign lengths than AAA games, say 6 to 9 hours versus 12 to 15 hours.
It’s great that there is a larger diversity of ideas in gaming than ever before. But a diversity of ideas requires a diversity of corresponding budgets. Filling the space between indie and AAA could be beneficial for players of oft-ignored game genres, as well as to the long-term health of the gaming industry.