Anyone with even a passing knowledge of the mainstream gaming market will be aware of the complaints that have been circulating over the last couple of years. The seemingly constant focus on pre-ordering, franchise milking, and the shoe-horning of DLC at the expense of actual creativity has many pining for the ‘old days’ where a game made by a large publisher was a finished article rather than a vehicle for squeezing money out of the customer. For an industry that often struggles to define itself as an art form on par with mediums like literature and film, this focus on profit and lack of prominent innovation and fresh content by releasing the same franchises every year (FIFA and Call of Duty anyone?) has a tendency to warp public perception of gaming as a casual past-time with very little artistic merit. With the most prominent titles on the market being re-hashes of first-person shooters and sport games with mildly different players appearing each year, this is unsurprising and only really serves to alienate the wider public from the gaming community and frustrates those of us who actually appreciate the creative potential of gaming. This situation therefore raises the question of why large gaming publishers are so limited in their creative scope, particularly in the last 5 years of development.
The answer to this issue is ultimately based upon the balance of business strategy with creative flexibility that a studio affords its development teams. It seems that as certain publishers have grown in size, the balance has tipped overly towards maintaining profit at the expense of any deviation from what is already market tested. Focus groups and market trends are now having a greater effect on the creative process than imagination and organic creativity. While adopting products to suit market conditions or trends is a staple tactic of business, within the creative sphere this strategy, while maintaining profitability in the short term, can quickly cause stagnation and restrict product diversity. At this point, mainstream publishers like Electronic Arts, rather than acknowledging a creative vacuum in their products, have instead decided to both double down on the production of repetitive titles while also attempting to corner content delivery markets with platforms such as Origin serving as a way of locking the consumer into a format that ultimately delivers consistent profit to the corporation with little creative effort. Valve, despite its reputation for stellar products, is also guilty of this, with Steam now forming the bulk of its business operation with its last new (i.e. non-sequel) creative effort being Left 4 Dead in 2008.
The focus on mass markets and content delivery control can also be linked to the growth of the indie development sector and its reputation as the only remaining bastion of creative originality. Mass marketing towards the lowest common denominator is also becoming less of an integral factor as the online environment allows for more effective targeting of niche audiences with a diverse product range as opposed to a generalized product that must avoid any form of controversial elements in order to attract a wide consumer base (unless it is famous for such content a la Grand Theft Auto). Yet the large publishers continue to resist this trend, instead choosing to rely on cornering the market with generic, ‘safe’ products. In other words, tactics that would most likely work in any other business environment outside of creative media. The main issue is that while AAA titles cannot be visually replicated easily, game mechanics, innovative gameplay and environments can often be designed and created by much smaller development teams and still achieve widespread market exposure through new media channels such as YouTube and various social networks. Therefore, issuing re-skins of Call of Duty, FIFA and Battlefield every year will only work for as long as the indie sector lacks the software to replicate AAA quality, a situation that decreases as technology advances. Apple may be able to squeeze out smaller competition in hardware markets, but EA cannot stop an indie developer from making a better FPS than Battlefield as there is no real intellectual property available to them outside of branding.
Despite what seems like the inevitable cycle of AAA developers issuing the same stale franchises every year with the strategy of mass appeal taking center stage over any form of creative diversity, the process will most likely degrade in returns as both the gaming market develops and technology progresses. The advent of online media exposure, crowdfunding and community frustration with DLC and season pass financing tactics will most likely force large developers to diversify their creative offerings rather than trying to milk a large, generic audience. This will require a move away from traditional business and marketing tactics in favor of those more suited to creative industries, perhaps improving the reputation of games as an interactive art form rather than purely entertainment products. After all, would Marvel have the literary and film clout it has now if all they ever made was The Fantastic Four? Let’s just say that AAA developers risk their franchises becoming the The Fantastic Four of gaming titles, continually attempting to make it popular but ending up covering lackluster content with a shiny coat of paint.