Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The games are different yet the problem still remains....

There is absolutely one thing that's certain about life... uncertainty. We can only truly make guesses and look to former trends to have some insight into how things may play out. Which is why it's incredibly arrogant to assume that despite one franchise's failures another that is being treated somewhat in the same fashion will prove successful because it's less like the former.

I just finished reading an article on Industry Gamers entitled "Call of Duty is NOT the next guitar hero". An article that from the title sounds like it's trying to justify the fact that it's not exactly going to go the way of the former regardless of both titles being heavily marketed (Read: Milked) by Activision for great profit. I'll be posting quotes from said article in order to fully elaborate on why I feel this viewpoint is horribly flawed.

The music genre, led by Guitar Hero and Rock Band, was once one of the top revenue drivers for the games business, fueled by gamers' eagerness to feel like a rock star and rock out to their favorite tunes. As the plastic peripherals suddenly reached a saturation point and gamers got bored with a feature set in iteration after iteration that failed to really innovate, sales started declining precipitously. Following 14 different SKUs in a little over just two years, Activision finally put the Guitar Hero business to rest.

In the days following the big news, there have been countless opinion pieces online, pointing to the fact that Activision milks its franchises to death, and with the doubling down on Call of Duty, that the heralded shooter franchise is next in line to be given the Guitar Hero treatment. And while there's always a risk of franchise fatigue for any publisher's big franchise, labeling Call of Duty as the next Guitar Hero would be a mistake.

The analysts IndustryGamers spoke with universally agreed that these are two very different situations, and Activision doesn't need to "learn" from the recent Guitar Hero outcome. If treated with care, there's no reason that Call of Duty can't last for a long time to come.

I'm somewhat interested in hearing the writer's opinions are on their reasonings. I mean sure, there is additional commentary from various analysts (which we'll be getting to in a second), but as a responsive opinion piece I would like to see why it's a mistake to assume that Activision's yearly installment plan, a plan enacted by Bobby Kotick in all his infinite wisdom, is slowly starting to bear withered fruit. People have already spoke out vocally about this being not so good an idea, and to see the results isn't surprising in the least.

Let's consider two things here; One - Any sequel will show signs of decline with each installment in the series, especially if the sequels are coming out one-after-another.

Two - When companies are forcing out games on a yearly basis, sure developers don't have to do very much considering the engine and sources are readily available, but in the process we're also neglecting the reason why in the past people took time out to craft sequels in the first place. Is there time to adjust the bugs and issues that plagued previous games (apparently not)? are there any improvements and possible innovations being brought to the table? or are we just rehashing similar ideas and only providing new content in smaller doses? 

With music games there were only two major series that were in competition with each other, and that resulted in oversaturation that led us to where we are now. So just imagine that on a larger scale with the level of First Person Shooters out there, and then ask yourselves how this couldn't possibly be the same?

When the term "dirty brown shooter" goes from a meme to an actual descriptor for most of the video games released in a single console generation, there's something clearly wrong, here. And yet, none of the people in power at the moment have any inkling of an idea that perhaps yearly distributing these games could possibly be a bad idea, and is what lead to the shelving of the Guitar Hero Brand, the Tony Hawk Brand, and could be the reason why CoD could have a bleak future.

Let's see what the Analysts have to say about this.

Billy Pidgeon, M2 Research 
Guitar Hero and other former franchises may appear to be publisher failures, but the truth is that strip-mining franchises is a successful, risk-averse strategy. ATVI made good money on GH. Sequels were produced quickly and cheaply. Covering all platforms gleans higher initial retail orders and a single marketing campaign efficiently advertises on top of the network effect of a hot brand. The hit it and quit it model -- carpet-bombing the market with sequels and then slashing the assets -- pays off big in the short term, so ATVI's shareholders are happy. ATVI is learning to execute this strategy with greater efficiency each go-round.

And yet this tactic is eventually teaching consumers to not be able to trust the brand in future iterations, meaning they'll be quite weary of future titles by a certain point, and will look elsewhere for something that would better suited to their time. I wouldn't exactly say that's greater efficiency anymore than using the shotgun technique at a bar or a nightclub makes you a ladies man.

This also seems to mirror the same approach as the aliens in Independance day, IE; find a planet - drain it of it's natural resources - move on to another planet. And so what happens when you run out of properties to do this to, and no one wants to buy any future games because your credibility is shot to hell?

There is an alternate strategy, but it's more risky as it requires careful investment and isn't necessarily as lucrative. Publishers can attempt to keep a franchise going for a longer period of time by spacing out sequels. Sports license franchises can be sustained on a yearly release due to seasonality and keeping stats and rosters current. Other franchises survive longest by spacing out sequels once every two or three years. It is difficult to keep franchises fresh, as developers must improve upon and innovate within gaming fans' mutable comfort zone. In either scenario, the trick is to keep the franchise selling for as long as possible before it (or the developers) burn out. The endgame is always ugly because layoffs are typically involved.

Personally, I tend to favor the notion of extending out sequels over a longer period of time. This means more time to actually figure out what is a better way to improve upon a game, while giving the userbase time to appreciate the previous game for what it does instead of following the bus theory ( wait a while and another one will be around soon). The yearly model is properly suited to Sports games like Madden that change to mirror what's going on in the league, moreso than other types of games (though SNK did alright with the yearly model for their KOF games ). Ultimately I agree that the trick is to keep a particular series relevant in the eyes of it's fans for as long as possible, but there are far better ways of doing so than pumping a game out year after year.

Michael Pachter, Wedbush Securities 
I don't think they are comparable at all. GH is a franchise that people buy once, because the peripherals are great. As it saturated the installed base, the only buyers were people who are new console purchasers, and the "fad" appeared to wear off at the same time. GH was a victim of its own success. 
CoD, on the other hand, has a vibrant online community that keeps growing. When a new version comes out, the "network effect" kicks in, and many people buy it because their friends have done so. The risk to the franchise is competition, not people tiring of the gameplay. If I am wrong about Project Beachhead charging, then they are doing it to establish even greater barriers to entry, and to protect the franchise. 
CoD won't fade unless Activision opens the door to competition by making a bad game.

 Guitar Hero owners only bought the game once... because surely there weren't means of purchasing the sequels on their own instead of in bundle form. (sighs) As much as I dog Activision they aren't stupid. It was made well aware that you shouldn't have to repurchase guitar bundles over and over again, which is why most of the later games were patched to allow you to use any guitar peripheral to keep people interested in buying the games, and not have to rebuy plastic instruments.

Risk in competition instead of gameplay? Burger King and McDonalds sell hamburgers so the draw for them is to find ways to entice people to come to either by way of making a better burger. A similar analogy would be to construct a better game (which includes solid gameplay) to keep players wanting to wait for the next installment. The real question is what happens when the consumer tires of either restaurant and wants a meal the two can't provide?

As companies keep churning out FPSs set in all-too-familiar landscapes people will eventually tire of those games and want something different. The end result of oversaturation of any product is for consumers to turn their backs and move onto something else, so why is it so difficult to believe that CoD could be in jeopardy much like the previous Activision 'franchises' that befell this fate if all of them are only providing more of the same?

David Cole, DFC Intelligence

I really think the situation with COD and GH are hard to compare except for the fact that as a public company there is definite pressure to show a steady revenue generating product line.

With GH it seemed that it was very likely to be a fad that would be milked until it dried out. It was somewhat the same issue as extreme sports and hunting games. FPS games are a long proven genre and thus don't seem to have fallen into that fad issue.
However, there is a very real danger of milking a franchise and causing quality to decline, which can result in turning consumers off. With COD I think the danger is trying to maintain the quality of the franchise and making sure they don't release product just to release product.

With GH I think it was just consumers getting tired of the genre and wasn't necessarily because of quality. So I think really there are not too many lessons to be learned from GH that can apply to COD. With COD it is all about keeping the quality up.

 Even then quality won't save CoD from decline. Maybe it'll extend the game's popularity, but Shooters have reached a saturation point already and can only sustain for so long.

Jesse Divnich, EEDAR 
I still don't believe Activision did anything wrong with Guitar Hero. The entire music category's fate was inevitable, and no single publisher is to blame for its demise. It was an entertainment fad. 
Guitar Hero and Call of Duty are two different franchises with two different demographics. I don't believe any lessons learned from the music category applies to the Call of Duty franchise. I trust that Activision knows what they are doing with Call of Duty and I remain unconcerned about the franchise's future.

 I imagine if a similar fate befalls the latter, this will be inevitable as well. I can't even bring myself to the level of trust that Mr. Divinich has for Acti considering this yearly exploit idea is the reason why GH and Tony Hawk were put on hiatus.

Colin Sebastian, Lazard Capital Markets 
I think music games were a fad - just like fitness games were at one point, and maybe dance games are today. But after years of franchise growth, I wouldn't put Call of Duty in the same category. This is a franchise that has increased in sales every year for the past 6 or 7 years and has consolidated market share in the process. Could Activision mess it up? Sure, but if they focus on maintaining high game quality, fresh story-lines, and online multiplayer, then I don't see an obvious reason for the franchise to decline.

You notice that the constant word used here is "fad" in the regard of one series and yet no one is taking in consideration that the term is interchangable for both?

hence the definition of the word.

A fad, sometimes called a trend, meme or a craze, is any form of behavior that develops among a large population and is collectively followed with enthusiasm for some period, generally as a result of the behavior's being perceived as novel in some way.[1] A fad is said to "catch on" when the number of people adopting it begins to increase rapidly. The behavior will normally fade quickly once the perception of novelty is gone.[1] 
The specific nature of the behavior associated with a fad can be of any type including language usage, apparel, financial investment, and even food. Apart from general novelty, fads may be driven by emotional excitement, peer pressure, or even a desire to be outside social norms (counterculture).[2]  
Though the term trend may be used interchangeably with fad, a fad is generally considered a fleeting behavior whereas a trend is considered to be a behavior that evolves into a relatively permanent change.[3]

FPS games are just as much a fad as music games, as are fitness games, and rhythm based games like Dance Dance Revolution. Any game can be a fad. The knockoff "animals with attitude" platformers of the 90's were a fad, but only because they were trying to capitalize on the success of Sonic the Hedgehog, which was created as an answer to the ever popular Mario games. I shouldn't even have to elaborate on why the Genesis Sonic games and the 2D mario games weren't fads compared to the flood of 16 bit platforming clones.

Mike Hickey, Janco Partners 
For a moment, Guitar Hero captured a collective artery; aggressively rolling in buzz it defined a new video game genre and then rolled over on itself, cementing a generational entertainment fad. Today, the console gamer seems increasingly mega franchise centric, gravitating toward an understood experience that excels from incremental polish, installed base growth and jumbo marketing campaigns; compliments of an aging console cycle and risk averse management teams still reeling from a tremulous economic condition. All entertainment experiences have life cycles; an accelerated cultural burn will likely extinguish the cycle faster than a gradual iteration philosophy. Ultimately, it's the development studio and collective culture that defines greatness, not Wall Street or the executive teams managing toward a linear path of growth.
I feel it's the companies are more franchise centric. Otherwise, they wouldn't be pushing so hard for franchises like in this particular case. Gamers are only interested in interesting games, and would pick up anything so long as it is relevant to their interests. Gamers don't use the term "franchises" as that's more of a business term.  

I agree with the notion that all entertainment experiences has life cycles, as this is a more reasonable viewpoint than "it's a fad". Regardless of it's status in popular culture it's a viable property, and certain steps should be taken to keep it relevant to the needs of it's audience. Though, of all the viewpoints, this is the most reasonable.

when something is proven to be a success, we should at least try to spend ample amounts of time analyzing why this proved to be as such, and then go about finding ways to both improve the series and make it last over a larger period of time. The yearly exploit way of doing things often leads to just assuming your consumer is dumb and will eat up anything that you throw their way just because a particular brand is involved. One way of protecting a series from premature decline and burnout, would be looking to the future with a cautious eye. Harmonix seems to have a better understanding of this, as they only have six series entries instead of 24 expansions and sequels total. 

I'm sure that no matter what, The people in power are going to stay the course and continue to do things their way, because they think that this is going to lead to higher returns. Eventually, though this will only hurt them in the longrun, as well as turn off segments of gamers in the process. Franchise games are one thing, but once you run out of games to exploit then what happens? I guess we'll find out that answer soon enough.

Game on!


  1. Yeah, Mike Hickey seems to be the only one who gets it.

    That's not a good sign for the industry.

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