The AA-Game

21 03 2011

 It looks like Homefront, the latest FPS foray into speculative future wars, has caused a bit of a stir, but not of the sort that THQ were looking for. Whilst it’s too early to judge its impact yet, the game’s unimpressive critical reception and the subsequent drop of the publisher’s stock price has injected some new vigour into the debate about what I hesitate to call ‘mid-range’ gaming. A recent Eurogamer article used Homefront as its central example in an article entitled ‘Squeezed Middle’, with the tagline ‘Life as a second-tier publisher is no longer tenable’.

Really?

I’ll concede that I’m not an expert, nor am I privy to extensive financial data on the issue, but as a consumer, I’d say things are looking fairly healthy in this sector of the industry. Even to classify it as a single sector is misleading. The author of the Eurogamer article seemed content to use the formula of ‘any title that dares to charge a top-end price for mid-range content’, which to me is a decidedly flawed idea. There are many, many fabulous games out there that will provide for a good deal of gamers more hours of entertainment – and quality entertainment at that – than the latest big blockbuster. I’d hesitate to call something like Civilisation V a triple-AAA game, but no-one would accuse it of providing ‘mid-range content’. The same applies for titles like Alan Wake last year, or the highly-anticipated The Witcher 2 this May. ‘Double-A’ (to use another dubious term) is used too often to denote an imaginary sector including anything in between Call of Duty and Angry Birds.

Thankfully, a little more clarification is made further into the article as to which groups face problems: ‘publishers who have survived largely off mid-range titles and licensed IP…and new companies attempting to break into a full-priced console game market with increasingly high barriers to entry’. Looking at this qualifier, though, I can’t help but wonder whether the author is really talking about an outright danger to these publishers. Instead of proclaiming their doom as the article’s tagline suggests, I’d propose that instead the author is outlining the restricted market mobility and room for manoeuvre that these companies now have to deal with.

The analysis of the Homefront situation in the article is sound, but it is unlikely that it is the beginning of the end for THQ. After all, they’ve also just released the latest in Relic’s Warhammer 40k strategy series, Dawn of War II: Retribution, which as of publication has more players on Steam than Homefront. The latter is obviously more of a console title, but nonetheless it seems fair to say that THQ will ride out any ‘failure’ of Homefront (although it still sold strongly in its first week) and remain a perfectly profitable company with developers like Relic in its portfolio. If this middle-market, the realm of the double-AA game, exists, THQ won’t be forced out of it any time soon: it is far more likely that it will be walled in, prohibited by the strains of expenditure from creating a mega-selling franchise but hardly likely to be condemned for failing to do so.

It’s to be expected that publishers will be ambitious, not content with making steady profits when bundles of cash can be generated from a single successful IP in the vein of, say, Grand Theft Auto, but the emergent trends of the industry seem to point towards a more successful middle-market than to to its failure. The PC is flourishing through downloads rather than dying out and on consoles easy exposure is more readily available on XBLA and PSN. As digital distribution rises, losses to second-hand sales will decrease. Gaming is reaching new audiences, creating markets with massive potential. Development costs are rising, true, but the question of success looks to be more related with smart business practice in finding a market than in the sheer financial burden of production.  This is where Homefront failed: its plan for domination was to be a Call of Duty clone. If any genre is currently saturated, it’s the FPS, and no matter how interesting or unique the Korean-Commie-occupation-of-the-US premise was, the game was not going to break the market by slacking or copying on the gameplay front.

For the gamer, rather than the man from finances, the big question surrounding all these issues is whether innovation will be spurred on or restricted by the increasingly hard-to-crack AAA market. Personally, I’m going for the former. Homefront won’t ruin THQ: it’ll learn its lesson and look for more original ideas if it fancies another go at challenging the big boys. Likewise, other publishers will take on the lesson themselves. In the end, however, I think these lessons will discourage attempts at cracking the big leagues: but I can’t see this doing anything but good to the divisions below.

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