The Lost Generation
Some once-successful developers can’t achieve sales success these days, no matter how hard they try...
If you release a game it will probably fail. Advertising doesn’t matter, word of mouth doesn’t matter, quality doesn’t matter, innovation doesn’t matter. Even reputation doesn’t matter. Introversion sold millions of copies of Prison Architect. Their follow-up game, Scanner Sombre, was a disaster – they joked that it sold a mere five copies. Obviously, this was an exaggeration. SteamCharts.com clearly shows that as many as 157 people were playing it at launch. That number diminished steadily for the following month, and today at any given time you’ll typically find as many as one person playing – maybe even two.
The Free-To-Play business model is not a silver bullet; this has been proven beyond all doubt by the ongoing failure of Battleborn. The launch of a ‘Free Trial’ version sparked a brief flurry of interest, and then player numbers once more plummeted into double digits. If you logged on to the PC version this August, depending on the time of day you might have found as few as 32 people in the entire world playing Randy Pitchford’s Hobby-Grade Magnum Opus.
Mass Effect: Andromeda also launched a ‘Free Trial’ version, but any interest generated by this venture was negligible. There were a few small post-launch updates to fix some of the more glaring animation errors, but BioWare has now announced that all further development on the game has ceased. The Andromeda story will only continue in the form of novels and comic books. BioWare has been reduced to cranking out fan-fiction of their own creations.
BioWare has been reduced to cranking out fan-fiction of their own creations
Nostalgia alone has little selling power. SteamCharts.com shows that in August Micro Machines World Series never had more that 13 players online at once. For long stretches the number of players would dip down to just one. Who was that poor soul? A child, trying to enjoy a gift from his loving but clueless parents? Or an adult, trying to live in the ‘90s for just a little bit longer? Maybe he could get a game going by gifting a copy to a Scanner Sombre player; there are clearly a lot of lonely people in this world.
Does rock star swagger automatically translate into sales success? Nope. Log on to Cliffy B.’s LawBreakers during peak gaming hours in Australia and you’ll find fewer than 500 players online. Enough to get into a match without an interminable wait, but possibly not enough whales to warrant the ongoing existence of 65-person development studio.
Frankly, the data revealed by SteamCharts.com is so humiliating, and so entertaining, that I imagine that it’s only a matter of time before some games industry peak body lobbies to have the site taken down. They might have a case. If someone can easily see just how few people are playing a failed online shooter, he will be far less likely to buy it.
How do you explain this status quo? How do you explain a world where once successful developers can suffer such humiliation? One factor is that sufficiently popular games simply refuse to die. After EA switched off the server for Battlefield 2142 the fans created their own. A Frankenstein game like Space Station 13 endures because it delivers an experience you can’t get anywhere else. Games aren’t produce; they don’t rot. If the player base wants to keep something alive, they’ll find a way. And if someone is still playing, say, Shogo: Mobile Armor Division, he’ll be a tad less likely to pay full price for Agents of Mayhem.
In America there’s a lot of discussion about the notion of a ‘Universal Basic Income.’ With so many jobs being claimed by economies of scale, globalism, and automation, it has been asserted that ‘U.B.I.’ could be a salve for the resulting social unrest. The name is new, but the concept isn’t – the ‘dole’ has been tested quite thoroughly in the UK. It may stop people from starving to death, but its toll on the human spirit is ghastly.
Up until now it has been assumed that U.B.I. would only be relevant for unemployed factory workers and the like. But an increasingly merciless marketplace will put ever-greater numbers of village code-wrights and mod-smiths out of work.
Perhaps some manner of pannational organisation could take in all those poor under-employed devs, and provide for them a sheltered workshop. A place where they could make fair-to-middling games year in, year out, with nary a care as whether anyone will ever buy, play, or enjoy them. Perhaps U.B.I. Software is the future...
James Cottee is still online if anyone wants to play Micro Machines with him.