The Lost Gen­er­a­tion

Some once-suc­cess­ful de­vel­op­ers can’t achieve sales suc­cess th­ese days, no mat­ter how hard they try...

PCPOWERPLAY - - Opinion -

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.

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