Page last updated at 12:13 GMT, Monday, 2 November 2009

Video games go a sequel too far

Rockband and other games in the shops
It is time for a little more innovation in the games industry, says David Jenkins

VIEWPOINT
David Jenkins
Games journalist

2009 has not been a good year for video games. Like any other industry gaming has been hit hard by the recession, but at the same time it has struggled to offer the usual quantity and quality of new releases.

Sequels to previously dominant franchises are beginning to show signs of exhaustion - and games publishers are struggling to rejuvenate or replace them.

In America, the only major market where figures are released on a regular basis, September's sales were the first for six months that did not decline compared to 2008.

Industry analysts fear that total revenues for the US market this year could be down by more then one billion dollars, compared to 2008's final tally of $21.3bn (£13bn).

However, since most video games take at least a year to create the recession alone cannot be blamed for the suddenly emaciated release schedules. Nor the fact that they are devoid of almost anything that is not a direct sequel or spin-off from another title.

Sequel syndrome

Halo 3: ODST
Underwhelmed by Halo 3: ODST?

The sequel is the mainstay of any creative industry but the problem is that this year's crop of video game follow-ups appears to be underperforming.

Halo 3: ODST is a spin-off rather than a true sequel but its critical and commercial success has, by the series' usual standards, been underwhelming - with only a single week at the UK number one spot.

Guitar Hero 5 never even fared that well in the individual format charts, while rival The Beatles: Rock Band was something close to a genuine flop.

The latest Need For Speed, which once saw the Christmas top spot as a given, has also failed to set the charts alight - despite a high profile makeover.

Only forthcoming first person shoot 'em-up Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 - the reason for many other games' craven retreat into next year - is expected to shine undiminished.

None of these other games have been sales disasters, but where previously a new entry in a beloved franchise was a keenly anticipated event, that occurred only every two or three years, new games are now appearing at least once every 12 months.

"There are few games that people really want to buy every year," says Michael Pachter, research analyst at Wedbush Securities. "So annual franchises probably have a user base of two or three times annual sales, with most people buying the game every other year."

"When a recession hits, it's easy to pass up a game that the consumer knows is coming out again the next year.

"This was the undoing of Tony Hawk, probably contributed to declining Guitar Hero sales, and most certainly explains the lack of growth for many EA sports franchises," adds Mr Pachter.

Development drivers

It is not simple greed which is leading some of these franchises to be overexploited though; the risk of releasing a wholly original product has now become almost untenable for many publishers.

Although the graphical fidelity of video games increases with each generation of new games console, it takes increasingly more people and resources to utilise the power of the new machines.

Truly creative games that don't rely on shock value or riding some other successful title's coattails can be innovative and successful
Jeremiah Slaczka, 5TH Cell

In this current generation a tipping point has been reached where some games development has become almost prohibitively expensive.

"The higher cost of game development dictates that risky projects be abandoned," says Mr Pachter.

"That means fewer new titles, and many more sequels. In their zeal to recapture their development investment, publishers have tended to over-exploit sequels."

Increasingly original titles are only being seen on formats with lower overheads, such as download services (which cut out the percentage of the revenue pie usually given to retailers) and lower tech devices such as the Nintendo DS.

"It's very hard to get publishers interested in original products", says Jeremiah Slaczka, creative director at US developer 5TH Cell.

Self-funding

"For us it's getting easier, because publishers look at our track record of producing hit original games. But for the industry as a whole, it's very difficult, especially for new companies or companies with no background in original games."

"The biggest impact due to the rising cost of game development is self-funding, we self-funded Scribblenauts, we're self-funding our Xbox Live Arcade title," he adds.

Screengrab from Scribblenauts, Warner
Words influence pictures in 5TH Cell's Scribblenauts

"It's impossible for us at this stage to fully self-fund a full retail console game, so we're slowly building up to that."

It's a plan that seems to be working with Scribblenauts - a DS game in which you can instantly conjure any object you can think of into the game world simply by writing its name - being picked up by Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment.

"We want to show that sequels and especially clones of popular games like Halo or Grand Theft Auto aren't the only avenue for success," says Mr Slaczka.

"Truly creative games that don't rely on shock value or riding some other successful title's coattails can be innovative and successful. If we prove the model, then others are sure to follow."

Perhaps 2010 will prove him right, especially as Michael Pachter also seems confident that this year's output will prove an exception rather than a new rule.

"So long as there is a profit to be had, there will be new intellectual properties", he says. "I don't see any danger to new games, especially if they can spawn sequels."



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