The 4th Wall: The Root of All Evil

Last week, 38 Studios and Big Huge Games instituted a company-wide lay-off.  Their big game, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, didn’t sell quite as well as they needed it to.  These are real people who were laid off.  People with mortgages.  People with children.  One game doesn’t sell and these people lose their income.  It’s a frightening thought that money has this much power over our lives.  Video games are a fantastic hobby to have.  But, it’s easy to forget that behind the entertainment is business.  And when business gets in the way, everyone suffers.

One problem video games face is that with each generation, games are becoming more cinematic.  Game development can easily rival a Hollywood film nowadays.  When the industry started out, there were maybe a handful of people working on a game’s development.  Now, the credits at the end of games can roll on for 15 minutes.  In the quest to become more like Hollywood, gaming companies tend to overreach, as seems to have been the situation with 38 Studios and KOA: Reckoning.  The story was written by acclaimed fantasy writer R. R. Salvatore.  Todd McFarlene had a hand in creating the world.  It seemed that the developers were hoping that big names would draw big profits.  The problem there is that big names require big paychecks too.  As a business, developers need to have financial responsibility, and these additions came at too great a cost for 38 Studios.  They have peoples’ lives in their hands and over reaching on the production values can hurt not just their bottom line, but also the families of those in their employ.

Another issue I find where the involvement of money in gaming becomes problematic is the endless slew of sequels.  For years, instrument-based games were released at an alarming rate.  They sold well for a long time.  Guitar Hero and Rock Band were kings in the gaming world.  Then gamers got tired of the endless slew of these similar titles.  It was apparent very little was being done to make the games new and fresh.  Every release was a quick cash in.  And with each of these releases, the demand for music based games-as well as storage space in the living spaces of gamers-dwindled.  The instrument-based music game genre is all but dead now, bludgeoned into submission by its creators.

This trend is apparent in other areas of gaming as well.  Assassins Creed has seen a yearly console release over 4 games with another coming out near the end of this year.  I enjoy this series, but hope that UbiSoft gives it a break before they ruin it.  Call of Duty is another series that launches new versions yearly and risks  over-saturating the market.  However, since these games sell, developers will continue to churn them out, and continue to do so until they’ve exhausted the content.  As a Cubs fan, I think I have an analogy that fits this particular point.  Even though the Cubs are in last place, the stadium is always packed.  Because of this, the club has no real reason to try to improve.  If fans stop going to the games, then the club is forced to make a change.  Until that happens, we may have to wait another century before seeing a World Series win.

As Notorious B.I.G. put it, “Mo’ money, Mo’ problems.”  The same holds true for the gaming industry.  The world economy is a very fragile thing right now.  Game companies all want that big hit, but they risk a lot when they over-reach financially.  Sometimes, they’ll find that big hit and beat it until it’s dead.  In the end, because of money, we gamers have to deal with yearly releases with meager updates  or the loss of potentially great games because a company went beyond its means.  It’s a shame money has this much power over us and the things we love.

-The 4th Wall is an imaginary barrier that separates a particular medium from its audience.  It is also a weekly column on Vagary.tv born from the Just In Bailey column, written by Joey Alesia.  Each week, Joey looks at video games and the industry as a whole and works to break the 4th Wall armed with over 25 years of gaming knowledge and a twisted sense of humor.  Be sure to follow Joey on Twitter (@wrkngclsswrtr) or email him at Joey.Alesia@Vagary.tv.

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Author: Joey Alesia View all posts by
Joey's adventure into the realm of video games began at 3 when Nintendo first hit the West. He grew up a Nintendo fan and ended up branching out to Playstation when FF7 hit and XBox when Oblivion hit the 360. He's not huge on first person shooters or sports games but definitely enjoys a good RPG or survival horror game. His all-time favorite series is definitely The Legend of Zelda, followed extremely closely by Metal Gear. Joey has a firm belief that games should be treated with respect when they are made and that the classics should never be overlooked.
  • Napoleon1066

    Why on earth would Activision stop releasing Call of Duty every year? It’s a yearly release because people keep buying it. You may be against it on principle, but frankly, gaming is big business, and when doing X makes a company hundreds of millions of dollars, they’re probably not going to stop. I tire of this argument. There is no logical reason why they would ever stop doing it this way.

    What’s unfortunate about the whole 38 Studios misadventure is that Kingdoms of Amalur was an excellent game that did not sell nearly enough copies to keep the company afloat. 1.2 million wasn’t nearly enough copies (apparently they needed to sell 4 million to break even on the project). To sell like that these days you need to have to be a well established franchise, or be made by an extremely beloved (Blizzard, Bioware and the like) developer. The entire project, while laudable, was based on a flawed understanding. R.A. Salvator and Todd Macfarland are wonderful creators, but those names are likely only to suck money, not sell games. No one cares if the lead dev from Elder Scrolls is on the project- people who care about that sort of thing buy every game anyway. Name recognition is wonderful, but unless a title like Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning already means something to the consumer, they’re never going to pick up the box.

    You’re right that every game need not be a blockbuster. I don’t think anyone in the industry labors under the delusion that every game needs a $60 million budget and a $100 million marketing campaign. There are some smaller developers out there making solid mid-range titles and doing quite well. Poorly run companies making awful financial decisions are going to be run out of any market, video gaming or not. Let’s not project their weakness over the industry as a whole. At a time when the number 2 game on the XBL charts is a unique effort from a small developer (Minecraft), let’s not focus all of our attention on another small developer that over-reached and imploded.

  • Chris Scott

    Gross mismanagement and millions, upon millions, of dollars spent developing a product that had no actual release in sight (Capurnicus) is the reason 38 Studios folded as such. Reckoning not selling “well” enough was just an added nail in the coffin. Its a shame that this had to happen but ultimately the games industry is a business and business is often times dirty. My heart goes out to those employees that lost their jobs but this sort of thing is not anything new in a world run by economics.

  • Jeremy Goodson

    Thought you’d like to see this if you haven’t yet. Pretty much what everyone saw happening, but no one would step up to confirm in time.

    http://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/169444/38_Studios_Downfall_The_Gamasutra_Report.php