Sunday, April 10, 2005

Nashing for money

Greg Costikan, a respect veteran game maker, delivered an incredible rant at the Game Developer Conference in which he complained of how the game industry is killing itself, despite record revenues since the home game console was introduced more than a quarter century years ago. He vents that publishers have become too cautious and risk-averse to seek out new ideas that are the engine of any creative process. With rising costs associated with new platforms and technology, publishers seek out only the safest and most secure projects, which often means licensing deals from Hollywood or major professional sports leagues and associations. What the industry needs, says Costikan, are a few courageous publishers or other investors to fund independent developers that will try out new kinds of game projects.

However, where Costikan fails is that he asks the wrong question. Not, why aren't risky projects funded more often, but rather where is there a source of cheap, market proven ideas to test out new games? Here is where most companies go astray and do not follow the independent film model. Most publishers pay through the nose for a license whether that be a Harry Potter or the NFL. This is akin to a studio paying Bruce Willis to star in another Die Hard movie, rather than recruiting him to star in the independent Pulp Fiction. Yet, the producers of Pulp fiction did not have to pay Willis millions of dollars to land him for there picture. Rather for stars like him they might negotiate a percentage of the gross, making the film affordable to produce for the type of movie it is.

Video games are rarely able to negotiate such an agreement because most of their costs are tied up in developing the game itself, not paying an exorbitant amount to any one person. Therefore publishers and developers have to find sources of cheap IP to exploit. Unfortunately modern American culture has few sources of ideas that can be had for a song and yet attract a dedicated following of fans who are in the market for games. When something does become popular like Harry Potter the license often becomes too expensive for an independent game company to make a bid. What is left is a hodgepodge of ideas which have an itinerant fan base and that often have no angle to be developed into games.

Should we look to the land of the rising sun for inspiration? Perhaps.