Budget inflation threatens AAA
Solid results from EA and Activision is good news for the industry, but the size of Destiny's budget is a black cloud on the horizon
It became apparent many years ago that much of the games industry's future growth was going to come from new markets; new platforms, new demographics and new business models. Right from the outset, that undeniable reality has been hanging over the industry's formerly dominant companies like Edgar Allan Poe's slowly descending pendulum blade. Most senior people in any business like this know, or at least think they know, how this part of the innovator's dilemma works; it means that the companies most successful in the old paradigm hang on for too long, too afraid of damaging their doomed old businesses to really push forward with new ideas, eventually being rendered obsolete by new, hungry firms with no stake in the old order of things to hold them back.
Lots of commentators see that happening to Nintendo right now. The company that effectively invented the modern console is so tied to the old model (which served it superbly with the Wii and DS, and continues to serve well on the 3DS) that it can't let go, and will be outpaced by innovative new companies with no console fiefdom to defend. I don't entirely agree; Nintendo is certainly conservative, but I don't think it's bound so much by the innovator's dilemma as by a sense of long-termism that makes it deeply suspicious of possibly faddish trends. That suspicion could sink the company, or keep it swimming for a very long time; anyone claiming to know for sure how this plays out is welcome to email me next week's lottery numbers while they're at it.
"For all the dextrous footwork in their business planning, both companies can equally put their success at present down to a much more straightforward factor: fantastic core games"
After all, it's not so long since plenty of other games companies were posited as dinosaurs who were about to be rendered extinct by the impact of new business models and technologies. Certainly, a fair few publishers have foundered in recent years, largely crushed by the implosion of the sub-AAA console space, but this week saw a twist to the narrative for the industry's two largest publishers. Electronic Arts and Activision Blizzard announced their financial results in quick succession; both firms significantly exceeded market expectations. You wouldn't call either set of figures amazing, but there were few holes to be picked; they were solid figures, reflecting good, sustainable and growing businesses.
Part of that is down to flexibility. The two firms have leapt over the industry's long and tortuous transition period in very different ways. EA embarked upon a long-term restructuring program under former boss John Riccitiello, ensuring that it would have a strong presence in new mobile and social gaming markets while retaining its powerful core franchises. Activision, on the other hand, doubled down on core gaming before branching out into the social and mobile spaces from that stronghold. You could reasonably posit that Activision is now stronger in the core space, and EA stronger in the new markets, but the reality is that both companies have ended up in broadly the same place, albeit through different routes, and both look very different to how they looked five years ago.
All the same, for all the dextrous footwork in their business planning, both companies can equally put their success at present down to a much more straightforward factor: fantastic core games. EA's revenue was driven strongly by Titanfall, and positive forecasts for the coming year are thought to be largely based on forthcoming updates to the Battlefield franchise. Activision's strong financial backbone is Blizzard, which continues to generate mountains of money from World of Warcraft (slowly declining, but still bigger than any MMO in history) and Diablo. Call of Duty and Skylanders are its other cash cows; its big hope for next year is Destiny, the new title from Halo creators Bungie.
These core franchises are not immune from the lure of new business models, and nor should they be. Activision, for instance, has high hopes for free-to-play mechanisms in its new Blizzard title, Hearthstone, and its forthcoming version of Call of Duty for the Chinese market. Yet most of the money coming from these games and services is in the form of up-front purchases or subscriptions. The introduction of new business models hasn't killed off the old ones, it seems; plenty of consumers still prefer the traditional way of doing things, and are happy to pour money into it. EA and Activision have both made errors of judgment regarding which business model best suits which product in the past, and will do so again in the future, no doubt, but both firms recognise that the new models are additional options, not straight-up replacements, for the old way of doing things.
In that regard, although it's just a single quarter's data points, the positive results for these two leading publishers (and the stock market rally which followed) are good news for the industry overall. It's been my thesis for some time that the market for core games is not in any kind of decline at all, but merely seems thus because of a combination of rapid growth elsewhere (which overshadows the now slow-but-steady growth of the much more mature core sector) and the obfuscation of revenues due to the digital transition. I suggest that EA and Activision's results are further confirmation of that hypothesis; at the very least, even if they're far from being "proof", they're good news for those whose businesses or careers are still pinned to the core sector and its traditional (but evolving!) business models.
"If budgets do soar in this direction and consumers decide that this level of investment is what "AAA games" ought to be, then AAA games will contract to an even smaller subset of what they already are"
Which is not to say that there was no shadow cast by this week's financial announcements. If you didn't raise your eyebrows at Activision's admission that Destiny's development and launch is going to cost around $500 million, then you're either a lot wealthier than most people, or a lot worse at processing very large numbers than most people. For all the talk and worry among core gamers and the developers who serve them about the rise of mobile, social and F2P, I can't help but feel that the only real threat to AAA gaming right now is not external at all. It's in this kind of madness, half-billion dollar gambles on single AAA titles, that the seeds of AAA's own destruction may lie.
Sure, Destiny isn't going to cost half a billion to develop; much of that money will go to the marketing budget and the expensive infrastructure required for the game, no doubt. Yet such specifics barely matter. Activision is making a half-billion-dollar punt on the game, and that in itself is inherently destructive. Imagine being a manager or creative at almost any level within such a project. Creative projects are inherently risky; nobody truly, honestly knows whether the public will love or hate (or worst of all, simply feel indifferent about) a new game, movie, song or book when it appears on the market. A $500 million creative project, therefore, must compensate for such inherent risk by trying to cut down risk in every other way possible; or to be more precise, everyone involved in such a project, aware of the enormous dollar-sign floating above, will reduce the risk of their own specific part of the project as much as possible, such that in the event of failure, nobody will blame them.
I'm not saying that Bungie, or any part of Activision itself, is necessarily pursuing such a strategy; merely that such a strategy naturally emerges from the awareness of such an enormous level of investment and the potential for such a damaging failure. People cover their own backsides; they do things that are solid and proven rather than things that are new and interesting, because new and interesting things are risky. It's my firm hope and desire that Destiny ends up being a fantastic game, but I never really expected it to be a surprising game, and the $500 million price tag all but guarantees that I'm right about that. Surprises are risky. You can surprise people at low cost and hope for the best, but for $500 million, you don't dare surprise anyone, least of all the fickle consumer.
I said previously that EA and Activision have ended up in the same place by walking different paths; I wonder, worriedly, if Destiny might be a part of the journey Activision has yet to complete, but which EA experienced rather painfully with the also hugely expensive Star Wars: The Old Republic. Once executives start talking about such huge amounts of money, seemingly oblivious to the inherent, essential riskiness of any new creative endeavour, it's hard not to see shades of previous vainglorious failures. If budgets do soar in this direction and consumers decide that this level of investment is what "AAA games" ought to be, then AAA games will contract to an even smaller subset of what they already are. $500 million may be an impressive boast for Activision, but it's not good news for the industry at large.