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Did "Fewer, Bigger, Better" actually work?

10 Years Ago This Month: Major publishers have been narrowing their release slates for years, but has it produced the intended results?

The games industry moves pretty fast, and there's a tendency for all involved to look constantly to what's next without so much worrying about what came before. That said, even an industry so entrenched in the now can learn from its past. So to refresh our collective memory and perhaps offer some perspective on our field's history, runs this monthly feature highlighting happenings in gaming from exactly a decade ago.

Some killer, significantly less filler

Ten years ago this month, Electronic Arts CEO John Riccitiello was setting expectations for the company's investors. Coming off the heels of a massive round of layoffs at the publisher, Riccitiello warned investors that EA's output in the coming year would be smaller than usual. After releasing more than 50 distinct games during 2009, Riccitiello said EA was planning on putting out maybe 40 titles in 2010, and noted that it could shrink further in the years to come.

"30 wouldn't shock me at some point in the future," Riccitiello said.

EA actually came in a little over where Riccitiello had expected to be for 2010, releasing 56 games that weren't DLC, compilations, special editions, mobile games, or re-releases. If you want to remove DS and downloadable DSi titles from the list, it comes down to 43. (Tip of the hat to invaluable reference MobyGames for that information.) But even if Riccitiello was a little off with his near-term expectations, his long-term view of where the company was headed was perhaps a bit conservative.

Some of the 56 games EA released in 2010 that weren't as heavily marketed as Dante's Inferno or Medal of Honor.

EA's incredible shrinking release slate hit 30 and continued plummeting. By our count, the number of new titles (not including DLC, compilations, special editions, mobile games, or re-releases) EA has released this year is just ten: Jedi Fallen Order, Need for Speed: Heat, Plants vs. Zombies: Battle for Neighborville, FIFA 20, FIFA 20: Legacy Edition (if we're padding EA's stats and counting the Switch version as a separate game), NHL 20, Madden NFL 20, Sea of Solitude, Anthem, and Apex Legends.

That's not entirely surprising, as the conventional wisdom surrounding AAA publishers for the past decade or so has been to embrace a strategy of "Fewer, Bigger, Better." As the cost of development soared in a hit-driven industry, publishers couldn't afford to roll the dice on a wide slate of projects in the hopes one would hit it big. So instead, they focused on a smaller slate of titles, put more resources into polishing and promoting them, and tried to ensure that whatever they did release was better able to compete in the production values arms race.

It's difficult to measure "bigger" given a lack of publicly available data, but we at least have some simple metrics for "fewer" and "better"

That strategy has reshaped the industry in a lot of ways; enabling publishers to combine massive open worlds with a level of visual fidelity previously unseen in the industry, creating increasingly specialized job roles and career paths in AAA development, changing consumer perceptions as to what a full priced game is worth, changing the scale of layoffs or restructuring as a result of a miss, and much more.

There's plenty of debate to be had over whether this shift has been beneficial to the industry, the customers, the developers, or even the publishers who embraced the Fewer, Bigger, Better philosophy. But that story about EA's smaller slate of releases got us curious about the basics of the strategy and how well it has played out. It's difficult to measure "bigger" given a lack of publicly available data about budgets and individual game performances, but we at least have some simple metrics for "fewer" and "better."

For those, we looked at Metacritic's first annual game publisher rankings, which compares the output of major games publishers in 2010, as well as its most recent rankings, covering the games of 2018. This first chart shows 11 of the biggest publishers in the business, ranked in order from greatest reduction in titles over the 2010 to 2018 span to greatest increase in titles. (Believe it or not, Sega and Square Enix actually put out more titles last year than in 2010.) It also shows the publisher's average Metacritic review score for the year, and the improvements each made over that time.

Company 2010 slate 2018 slate 2010 Metacritic 2018 Metacritic Metacritic +/-
Electronic Arts 48 12 72.6 77.5 + 4.9
Sony 46 20 70.9 71.8 + .9
Activision Blizzard 26 10 69.3 77.4 + 8.1
Microsoft 21 6 73.4 76.6 + 3.2
Take-Two 19 9 77 77.1 + .1
Nintendo 39 30 76.1 76.4 + .3
Capcom 19 14 74.5 79.3 + 4.8
Ubisoft 30 25 64.6 73.7 + 9.1
Namco Bandai 25 25 66.3 71.8 + 5.5
Sega 28 30 67.4 78.5 + 11.1
Square Enix 17 25 70.8 71 + .2

Broadly speaking, this seems to fall in line with the Fewer, Bigger, Better premise. We can put a check next to "fewer," as collectively the above companies released 318 games in 2010, but only 206 games in 2018. While this only provides a glimpse of two more-or-less arbitrary points, and there's always going to be variation in how prolific a publisher is from year-to-year, we can see pretty clearly that many companies are publishing fewer games now than they were almost a decade ago, some dramatically so.

We can see pretty clearly that many companies are publishing fewer games now than they were almost a decade ago, some dramatically so

At the same time, there appears to have been an improvement in the overall quality of the games released, depending on how much stock you want to put on the results of a review aggregator like Metacritic or the importance of a single year. And while every company we looked at posted better average review scores, we might expect to see more variation year-to-year as a single transcendently good (or bad) game carries more weight in a publishing lineup of ten games than it would in a lineup of 40.

In both 2016 and 2017, all but two of the above publishers had review averages higher than they did in 2010. In 2016, Sony posted the same 70.9 average it did in 2010, while Capcom slipped to 71 thanks to an assortment of poorly received Resident Evil re-releases. (Without those, Metacritic has the publisher at a 78 average for the year, which would again be an improvement over 2010.) As for 2017, Microsoft and Take-Two came in below their 2010 averages. Take-Two's 2017 was a particular outlier, as the delay of Red Dead Redemption II left the company with no major releases for the year beyond its WWE and NBA series, and only six distinct titles to include in the Metacritic average, some of which were... not great.

Of course, these Metacritic averages include all the products a company has made. If the Fewer, Bigger, Better premise is working as expected, then the biggest games -- the ones with the most development time, largest teams, and biggest budgets -- should wind up being the best games, right? With that in mind, we compared the best reviewed game each company released from 2010 and 2018, and looked at just how much the scores changed. Here they are, ranked by the publisher that saw the greatest jump in peak review score for the year to the one that slid the most:

Company 2010 Best Reviewed Game 2018 Best Reviewed Game Change
Square Enix Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light (X360) - 85 Nier: Automata: Become As Gods Edition (XB1) - 90 +5
Take-Two Red Dead Redemption (X360) - 95 Red Dead Redemption 2 (XB1) - 97 +2
Sony God of War III (PS3) - 92 God of War (PS4) - 94 +2
Sega Bayonetta (360) - 90 Sonic Mania Plus (Switch) - 91 +1
Microsoft Halo: Reach (X360) - 91 Forza Horizon 4 (Xbone) - 92 +1
Capcom Super Street Fighter IV (PS3) - 92 Monster Hunter: World (XB1) - 90 -2
Ubisoft Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood (PS3) - 90 Assassin's Creed: Odyssey (XB1) - 87 -3
Nintendo Super Mario Galaxy 2 (Wii) - 97 Super Smash Bros. Ultimate (Switch) - 93 -4
Namco Bandai Pac-Man Championship Edition (X360) - 93 Dragon Ball FighterZ (Switch) - 88 -5
Activision Blizzard Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty (PC) - 93 Diablo III: Eternal Collection (Switch) - 88 -5
Electronic Arts Mass Effect 2 (X360) - 96 FIFA 19 (PS4) - 83 -13

In some cases (Sony, Take-Two), a publisher's biggest game by just about any metric also happens to be its best reviewed title, and at first glance the scores suggest that those companies' greater investment in narrowed release slates may have paid off in better games.

But for many, the strategy didn't pay off critically, at least not in 2018. Electronic Arts in particular made the largest cuts to its release slate for the years we looked at, but also saw the largest decline in peak review score from 2010 to 2018. In fact, EA's best reviewed game in 2018 -- FIFA 19 with an 83 average -- was the lowest peak score for any of these publishers in 2010, 2017, or 2018. (Ubisoft peaked in 2016 with an 82 average for Watch Dogs on PS4, edging out FIFA 19 for worst best game in the years we looked at.) On the other hand, no publisher saw a larger increase in peak review score between 2010 and 2018 than Square Enix, which also happened to be the only publisher to significantly increase its release slate in that span.

Mass Effect 2 has proven itself a tough act to follow

Let's bring in the parade of caveats here. First, as mentioned above, this is a snapshot of two arbitrary years, with a handful of supporting points picked from 2016 and 2017. Mass Effect 2 is the best reviewed game in EA's history according to Metacritic and happened to be released in 2010, so it's the hardest year for the publisher to compare favorably against regardless of its strategy since. There's very little room for improvement at the top-end of the scale considering reviewers have always handed out top marks for what they felt were the best titles of any given generation. No matter how much Take-Two or Nintendo focus on improving their games, they'll never be able to improve more than three measly points on the averages for Red Dead Redemption 2 and Super Mario Galaxy 2, respectively.

The average review scores for major publishers increased across the board from 2010 to 2018, but those gains were not driven by the top of their lineup

You'll also notice a number of the titles that received strong review scores aren't necessarily the "biggest" games the publisher had on offer, but rather they were re-releases, ports, or well-received downloadable titles not intended to carry the business the way something like FIFA would be. Square Enix has every right to be proud of Nier: Automata's performance on the Xbox One, but the company's execs would trade that in a heartbeat to have FIFA 19 and its 83 Metacritic average (and FIFA Ultimate Team revenues). Similarly, Capcom's Monster Hunter: World may not have reviewed as well as the PS4 upgrade to Street Fighter IV, but the former went on to become Capcom's best-selling game of all time, so that would probably be another mark in favor of the Fewer, Bigger, Better approach.

What we can say is that the average review scores for major publishers increased across the board from 2010 to 2018, but those gains were not driven by the top of their lineup. So what's happening down on the other end of the spectrum? Here's a list comparing the same companies' worst reviewed games of 2010 and 2018, once again in order of the publisher that saw the greatest improvement to its bottom-end review score to the one that slid the most:

Company 2010 Worst Reviewed Game 2018 Worst Reviewed Game Change
Electronic Arts Dead Space Ignition (X360) - 35 Fe (XB1) - 70 +35
Sega Iron Man 2 (360) - 41 Shining Resonance Refrain (PS4) - 67 +26
Ubisoft Fighters Uncaged (X360) - 31 Far Cry 5: Hours of Darkness (PS4) - 55 +24
Activision Blizzard Blood Drive (X360) - 40 Destiny 2 Warmind (XB1) - 61 +21
Microsoft Fable III: Understone DLC (X360) - 50 State of Decay 2 (XB1) - 66 +16
Nintendo Aquaspace (Wii) - 48 Kirby Battle Royale (3DS) - 57 +9
Sony Kung Fu Rider (PS3) -36 Bravo Team (PS4) - 45 +9
Capcom Dark Void (PC) - 57 Mega Man X Legacy Collection 2 (Switch) - 60 +3
Take-Two MLB 2K10 (Wii) - 52 Carnival Games (Switch) - 49 -3
Namco Bandai Clash of the Titans (PS3) - 41 Tennis (Switch) - 28 -13
Square Enix Raystorm HD (X360) - 46 The Quiet Man (PS4) - 29 -17

So that paints a very different picture than the Best Reviewed list. It makes sense that if the industry averages were going to improve across the board as they have, it would have to come from where there actually was clear room for improvement: the low end of the review scale. Rather than polishing the best possible titles to squeeze out the last handful of points at the top end of the scale, the industry seems to have made its most dramatic gains to review score averages by releasing fewer (and better) bombs.

The Fewer, Bigger, Better approach may not be producing tangibly better games, but it is cutting down on the number of catastrophic misfires that hit the market

EA, Sony, Activision Blizzard, and Microsoft were the most aggressive companies when it came to trimming their release slate, and while they may not have shown drastic improvements in their best games, they seem to have significantly improved the bottom end of their output. At the same time, Square Enix has bucked the trend by ramping up its output, but also released one of the worst reviewed games of the year in The Quiet Man.

In short, it seems as if the Fewer, Bigger, Better approach may not be producing tangibly better games (or at least, not better from an aggregated critical perspective), but it is cutting down on the risks companies are taking, and that means cutting down on the number of catastrophic misfires that hit the market.

The Quiet Man gets points for being different, but not much else

That said, there will always be outlier companies and outlier years. For example, EA's 2019 has produced a significantly better review high than 2018 in Apex Legends (averaging 89 on PS4), but its lows were also lower. 2018's worst reviewed EA game was Fe with a 70 average on Xbox One and PS4; a significant portion of EA's 2019 slate has fallen underneath that mark, including Anthem on all three formats (a 54 on PS4 being the lowest), the Switch Legacy edition of FIFA 20 (the year's low point with a 43 average), and two of the three versions of Sea of Solitude.

Narrowed release slates aren't the only change to the industry's conventional wisdom we can see reflected in the above charts. For example, the major publishers have generally avoided movie licenses as the traditional challenges of rushing a game to meet a theatrical release date were compounded by the increasing cost and time of AAA game development. That was always a recipe for poor reviews, as projects like Sega's Iron Man 2 and Namco Bandai's Clash of the Titans show. Those projects have fallen out of favor in the console and PC space now, with the same sort of popular brands finding much more success with standalone experiences that take more time to create, like the Batman Arkham series, Marvel's Spider-Man on PS4, or EA's Jedi: Fallen Order.

Cutting out more of the borderline titles and long shot bets makes for more reliable quality from AAA publishers, but it also cuts out experimentation and diversity

On the other hand, the industry still loves its new technology. So while we don't have as many bombs built around motion-sensing tech like the Kinect-powered Fighters Uncaged and PlayStation Move-compatible Kung Fu Riders today, there's no shortage of games focused on new gimmicks that fall on their faces. For example, Sony's worst reviewed game was the VR shooter Bravo Team -- 12 of Sony's 14 worst reviewed products in 2018 were either VR games or smartphone-crossover Playlink games. At the same time, two of its four best titles were the VR-enabled Tetris Effect (89 average) and VR-required Astro Bot: Rescue Mission (90 average), so it's not like the company's experimentation with developing tech is entirely fruitless.

If there is a takeaway here, it's not that the industry's strategy has been Fewer, Bigger, Better so much as it has been Fewer, Bigger, Not as Bad. Cutting out more of the borderline titles and long shot bets makes for more reliable quality from AAA publishers, but it also cuts out much of the experimentation and diversity that one would expect to see as the hallmark of a healthy creative industry. It will be interesting to see where this trend goes in the future, and whether the companies who ultimately shape the next generation of gaming will be the ones who embraced this strategy or swam against the tide.

Crappy Holidays

[Writes section header, checks the archives]

[Yup, I've definitely used that header before. Ah well, it still applies.]

It's never a great time to be laid off, but having it come right before the holidays is particularly cruel. The holidays are difficult for some people at the best of times, and having the industry essentially shut down and stop checking its emails for a couple weeks right when you absolutely need to be pounding the pavement to find your next gig is insult to injury.

A decade ago, Oberon laid off 100 staffers about a week before Christmas, with cuts coming at all levels. Meanwhile, Jordan Weisman's start-up Smith & Tinker ran into issues and laid off 30% of the company, or about 15 people. The company noted that it would be giving severance packages in its statement confirming the cuts.

As far as cost-cutting goes, taking an axe to QA represents arguably the worst savings-to-human-suffering ratio in game development

Rock Band developer Harmonix laid off 13% of its workforce, with a representative of parent company MTV Games explaining that those kicked to the curb and now left without income were a "combination of temporary/part time help, outsourcing and support from external partners -- which is in line with how other game developers manage their QA departments."

The "everybody treats QA like this" defense may not be compelling, but it's not entirely inaccurate, either. After all, Sony laid off 30 full-time testers at its Foster City headquarters in December of 2009 and reportedly eliminated 100 additional contract positions at the same time.

Incidentally, as far as cost-cutting goes, taking an axe to QA represents arguably the worst savings-to-human-suffering ratio in game development. According to Gamasutra's 2009 developer salary survey, QA testers averaged annual salaries of under $38,000. The next worst compensated group of developers were game designers, who averaged a salary of under $62,000. So MTV and Sony took jobs away from the people who had the least amount of money to help them through a transition, the least desirable skill sets to help them find a new job (if industry compensation is any indicator), and whose absence saved them the least amount of money.

Ugh. Let's try and finish this column on a high note.

Good call, bad call

GOOD CALL: THQ announced its new Montreal studio and promised that it would be 500 people within five years. Sure, THQ went under and Ubisoft bought the studio and folded it into Ubisoft Montreal, but that also meant the studio's headcount was a whopping 2,000 by 2013! Good job, THQ!

HILARIOUS CALL: The Spike Video Game Awards always walked a tightrope between honoring the creators behind some of the industry's most cherished games and embarrassing absolutely everyone with over-the-top pandering to the hardcore bro demographic. But it went above and beyond when it took the Best Independent Game Fueled by Dew Award -- so named for sponsor and extreme beverage purveyor Mountain Dew -- and gave it to Thatgamecompany for Flower, a mellow, meditative experience that is perhaps the antithesis of Mountain Dew's obnoxiously marketed, carbonated corn syrup sludge.

All this blowing petals around on a gentle breeze has given me a thirst that only Dew can satisfy

GOOD CALL: With James Cameron's Avatar about to hit theaters, Insight Media predicted that there would be 40 million 3D capable displays installed worldwide by 2014 in a report that talked about how immersive and compelling the technology was. While Insight came off pretty high on the potential of the emerging market, its 40 million forecast was somewhat modest in retrospect given the enthusiasm surrounding 3D at the time.

Heading into 2014, Nintendo had already sold more than 40 million 3DS systems, single-handedly fulfilling the firm's projection, even if 3D was clearly dead in the water by that point. After all, Nintendo had even stripped the 3D functionality out of the 3DS to save money and released the resulting 2DS hardware in October of 2013. There was some demand for a 3D-less 3DS, as the 2DS sold more than two million units by the end of the year.

GOOD CALL: Blizzard's J. Allen Brack promised the company would release games on consoles again. It would, but it would take another four years and the launch of Diablo III on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 for that to come true.

GOOD CALL: Take-Two chairman Strauss Zelnick pushed back on investors who were tired of the publisher having two types of years with vastly different financial performances: years with a new Grand Theft Auto, and years without.

"We'll be one of probably five companies in the world that has any serious business beyond ten years"

Dennis Dyack, Silicon Knights

"We don't feel that GTA ought to be an annualised franchise," Zelnick said. "There's a balance between how long it takes to develop such an incredible title... and how long you wait for the [customer's] appetite to be both satisfied and whetted for the next title."

Take-Two has only released one new mainline Grand Theft Auto game in the past decade, but when it sells more than 115 million copies and continues to hit the best-seller charts at the height of the holiday release schedule six years after release, it's safe to say the publisher has done well by investors.

GOOD CALL: Zelnick again, this time talking about on-demand game streaming in light of the announcement of OnLive earlier in the year. Zelnick said the vision of on-demand game streaming as it was being promised would be good for publishers because they could create for one platform instead of multiple and never need to deal with physical inventory again, but added that vision "doesn't appear to be around the corner, not at all."

GOOD CALL: Silicon Knights' Denis Dyack very clearly saw our everything-as-a-service future taking shape with OnLive and the buzz around on-demand streaming.

"I don't have any inside information here, but if you were Microsoft why would you want to sell Microsoft Office? Wouldn't you want users to just subscribe to a cloud and get the latest updates all the time? I think it's the future no matter what."

Microsoft announced its cloud-based subscription service Office 365 a little over a year later. That Dyack really has a keen eye for the future, huh?

Wow, what a great month for calls. Just nothing but positivity in here, and if we're feeling generous, maybe that Best Independent Game Fueled by Dew thing was really just a play on the game's name. Flower? Dew?

Anyway, it's time to wrap up a great month for calls. Ah, looks like that Dyack interview was a two-parter. I'm sure there's another nugget of impressive foresight from the other half of the interview to put a nice, uplifting bowtie on 10 Years Ago for 2019...

UH OH: Oh gosh, it looks like this is opening with a lot of discussion about the global economic crisis that has really tanked so much of the year for so many companies. Dyack admits it's been rough, but at least he's taking an optimistic stance, so we're still good.

"Looking at things that are coming up, the industry has to turn, the economy has to turn," Dyack said. "What that means for us is we're really excited because we're going to be able to come out, and the industry is going to rebound and grow, and we'll be one of probably five companies in the world that has any serious business beyond ten years."

Without laboring over details to the point of cruelty, we'll just say Things. Did. Not. Go. As. Planned.

LAST CALL: Well, that's it for another year of 10 Years Ago. Enjoy the home stretch of 2019 and we'll see you again in January. Until then, may all your Calls be Good, and may your hindsight be 20/20.

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Brendan Sinclair avatar
Brendan Sinclair: Brendan joined in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at GameSpot.
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