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Gaming copes with mobile/social anxiety | 10 Years Ago This Month

An era of exceptional upheaval has people in every corner of the industry on edge heading into GDC 2011

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.

The games industry is always in a state of upheaval, but the back half of the 2000s and early 2010s saw some particularly dramatic changes taking place.

The move to HD consoles pushed development budgets sky high and -- with an assist from a global economic meltdown -- put a swath of mid-tier studios out of business.

Digital distribution changed the way people think not just about how they get games to players, but about the business models that would suddenly become viable.

With the advent of the iPhone, mobile gaming went from an awkward compromise on unfriendly hardware to slick touch-driven experiences on sleek new smartphones.

If the Wii and DS had opened eyes to untapped potential audiences, Facebook and Farmville went completely A Clockwork Orange about it.

By the time the Game Developers Conference rolled around in March of 2011, it seemed like everyone was panicking about some part of the mobile/social revolution.

Downward mobility and social butterflies

Let's start with the mobile market. In a GDC keynote address titled "Disrupting Development," Nintendo president Satoru Iwata fretted over the impact of mobile storefronts dominated by games at a $1 price point, telling the audience of developers this trend threatened their ability to make a good living.

"These platforms [smartphones and social networks] have no motivation to maintain the high value of video game software," Iwata said. "For them, content is something created by someone else. Their goal is just to gather as much software as possible, because quantity is what makes the money flow; the value of video game software does not matter to them."

(Somewhat ironically, the Nintendo Switch has become a platform glutted with content of greatly varying value. Nintendo was -- until fairly recently -- also letting developers sell their games on Switch for $0.01.)

"Their goal is just to gather as much software as possible, because quantity is what makes the money flow; the value of video game software does not matter to them"

Satoru Iwata on mobile platforms and social networks

Nintendo 3DS project lead Hideki Konno took a similarly dim view of cheap and free-to-play games, saying Nintendo wouldn't try to compete with them.

"Of course as a customer, if somebody said to me, 'Hey, we've got Call of Duty on your portable device and it's only going to cost you 100 yen,' yeah, I'd be super stoked, really excited about that," Konno said. "And I'd be really excited to see a great game at a really cheap price, but I just don't think that you could make a game that's immersive and as big as let's say Call of Duty, or any other large title, and sell it at that price point; it's just not possible."

(Call of Duty Mobile and Call of Duty Warzone are free, and even though I'm not a fan, I must concede they are each by definition at least as immersive and as big as a Call of Duty game.)

Chair Entertainment's Mustard brothers were also looking at low prices on mobile as a threat, having just launched Infinity Blade at a $6 price point. Geremy Mustard thought it unfair that Apple gave prime promotion to paid apps based on the number of downloads, and offered a solution.

"I believe all that Apple has to do is to swap the top paid category with the top grossing tab, make the top grossing tab the first one you see," Geremy Mustard said. "That would solve that, make it so it's more about how much money you're actually making."

(Mustard's "solution" certainly wasn't one that would work in the long-term. Three years later, free-to-play games accounted for 81% of the 500 top grossing titles on iOS, and 95% of all the revenue those 500 games generated. It hasn't gotten much better for premium mobile games since then; judging by Sensor Tower's latest US weekly rankings, it's still technically possible for a paid app to crack the top 100 grossing games chart, but only if its a singular phenomenon like Minecraft, in which case it can climb all the way to number 35.)

Was the grass greener on the other side?

Even people who had hitched their stars to the booming social and mobile markets were worried, albeit about different things.

Devaluation of games obviously wasn't a concern for free-to-play publisher Nexon America, but CEO Daniel Kim was concerned about the overvaluation of companies, particularly in the social space. Meanwhile, Playdom design lead and former Zynga developer Scott Jon Siegel was concerned social games had already stagnated, with too many games just copying bits and pieces of SlashKey's seminal FarmTown.

"But we weren't good at interpreting success beyond the simplest layer -- we saw what worked and we did what came naturally," he said. "We started mimicking success, and then we started mimicking the other mimics! Everything became more and more recursive."

"We started mimicking success, and then we started mimicking the other mimics!"

Social game designer Scott Jon Siegel

Digital Chocolate founder Trip Hawkins had long been a convert to the mobile industry, but even he wasn't feeling too jazzed about the state of things. In a GDC rant session -- historically a venue understood to host somewhat tongue-in-cheek exaggeration -- he essentially complained about the lack of curation and promotion from Google and Apple as platform holders, saying, "we're all possibly lambs to the slaughter."

"So we have these platforms where there's too much supply, and then everybody wonders why there's a discovery problem but they can't leverage that because there's no curation," Hawkins said. "How is anyone supposed to find out what's good? How are they supposed to find it? How is anybody supposed to be able to scale?"

(A decade down the road, discoverability is clearly still a problem on all platforms, and while success is far from guaranteed for anyone, we regularly see companies break through and scale up admirably. Just a few days prior to the Hawkins story, we published an interview with the CEO of Supercell, which wouldn't find success in the browser space where it was at the time but pivoted to the supply-choked mobile market. As I seem to recall, scaling up wasn't a problem.)

Fear and loathing

One of the first stories published from GDC 2011 was a write-up of a session from Zynga VP of product development Mark Skaggs, who talked about lessons learned from shipping Farmville and Cityville. That story -- and the user comments below it -- captured the tone of the show well, because booming successes in mobile drew reactions from the traditional market that ranged from unimpressed to outright hostile.

The development community was probably primed and ready to have it out at this GDC in particular, considering just a couple weeks earlier, Braid designer and indie dev darling of the day Jonathan Blow made headlines for telling an interviewer that social games are "absolutely" evil.

Not sure why some devs thought social games were a bit sketchy...

Veteran designer and Loot Drop co-founder Brenda Brathwaite (Brenda Romero these days) responded to that idea in her own rant session at GDC, saying she'd heard the argument a number of times before, going back to Dungeons & Dragons purists accusing her of "ruining games" back when she worked on the Wizardry series of PC RPGs in the early '80s. But even her most vociferous defense of social games was in its own way damning of the scene.

"I know that things are upsetting to you, and I can assure you that they are also upsetting to me," Brathwaite said. "I have seen the strip miners make their entry into games. I have seen them exploit technology and new platforms. Not for the purpose of crafting beautiful creative works but for the purpose of taking the audience for all they can get. They are not one of us, nor are they from us. Rather, they are from another space."

"I have seen the strip miners make their entry into games. I have seen them exploit technology and new platforms. Not for the purpose of crafting beautiful creative works but for the purpose of taking the audience for all they can get"

Brenda Brathwaite, in a, uh, "defense" of social games

She added, "We are absolutely not the ones making what some of you call 'evil games'. We are the first wave -- the marines storming the beach to take our culture and our medium back. As you look upon these games you will see on the very same horizon a great space of possibility. I hope that you will some day be the occupying force."

The militarized language and "us vs. them" rhetoric didn't lessen the tension any. Making matters worse, long-time PC and console gamers were seeing a steady defection of highly visible veteran PC and console developers and executives leaving those markets behind in favor of these potentially lucrative but often derided new markets. It wasn't just Hawkins and Brathwaite (and Brathwaite's business partner at Loot Box and future spouse, Doom designer John Romero).

Westwood Studios co-founder Louis Castle took a job at Zynga. Former EA exec and Stormfront CEO Don Daglow had just established Daglow Entertainment to make Facebook games. Eidos founder Ian Livingstone was backing a Facebook ad auctioning outfit called Appatyze. Will Wright had left EA to start Stupid Fun Club and work on… well, it wasn't quite clear, but it was going to be different.

"For the most part, the stuff we're working on is not shrink-wrapped, AAA, Xbox-only. It's stuff that's a little more diffuse, mobile, web," he told an audience at GDC.

Some developers didn't even wait to cut ties with the old market before throwing it under the bus. Ben Cousins was running EA's free-to-play division Easy Studios when he called the $60 premium game model that EA specialized in "exploitative." Cousins left EA a week later around the launch of Battlefield Play4Free.

Studios were no more immune to the siren song of social and mobile than individual developers, with Rebellion and Insomniac setting up shop in these new markets. The tension between the console/PC crowd and the up-and-coming mobile and social markets was so pronounced that when Insomniac announced its new mobile division Insomniac Click, it did so almost apologetically.

"Many social games out there are more activities than games"

Insomniac Click's Brian Hastings tests whether a spoonful of gatekeeping makes the fanbase outrage go down

Click's chief creative officer Brian Hastings talked about it the way you would defend layoffs, calling it a "pragmatic necessity." He stressed that nobody from the console teams was being moved over to Click because they were too busy making "unforgettable AAA console experiences," emphasized the studio's dedication to core gamers, and even belittled his own field, saying, "Many social games out there are more activities than games."

Over in the console space, fans of the old way of doing things had little to be excited about. Nintendo president Reggie Fils-Aime effectively admitted the Wii had been back-burnered while the company focused on the previous year's Pokémon Black and White release and the then-upcoming 3DS launch. The competition wasn't looking much better, as the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 were growing noticeably long in the tooth, while next-generation successors could still be a worrying ways off as the PlayStation Move and Kinect peripherals were promising/threatening to add as much as five years to the usual lifecycle. The only positive news out of the console space at the time was that Kinect had launched well, but the success of the controller-free experiences it offered were of little comfort to those more interested in so-called core gamer experiences.

Rovio's "Mighty Eagle" Peter Vesterbacka -- yes that was his official job title -- had seen enough to say that consoles were dying. Although that might not mean a whole lot, considering we get greatly exaggerated reports of the console market's death somewhat regularly.

That said, sentiment around the traditional gaming space was so bad even felt the need to run an editorial reminding people that plenty of core games were still doing pretty well, thank you very much.

There was some interest in new handhelds from Nintendo and Sony, as the 3DS debuted in late March and Sony had announced the NGP (later dubbed PlayStation Vita) for release later in the year. But first reactions to the 3DS and its launch lineup were mixed at best, and the handheld market had plenty of skeptics.

"I think PSP is done and the new [Vita,] is dead on arrival"

ngmoco's Neil Young with some cruel, hateful, accurate words

For example, there was Neil Young, founder of mobile publisher Ngmoco, predicting doom for the PlayStation Vita months and months before it even hit shelves, saying "I think they're clearly hurt. I think PSP is done and the new [Vita] is dead on arrival." (Like all truly cutting insults, that one stung more because it was true.)

So to recap, the new kids on the block are eating everybody's lunch, often with ethically dubious monetization mechanics or copycat products, gamers' favorite developers are jumping ship to make those titles left and right, an industry titan like Nintendo is losing sleep over its ability to sell games for full price -- unnecessarily, it turns out -- and developers on both sides of the social/mobile divide are enflaming matters and talking trash, sometimes about their own market.

This industry seems to run at a pretty high level of anxiety in the best of times, but I'm not sure I've seen as much existential dread from as many different corners of the gaming as I did in that particular era, and I hope never to see it again.

Good Call, Bad Call

GOOD CALL: Sony made a good call in announcing that PlayStation Vita -- which wouldn't launch until the very end of the year -- would be the first console/handheld platform where every game released on physical media would get a simultaneous digital release from day one.

It's wild to think something now largely taken for granted hasn't even been around a decade, but in March of 2011, EA CEO John Riccitiello said the previous January's simultaneous digital and physical launch of Mass Effect 2 for PS3 was primarily a technology test, "really more about proving it can be done than it was proving what the opportunity would be."

BAD CALL: Gamestation advertised its pre-owned game prices as "cheaper than your girlfriend."

ALSO A BAD CALL: After one of the company's own employees pointed out that was pretty sexist, the UK head of PR for Gamestation parent GAME defended the ad, saying that Gamestation's customers have shitty views of women so they were trying to appeal to those shitty views by echoing them.

OK, the words he actually used were: "We welcome everyone into our stores and the Gamestation brand reflects its customer base which is still predominantly the traditional core male gamer. Our marketing and in-store [point-of-sale advertising] does, and will continue to, appeal to that audience. Throughout its existence, Gamestation has always been slightly edgy and occasionally controversial. Our customers love this about us."

Kinda the same thing, though, isn't it?

THE BAD CALLS KEEP GOING: We've talked about Gearbox Software's cursed decision to pick up Duke Nukem Forever in this space before, but we missed this editorial from March of 2011, in which our own Rob Fahey calls the company out for including a "Capture the Babe" multiplayer mode -- "a variant on Capture the Flag in which you'll carry off a squirming young woman who, occasionally on your point-scoring trip back to base, will 'freak out,' requiring the administration of a slap on the buttocks to calm her down."

The editorial also includes a short discussion of whether people taking issue with gross behavior and beliefs is censorship, just in case you were worried we had learned anything and stopped arguing in circles about the same stuff.

THERE'S A THEME TO THESE BAD CALLS: Hey, remember that time Harvey Weinstein got into the games industry? I guess he saw something he liked about the space and thought he'd be a good fit. Huh.

(From what I can gather, TWC Games lasted about two years and produced a mobile game and Xbox Live avatar collection based on Scream 4, as well as a mobile adaptation of Piranha 3DD. The games are gone, but the avatar collection endures.)

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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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