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, GamesIndustry.biz runs this monthly feature highlighting happenings in gaming from a decade ago.
How to fix the PlayStation 3?
Half a year after launch, the PS3 was in rough shape. The PlayStation 2 had been the dominant force of its console generation, but Sony was losing market share to both Nintendo and Microsoft with the Wii's phenomenal debut and the Xbox 360, which launched a year earlier and seemed every bit as capable of running the latest and greatest games. It was so bad that Sony Computer Entertainment America executive Jack Tretton was already in long-term damage control for the system, telling the Los Angeles Times, "We didn't get into PS3 for the first six months of 2007 - we're into this for the next 10 years and beyond. A million units one way or another at this point isn't going to worry us."
As for diagnosing the problem, there were several camps with their own theories. Parappa the Rapper creator Masaya Matsuura dusted off a gem from the original Xbox era and said the console's form factor was too big for Japanese tastes. Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi said the machine was "tricky" to develop for because of the Cell architecture, adding, "and I don't like Ken Kutaragi." Speaking of "The Father of PlayStation," Kutaragi didn't make things any easier on Sony, as he followed up word of his impending retirement from the company by telling the EE Times he had already laid out the vision for PlayStations 4 through 6.
Other theories aside, the most common assessment of the problem was the one that had been kicking around the longest: Price. Beyond anecdotal evidence from gamers who thought paying $599 for a PS3 was absurd, analysts like Michael Pachter and Colin Sebastian zeroed in on the price tag. Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot publicly complained about it. SCEA's own Tretton conceded the point, telling Reuters, "There's no question that [price is] a challenge."
But to parent company Sony, the PS3 price was still too low. The gaming division was already a significant drag on Sony's financials, a fact blamed on "the sale of PS3 at strategic price points lower than its production cost during the introductory period." At the same time, Bank of America analyst Michael L. Savner was convinced a price cut wouldn't significantly improve sales unless it was in the neighborhood of $200. That seemed unlikely, considering Savner estimated Sony was already losing $200 per PS3 sold even at its original price tag.
After much pressure, Sony eventually cut the price of the 60GB PS3 by $100 in the US in July, at the same time it rolled out an 80GB bundle at the $599 price point. In Europe, where the console received a belated launch in March of 2007 and had been selling decently, Sony kept the price the same but let punters choose two games from its underwhelming lineup of first-party titles.
Why do we listen to anyone?
As a trade site, GamesIndustry.biz owes much of its existence to big names in the industry sharing their insights about what the future holds, even though there's no shortage of examples where perfectly intelligent or insightful people with an expertise in an area have gotten things pretty much exactly wrong.
Take Richard Garriott, for example. The creator of Ultima was already a game development legend when he helped define the MMO genre with Ultima Online. 10 years ago, he was five years deep into development on his ambitious follow-up, Tabula Rasa, and was preparing for its fall launch when he spoke with GI.biz. When asked about the MMO genre's 800-pound gorilla, World of Warcraft, he saw the game more as a potential boon to Tabula Rasa than a threat.
"In the case of the MMO genre, when people sign on to play one of these games - while it's true that they generally only play one, maybe two at the most, no one plays any particular MMO for more than a year or so," Garriott said, adding, "Ultima Online still has hundreds of thousands of players just like it did when it launched. But the ones playing today have almost no overlap with the ones who played it a year ago, or the year before that," Garriott explained.
A decade later, there's plenty of anecdotal evidence to the contrary, and it seems incredibly unlikely that World of Warcraft's years-long run with a player base of 10 million or more was put together with entirely separate blocks of 10 million players each year. At the same time, Ultima Online is still running, but we're going to go out on a limb and say there's some significant overlap now between past and present players (an inquiry to UO operator Broadsword was not returned as of this writing).
However, Garriott was at least right about people not playing for more than a year or so when it came to Tabula Rasa. The game launched in November of 2007, and NCsoft announced its shutdown in November of 2008.
Why does anyone talk to us?
At the same time, there's plenty of reason for interview subjects not to talk to us. For one thing, there's always the chance that if they're mistaken about something, their words will be brought up a decade later in a flippantly dismissive tone. Hypothetically, of course.
(Note to the industry: Let's all assume I'm not still doing this column in 10 years so please continue to respond to my interview requests. Much appreciated.)
For another thing, their statements don't exist in a vacuum, and will be judged differently based in large part on what happens in the future, and specifically what they do in the future.
Just look at this Silicon Knights Denis Dyack interview from a decade ago, in which he says gamers no longer want 100-hour titles; they instead prefer shorter, better games that might combine to tell more epic stories, pointing to his then-upcoming Too Human trilogy on Xbox 360 as an example.
"Each game needs to be self contained," Dyack said. "That was flaw in the The Lord of the Rings movies. Too Human will be self-contained across each game of the trilogy."
In the end, Too Human would not fare as well as The Lord of the Rings movies, never became a trilogy, and Silicon Knights flamed out amid allegations of mismanagement, employee mistreatment, and corporate malfeasance.
Given the fate of Too Human and Silicon Knights, it might be easy to conclude Dyack was wrong about what gamers want. But that same month, Telltale Games chief technology officer Kevin Bruner was saying a very similar thing to us.
"I think the industry is creating one type of content, which is the thousand-page novel. If you went into a bookstore and every book was a thousand-page novel - not everybody wants that," Bruner said, adding, "We've gone through five or six years of just one type of game offering - the 50-hour first-person shooter type thing. I think with the Wii and handhelds and the casual games space, we're seeing a lot of consumers who want something different."
That sounded perfectly reasonable and intelligent at the time, but it probably sounded a heck of a lot smarter about five years later when Telltale's episodic The Walking Dead game took home a bunch of Game of the Year awards (and the ones it didn't take were largely claimed by the similarly short form Journey).
Of course, there are innumerable differences in how Telltale and Silicon Knights put those observations into practice, but it's a good reminder that even if you correctly call the sweeping trends, success and failure will probably still come down to a vast number of smaller and more nuanced calls that aren't cataloged in the press of the day.
- Just two months after closing the beloved Clover Studios, Capcom shut down its Flagship studio, creators of the much-loved Game Boy Color and Game Boy Advance Legend of Zelda entries, Oracle of Seasons, Oracle of Ages, and The Minish Cap.
- In the most bizarre announcement of the month, Crave Games obtained the license to make a DS and PSP game based on Napoleon Dynamite, a quirky hit film from three years prior. The game launched that fall and the handful of outlets that reviewed it were not kind.
- Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aime said game publishers shouldn't be so dependent on holiday sales, which might explain why the company didn't bother releasing anything for the holidays last year.
- Microsoft unveiled the first iteration of the Surface, a coffee table with a touchscreen top. Considering the Surface idea would eventually become Microsoft's current tablet/laptop line, maybe there's still some hope yet for future versions of HoloLens.
- Shigeru Miyamoto was asked if he'd ever make a game about real-world issues, and he said it would be things like children not giving up seats for the elderly on public transit, or people not paying their share. "I look at places in the world where people understand that paying taxes to the government helps society," he said. "In Japan there's not that understanding."