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Burning Out

Too much of a good thing; it’s what the games industry has had over the past ten years, wasting millions on shoddy software and making games, not for the fun of it, but for the profits alone. At the time of writing the PC market is flat on its back, despite Nvidia’s upbeat press releases and interviews, and the games industry has only itself to blame.

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There doesn’t seem to be a PC game released these days that appears to have been fully tested for problems in its coding. The general consensus is that developers sell a two-thirds-finished product early to come in under their budget, and then spend the following months releasing sporadic fixes until the title is relatively playable. Such practice would be expected by smaller studios trying to build a reputation and get a foot onto the ladder, but bigger companies are implementing this strategy too.

On home consoles, there doesn’t seem to be a week that goes by without news of further redundancies, studio closures or mergers. The Xbox 360, for all its delights, has also brought with it the dreaded ‘patch virus’. As nice as it is for developers to be able to revisit a product and refine it or add in after-thoughts, companies are taking advantage of Microsoft’s policy of applying the first patch for free by releasing unfinished material. Mercenaries 2 doesn’t have a review on Thunderbolt because none of us want to write off ten hours of our lives playing through such grubby drivel.

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My fear is not that developers are becoming lazy, far from it. Organisations known as publishers are called as such because the word ‘conniving’ was already taken. The underlying alarm is that the people who make games are becoming outpaced by the very technology they develop on, and not through a lack of expertise, but money. A firm doesn’t slip out of business through a lack of workmanship, it ceases to be because its accounts don’t weigh in favour.

“there doesn’t seem to be a week that goes by without news of further redundancies, studio closures or mergers.”Once the numerous cuts are factored in, developers don’t see a lot of that £35 paid for a new videogame. Distributors, publishers, third parties and a lack of help from governments such as the UK through tax all drain on the profit that eventually seeps down to its creator. During the 90’s the hot question was whether software was too expensive; the new millennium begs to ask if such eye candy and realism is costing developers their jobs.

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The Nintendo Wii should be the saviour to this argument but its ‘lacklustre’ specifications are often ridiculed. I can’t remember when we all agreed that suddenly gameplay was taking a back seat to graphics in terms of what was most important in a videogame. Maybe it was EA’s sales figures that started the trend. Nintendo have built a console that is both profitable and relatively easy to develop for, whilst at the other end of the spectrum stands Sony, with their highly-priced machine that loses money for every unit sold, and has been pounded in the press for, amongst other things, being rather hard to make games for. If it’s so hard to code games, how much longer does a title remain in development? And how much extra does this cost?

It’s all about the percentagesThe constant strive for improved sales figures and money in the coffers, greed to you and me, is killing off gameplay-specific titles. Since when did selling half a million units become disappointing?It’s my thinking that technology has become too expensive and is now a calculated risk rather than an affordable luxury. The reason the PC market has become strangled with DRM is because development costs have spiralled skywards with new graphics cards and a demand for realism. The industry is in the hands of the suits these days and as such, because the biggest selling games have cutting edge presentation, they’ll only fund projects that strive to look realistic or inviting rather than having fun and challenging gameplay. It could help explain EA’s decision to cut back original titles, and exactly how the new Prince of Persia title passed any form of quality inspection.

Without a publisher, developers either have to change their direction or merge themselves with other studios to try and stay in existence. The only exceptions to this theory are those that are already established names, such as Rockstar, who have the exposure necessary to make a profit on even the most bizarre of ventures – table tennis, anyone?

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This route towards more realistic graphics could be a curtain call for the business as a whole, as it’s already forcing developers to operate (financially) beyond their means. Whether this is the fault of publishers or console manufacturers has to be decided, but videogames are constantly released having sacrificed gameplay and lifespan for their looks. It’s as if Hollywood has invaded our hobby with its big plastic tits bereft of personality.

And as we all know, tits sell.

The author of this fine article

is a Senior Staff Writer at Thunderbolt, having joined in June 2002.

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