Is it all or nothing for game releases in 2009?

Are big budget game franchises strangling the market?

Ho-hum.

Ho-hum.

Eidos life president Ian Livingstone has declared it's "all or nothing for new releases in 2009," painting either a blithely Machiavellian or cynically gloomy picture of the video games industry this year, depending on your vantage. Think, in other words, of the games industry in 2009 as a giant cattle pen -- standing room for mega-hits only, electric prods in the employ of marketing monoliths. Publishers are pouring everything into a handful of lucrative franchises (you know their names) driving less well-known titles off the shelves, or into dark, forgettable little corners -- out of sight and mind entirely.

"I think we'll continue to see more production resources going into fewer titles supported by even bigger marketing budgets," said Livingstone. "Publishers are continuing to raise the investment bar, ensuring the mega-franchises will rule."

One bankroll to rule them all, then, and marketing plans guaranteed to ensure you'll inevitably trip over blinking Flash ads and splashy comic book endpapers and raucous pre-movie trailers flaunting the latest expansions or sequels to games like Quarter-Life, or BioZap, or World of Whatever. In the meantime, debatably more intrepid and intriguing games you've probably never heard of, say Machinarium or Between or Blueberry Garden will languish in small-potatoes "indie-land," enjoying the occasional award-ista attaboys and back claps, but none of the commercial attention secured by multimillion dollar marketing plans.

Eidos's Livingstone -- better known to guys like me for his 1980s series of Fighting Fantasy game books -- seems sympathetic to the plight of those little guys, but (probably because he's "life president" of a major publisher with a vested interest in said multimillion dollar marketing plans) ends up carrying the industry water when defining "success."

"There's a glut of product and in a discerning market there is no room for mediocrity," he says, adding that "To make a suboptimal game with a suboptimal marketing spend is a recipe for disaster."

That makes basic market sense, sure, but Livingstone's definition of mediocrity is almost myopically economic. If "optimal" equals games like Mass Effect (mediocre by my ruler but massively successful in spite of it) as opposed to EA's Mirror's Edge (first rate by the same ruler, but a fraction as successful as Mass Effect) then I'm not sure I'm ready to buy the conventional wisdom anymore than I'm hot to trot for the latest Britney Spears album.

Brand awareness certainly translates as power in our consumer economy. I just finished the new Guillermo del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth, Hellboy 2) and Chuck Hogan (Prince of Thieves) wannabe vampire "reinvent" The Strain. It's not completely awful, but it's awfully close. I wouldn't have known about it or cared if publisher William Morrow hadn't turned up the publicity volume to eardrum-popping levels and I doubt anyone would've made much of it without del Toro or Hogan's names attached. For better or worse, it's become 2009's Summer Book Event. The Birth of a Franchise (it's the first in a trilogy). The thing you need, if only because everyone else "memetically" says so.

But is that the future you're excited about? A handful of mega-brands dominating the landscape? Games whose titles includes the same old perennials? Titles derived from words like "Warcraft" and "Sims" and "Counter-Strike"?

Do you ever quietly want more? Are we excusing mediocre game design to justify a kind of lazy escapism? Because the design bar's so low, still today, that we get weak-kneed when someone trots out a game as seemingly "deep" as BioShock, a game that for all its stylish levels and dystopian grandstanding was still dishing out recycled tropes, decades old game mechanics, and at best, timid polemic?

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Matt Peckham

PC World (US online)
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