Gaming’s fragmentation: moneymakers, system sellers, indies

2017 was a banner gaming year. We saw the release of several of the most critically acclaimed games in years. Nintendo mounted a massive comeback with the perpetually sold out Switch. There was also worrisome news, from Visceral Games’ shuttering to Battlefront II’s loot box saturation and the lack of originality among the year’s top sellers. Big budget gaming is buckling under the weight of costly economics. Unless we see a major shakeup in the industry, games will largely survive under three classifications:

Moneymakers: sports and games as a service

Over the last few years, the cost to develop and market AAA games has skyrocketed yet the $60 MSRP price point remains unchanged. To ensure a return on that risky economics, big studios chase proven franchises in well-established genres.

Mainstream sports games fit this classification perfectly. It’s the one type of game that even casual players regularly buy. And most sports titles have little competition; a single game in each sport dominates sales and usually enjoys exclusive league licenses. The end result makes FIFA. NBA 2K, and Madden dependable top sellers year after year. Other genres can also flourish, in most cases multiplayer-focused action/shooter titles like the Battlefield series.

Once a studio scores a hit, they are increasingly reinvesting in the game with additional content long after its initial release date. This is “games as a service”, and it provides a lucrative long tail for monetization through downloadable content and other microtransactions (most infamously, blind loot boxes.) These are massive moneymakers, in some cases rivaling or exceeding a game’s initial sticker price. FIFA Ultimate Team reportedly brings in billions in revenue for EA each year.
The economic windfall of the games as a service model has reshaped the math. We’re seeing less big titles out of big publishers, but each is increasingly stuffed with DLC and a long-term, post-release revenue strategy.

Hardware sellers: unique IP to sell consoles

Not every big budget game falls into pure moneymaker territory. Many titles share some of their characteristics – well-tested genres, popular IPs – but go far lighter on post-release content. And while Visceral’s death may have been a blow for single player gaming, some AAA games buck the trend and eschew multiplayer altogether.

However, almost all of these titles are first party exclusives. They show off a console’s horsepower (Forza 7, Horizon Zero Dawn), or are famous, in-house only brands (Uncharted 4, Halo 5, Super Mario Odyssey). Given their potential to keep gamers loyal to one console, the revenue pressure isn’t as great. Consequently, these games can take more creative risks.

In fact, some exclusives don’t share traits of moneymakers at all. These titles span a wide range of budgets for a smaller devoted niche market, from Japanese RPGs (Nier Automata, Yakuza 0), to fighting games (Street Fighter V, Killer Instinct) to run and gun platformers (Cuphead). Even with low sales these games market the diversity of a console’s game library.

Minor scale indies: risk takers, oddball genres, less money

There are still pockets for smaller titles to flourish beyond the large scale moneymakers and hardware sellers. They often cover niche material or dabble in otherwise forgotten genres. They court a smaller audience, but at their budget, there’s wiggle room for profitability.

Every week on PSN, Steam, and Xbox Live there are many new titles that fall into this category. Dangerously the market is getting oversaturated; most come and go without much of an impact. Every so often a title breaks out of obscurity into mainstream success like Stardew Valley and Rocket League. In rare instances, an indie makes such an impact it reshapes larger budget gaming, Superunknown’s Battlegrounds the best recent example.

Fewer risks at the high end, obscurity at the low end

As gaming budgets loom and Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo fight over exclusives, I’m worried about a future where only these three game classifications exist.

Smaller indie games offer a lot of creative promise, but Steam is oversaturated. PSN and Xbox Live offer more curation, but most titles still fall through the cracks.

Visceral’s shuttering shows the risk for studios that shift away from the big budget formula. Bethesda may share a similar fate in the long run. The studio releases titles that don’t follow the moneymaker template and all their titles are cross platform (no hardware sellers). Their latest single player narrative releases – Dishonored: Death of the Outsider, Prey, The Evil Within 2 – had underwhelming sales. Wolfenstein II has a warm reception from critics yet based on upcoming price cuts and low streaming numbers, it isn’t selling well.

The narrowing of viable game archetypes has negative effects well beyond a few studios shutting down. It also means less creativity, risk taking, and games that go beyond sports and shooters. There are parallels here to what’s happening in the film industry when big studios churn out increasingly global-minded, safe choices (action sequels, Star Wars, comic superheroes). Yet gaming is a much younger industry without the broad critical respect film, TV or music enjoys. Cynically, I think it’s going to take an external disruption – Apple dives into more traditional gaming, Microsoft exits the console space – for this trend to change. Here’s hoping it’s sooner rather than later.