Jan 05 2012
An Unreality guest post by Jarrod Lipshy.
Why I picked it: Jarrod has written a very interesting and in-depth essay about the new school vs. old school of game development. He knows his facts and history, and puts it all together in a very well-written package that’s a worthwhile comment on the state of the industry, and where we go from here.
I don’t play Angry Birds. Considering the hype surrounding it lately, it would appear that this places me in the minority of gamers. This is certainly not the case, but there’s a good reason for all the buzz. The company who publishes it, Rovio, has boasted a 1000% increase in revenue this last year – from $10 million in 2010 to $100 million in 2011. The total downloads are estimated at 600 million across all platforms. While each of these doesn’t necessarily denote a purchase as the game’s first few level packs have been made free, that’s still a lot of people paying attention to one game, especially one that’s recently celebrated its second birthday.
Compare that to the figures that Mario and Zelda games which have sold less than 300 million units since their inception over twenty years ago and it becomes easy to see why market analysts and tech-bloggers have begun digging the grave for traditional handheld console gaming. Nintendo’s 3DS was met with a lukewarm launch release, requiring an almost immediate price cut to maintain interest and re-coup lost market share. PSP’s Vita is appearing to fare no better, with only 1.7 million units sold in its first week of Japanese release. Increasing popularity in tablet devices and the looming specter of Google and Apple’s planned web-enabled TV set projects could spell trouble for console manufacturers beyond the hand-held market.
People have begun to bellow, instead of whisper that the Angry Birds are going to be the pall-bearers at Mario’s funeral. Not content to be pushed aside as the latest fad, Rovio has aspirations to be a media conglomerate in the scope of Disney, planning to release several Angry Birds sequels in the coming year while expanding merchandising lines prepping for their feature film release and a looming IPO planned on the Hong Kong stock exchange. They have already received 50+ million dollars from venture capital investors who specialize in hi-risk tech startups. While Nintendo’s capital resources are nothing to sneeze at, the fact that a comparison could even be made is a testament to the wow-factor of Rovio’s storm onto the gaming scene and the changing climate of gaming as we know it. Analyzing the advantages and disadvantages Rovio possesses over Nintendo allows us to see clearer the direction the future may hold for both companies in the coming new year and beyond.
Foremost: Nintendo is a console manufacturer first, a game publisher second, and a game developer third. In the days of Atari, third-party software was unheard of. Consoles with interchangeable game cartridges were still in their infancy, and companies were still used to manufacturing dedicated hardware to run the games on. Killer video games were just part of the package deal when you bought a console. Most of the original ones were developed by think-tank software engineering teams who had to write the assembly code for any games they designed before they could exist in any tangible electronic form. While trying to develop his first project, Donkey Kong, Miyamoto was constantly told by his engineer teams what he could and couldn’t do. The original design called for characters that changed size and see-saw physics puzzles. A compromise was reached where the playing field would be sloped so barrels could fall down in a logical manner with ladders and jumping as a means to avoid them. What we know as the grandfather of platform games took four technicians 20,000 lines of code to complete.
Companies with the know-how and capital to mass-manufacture consoles and arcade units in addition to the games that made them popular didn’t want two-bit software firms to write games for their units, an action they considered akin to piracy. It was only when the Nintendo Famicom hit shelves in Japan that third-party developers had become the norm. Even then, in its American release, Nintendo kept strict measures to maintain the quality of the software so that it did not reflect badly on the console. Game companies could only publish five titles a year and NES cartridges had to be manufactured by Nintendo, enabling them to get a cut of the game’s proceeds before they even hit shelves. Producing your own console took a lot of risk, but it meant continued revenues for companies like Nintendo. They didn’t want people mucking up the good will they had fought to cultivate after an oversaturation of poor quality Atari titles had sent the American video game market into a downward spiral. Titles such as Mario and Zelda came to represent a standard of quality and a flagship for the consoles they produced, not just a means for extra revenue.
Contrast this with Angry Birds which was written in Flash and Java for an OS they had nothing to do with on a piece of technology that was once alien to games more complex than snake. Atari had to sell itself to Warner Bros. just to pay off the development costs of their 2600 prototype, let alone pay for the cost of manufacturing them. Rovio can send their file directly to Apple and patch it. There’s no embarrassing recalls like the original Famicom chipset or the red-ringing Xbox360. There’s also no expensive R & D for new software engines. Even the physics engine is developed by a separate software company. They simply have to design the look and feel of the game and hit “send.” A streamlined business model makes it easier for investors to understand where the cash is going whereas an experimental new console can seem scary and high-risk.
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