The Games Industry Is Destroying Itself
The phrase "go big or go home" is supposed to be motivational. It means 'make sure you give it your all', 'always try your best', and 'don't let yourself wonder what could have been'. Unfortunately, gaming studios are taking the phrase a little too literally. It seems unless your game is the single biggest thing on the planet, there's no need for it to even exist. With Ubisoft cancelling three unannounced games yesterday and blaming so-so sales of mid-tier titles Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope and Just Dance, it feels like games are being crushed by the weight of expectation far too often.
What possible sales expectations could Ubisoft have had for Just Dance in 2022? The series has moved past its sell-by date and then some. Xbox isn't still making Kinect Sports, its time has passed. As for Rabbids, while the Mario brand offers some juice, it is a single-player tactical battler – not a crowd pleaser. I'm glad it exists, the first game was solid and this builds on it well, acting as a great intro to the genre. But it was not a game that was ever going to blow the roof off. Ubisoft has not revealed how much it sold, and therefore not told us what the expectations were, but it's part of a worrying trend.
Square Enix often plays the underperformed card too. Both Guardians of the Galaxy and Tomb Raider were thrown under the bus. Tomb Raider was given a trilogy, and a fresh game is in development (although Square Enix has since sold both properties to Embracer Group), but it was always discussed with an air of regret. The 2013 Tomb Raider had sold 8.5 million in two years, rising to 14.5 million as of the most up to date numbers. Shadow, the third in the trilogy and generally considered the weakest, pulled in 8.9. No numbers exist for Guardians, but it held number two in the box charts for a couple of weeks behind FIFA 22, so seems to have done okay. Including Game Pass, PS Plus, and preowned players, it appears to have amassed eight million players – for a game with almost zero marketing, that's no flop.
But just okay is no longer good enough. Every game needs to be a The Last of Us, a Red Dead Redemption, a Pokemon, a GTA. Or, in Ubisoft's case, an Assassin's Creed, a Far Cry. Ubisoft has games that rake it in, but as games grow more expensive and take longer to make, the games are few and far between. Ubisoft doesn't have enough of these huge guns, and in 2022, it had zero. Unlike most major studios, it also lacks a major live-service title to keep the money pouring in. It wants to make Assassin's Creed into one, which highlights the lack of ideas at Ubisoft HQ. All it can think to do is turn its best game (a single-player adventure, that many feel has already gotten too large and too far from its roots) into GTA Online. It keeps telling us what AC's live-service model isn't, but can't say a lot about what it is, which suggests it isn't really much.
It has, of course, tried traditional live-service games, but they felt as if an alien had been asked to create a live-service game to appeal to Gen Z gamers with cyclical monetisation, despite the alien not knowing what any of those words mean. Hyper Scape and Roller Champions both bit the dust, while Riders Republic was forced into a weird always-online model despite clearly being suited to a single-player experience. It's not even here yet and I'm still very confident we can write off whatever the hell XDefiant is. Ubisoft's live-service games have the Netflix problem. We know Netflix will cancel new shows, so we don't watch them, so they get cancelled. Why play XDefiant when it's going to be dead soon?
Of course, there's a flip side to all of this. Triple-A games have been moving away from the concept of double-A for a while now; I complained last year, after we had a string of incredibly expensive games made with a God of War-level of budget and scope being highly disappointing when smaller, cheaper, more intimate experiences may have worked. However, the gap is being filled from elsewhere. Devolver and Annapurna are backing the indie scene with big bucks, and titles like Cult of the Lamb and Stray are coming in to fill that void. Double-A games are no longer small big games, but big small games. It's not triple-As bumping down a notch, but instead indies rising up.
However, that's a small comfort. My fear is not that mid-sized games will disappear, but that mid-sized companies will. Activision Blizzard killed Crash Bandicoot, Tony Hawk's, and Spyro the Dragon despite solid sales because Call of Duty makes more. Ubisoft probably should have scrapped Just Dance a while ago, but it's worrying that Mario + Rabbids being publicly blamed (and therefore unlikely to continue) for Ubisoft killing three games of a similar size. This is a Mario game, not an unheard of IP. But it doesn't make Assassin's Creed bucks, so it's useless. As massive corporations swallow up studios, there will be even less space for okay games that play okay, review okay, and sell okay. They just don't make enough profit to be worth caring about. Go big or go home. That's an order.
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