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Counting Rupees: You drink their milkshake

Geoffrey Brooks
Each week Jeff Engel and Geoff Brooks contribute Counting Rupees, a column on the business behind gaming:

Guitar Hero IV is on its way, and with it are coming individual games themed around Metallica, Aerosmith, and others. This follows the strategy highlighted by Activision CEO Robert Kotick last year, in which the executive promised shareholders to fully "exploit" the company's franchises on an annual basis. The immediate response of gamers was almost exclusively negative, not least because the prospect has connotations of poor quality and high pricing. Although Activision may be the only company to announce its strategy so publicly, it's hardly the only adopting these kinds of tactics. If it irritates gamers so much, why do companies in the industry do this? And is it as bad as it seems?

I would argue that the answer isn't as clear-cut as it looks at first glance. Let's start with why companies do this in the first place. Perhaps unsurprisingly, most people would immediately answer, "To make more money." Yet the logical implication – that "more money" comes from game players out there who are actually still purchasing these games – doesn't always come concurrently. If games were really being driven into the ground to the point that they lacked any redeeming features, no one would buy them; so there must be some value here for somebody. In short, this is more of a shorthand argument amounting to what a given gamer no longer finds interesting, is something in which no one should still be interested.

Additionally, it's worth noting that many of the "sequels" in question are not, in fact, pure sequels. Take Guitar Hero's single-artist titles – although there are quite a few numerically, they're really distinct flavors. Is a Metallica fan really likely to also purchase an Aerosmith game? Probably not – even though the two games are from the same franchise, there's really not a lot of overlap between the two. By creating the two products separately, Activision has probably done these fans a favor: They no longer have to purchase a package of bundled songs they may not be remotely interested in.

"Gamers should be careful not to confuse pursuit of low-hanging fruit with malice."

Perhaps the best theoretical argument against copycat games is the notion that they crowd out innovation, suppressing new and interesting ideas that would otherwise break through into the industry. Unfortunately, I think this view is also often misguided. Companies ultimately make games that they think people want to buy. This means that, frequently, they will chase trends, developing titles that ape other successful games that sold well. Almost as frequently, they will chase those trends too late: the substantial lag between conceptualization, development, and ultimate sale means that consumer tastes may very well change before a game comes out. For example, there are way too many MMOs out there right now for the potential population of players – yet many of those have already been in development for so long that it made more financial sense to complete them than to drop them entirely. (I remain surprised that there are developers continuing to make so many of them.) Yet this is ultimately a problem with consumer tastes and fashion; if publishers weren't chasing that specific trend, they'd be chasing a different one. The sad fact is that edgy, interesting, cutting edge games have the same problem that movies of that variety have: Not that many people are interested in them, because the money is in the mainstream.

Finally, the gaming industry is, in many respects, largely built on iteration. Admittedly, some genres, like the RTS, have failed to move much beyond even their most ancient predecessors – you'd be hard-pressed to find substantive conceptual differences between Command & Conquer 3 and the first game in the series. But most progress in gaming, like that in so many other industries, is methodical, the slow accretion of new feature upon new feature. Transformative, innovative change is just uncommon, whether in gaming or, say, physics. And the financial incentive to go after nice, large markets is substantial. Gamers should be careful not to confuse pursuit of low-hanging fruit with malice.

As co-editors of A Link To The Future, Geoff and Jeff like to discuss, among many other topics, the business aspects of gaming. Game companies often make decisions that on their face appear baffling, or even infuriating, to many gamers. Yet when you think hard about them from the company's perspective, many other decisions are eminently sensible, or at least appeared to be so based on the conditions at the time those choices were made. Our goal with this column is to start a conversation about just those topics. While neither Geoff nor Jeff are employed in the game industry, they do have professional backgrounds that are relevant to the discussion. More to the point, they don't claim to have all the answers -- but this is a conversation worth having. You can reach them at