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Counting Rupees: Selling out without selling out


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

Earlier this week, Next Generation published a list of the top 100 selling games of last year. Some sites used the list as an opportunity to analyze the impact of review scores on video games, or to alternately lament or exalt the state of gamers' sophistication, but I'd like to address one of the more perennial issues of the gaming community: Whether artistic and financial success are ultimately incompatible in this industry.

This isn't a new debate for most of us. The conventional wisdom is that, with few exceptions, the market rewards the common denominator: Cheap, quick, and easy games will beat sophisticated titles any day of the week and twice on Sunday. You can see variations on this theme throughout the gaming media; the notion that indie games can't make money, that gamers are violence- and sex-obsessed children, that stories and ideas just don't matter. Yet I'd argue that this conventional wisdom is wrong, and getting more so by the day.

"A notable proportion of top-selling games from this past year have attempted to tackle new, interesting, and even provocative styles or topics"

Take the Next Gen list. According to the New York Times, a game needs to sell about a half-million copies to earn "a significant profit;" conveniently, the list seems to start at about that. Now, it's certainly true that the list has plenty of filler on it ... but even so, I think there's a fair amount of evidence that a notable proportion of top-selling games from this past year have attempted to tackle new, interesting, and even provocative styles or topics on a much more frequent basis.

Some of these differentiate themselves on their storytelling. For example, take Ratchet & Clank: Tools of Destruction (600,000 copies, #83 on the list): although the series may seem like a standard – albeit imaginative – action shooter, reviews most positively cite its creative writing and strong voice acting in identifying what makes the series stand out. Or The Darkness (660,000 copies, #74); a game whose appeal rested primarily on its dark, subversive storyline. Other games stand out because of the unusual themes that they tackle. BioShock (1.7M copies, #29 on the list) is probably the most pre-eminent example of this particular attribute, and clearly demonstrates that when coupled with strong game play, a title can be both provocative and successful at the same time. Yet you can find similar sophistication in a game like Mass Effect (1.4M copies, #34) or the Orange Box's Portal (1.1M, #44). And finally, games have been extending the creativity of their game mechanics even further over the past few 12 months – games like the incredibly fresh Super Mario Galaxy (4.1M copies, #9) or innovative Rock Band (1.5M, #32).

"These games are a pretty sharp rebuke to those who claim that sequels are unable to advance the state of the industry ..."

Even the games that seem like cookie-cutter ghosts of ages past have vastly improved in almost any of these areas; God of War II was cinematic and compelling. Even Call of Duty 4, the best-selling game from 2007, has managed to overcome the pre-defined standards of its genre to craft a compelling gaming experience with a surprisingly good plot. These games are a pretty sharp rebuke to those who claim that sequels are unable to advance the state of the industry, even if they don't do so as quickly as some indie titles.

Now, you may have differing views on how good these games actually are – or complaints that the artistic vision realized in BioShock can't compare to that of a truly independent game like, say, Crayon Physics. But this, I would argue, reflects a misunderstanding about how fast or how significantly the industry can and should change. At heart this industry is a business: It's not enough to be creative and provocative, you need to produce a game that people like enough to pay for. And so artistic merit isn't rewarded for its own sake. Yet as I think this list illustrates, you can certainly make a profit and a statement at the same time.

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

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