What Have We Learned From the Recession?

What Have We Learned From the Recession?

Some lessons are easy to learn because immediate consequences ensure they’re never repeated. Don’t touch a hot stove. Don’t eat spoiled pork. Don’t shove a cat in a doll’s pram.

Other lessons don’t yield quick knowledge, which leads outsiders to wonder if the people involved learned anything at all. Perfect example: The sighing and head-shaking that goes on over politicians’ decisions. Another, more interesting example: The recent recession and its impact on the games industry.

The Economic Downturn (a.k.a. Great Recession) of 2008 decimated people’s homes, livelihoods, and those little piles of money that families set aside for leisure activities. Video game purchases took an obvious back seat to food and shelter. Now that a few rays of sunshine are kissing the economy, we can step back and look at how the games industry did as a whole. How did it survive? What did it learn, if anything?

Game Theory‘s very own Scott Steinberg asked developers the same question last summer, including EA founder Trip Hawkins, the father of The Sims, Will Wright, and Jason Rubin, the creator of Crash Bandicoot. As highly-respected industry veterans, they know a little something about monitoring its health. And despite the Recession, they all appear hopeful for the future of the pastime–albeit a bit cautious.

Said Rubin, “We have to change. And I think that what will happen in the next few years is that we will make those changes, become profitable again, and there will be yet another heyday. The stimulus for that change will be a distribution change in going digital.”

Wright likewise sees a huge change coming for the games industry, and though he doesn’t name digital distribution specifically, he believes that these tumultuous times will be beneficial in the end. “I think we’re in the Cambrian explosion of games,” he said, “where all these weird new life forms are popping out for the very first time and filling these niches that are appearing dramatically. And of course a lot of the old, established things are going to be dying off pretty rapidly, even the major life forms. But more than anything else, I see this being the healthiest thing that could happen in the industry.”

Rubin and Wright are correct: The games industry has irrevocably changed, and the Recession is partially to thank (or blame, depending on your viewpoint). The rapid move towards digital distribution is one indicator that developers and publishers understand they’re competing for folks’ pocket change in an era where entertainment is as available as ever, even though money is not. Downloadable games are not just about pecking away at some imitation of Tetris anymore; now there are full titles from all genres available on Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network, WiiWare, iOS and Steam available for a fraction of a full retail release.

But the long lifeline currently running through this generation of game consoles is the strongest bit of evidence that game developers are preparing very carefully for the future. Once upon a time, marketing consoles was all about more power, more graphics, more “bits.” Now, Sony and Microsoft have developed Move and Kinect as natural ways to extend the life of its consoles instead of forcing people to dish up hundreds of dollars for the latest, greatest thing. The coming of the Nintendo 3DS will be the first major console release in nearly five years.

There is one major exception to console manufacturers’ recent sensitivity to players’ budgets: Apple. Apple is always on the edge with the latest and greatest technology, which has a major impact on its games. Not two years ago, the iPhone 3G was a powerhouse. Now, next to the iPhone 4, it’s a joke. Some games developed with the iPhone 4’s hardware in mind run sluggishly on the iPhone 3G, or not at all. If Apple seeks to compete directly with Nintendo, which has a talent for squeezing every bit of potential out of its old hardware, it’s going to have to think about how frequently its “must-have” firmware updates need to happen.

Whatever happens next, we’ll be over here watching–and playing.

Picture source

About Nadia Oxford
Nadia is a freelance writer living in Toronto. She played her first game at four, decided games were awesome, and has maintained her position since. She writes for 1UP.com, Slide to Play, GamePro and other publications, and is About.com’s Guide to the Nintendo DS.

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