Big Budget Retail Releases: Still Necessary?

Big Budget Retail Releases: Still Necessary?

Where will physical game distribution wind up ten years down the road? The popular answer is: “In our memories.” Digital distribution is flying, and it’s not hard to picture us downloading all our console games from online services like Xbox Live Arcade and the PlayStation Network.

But Mark Cerny, the man behind Marble Madness and several Sony properties including Jak & Daxter and Killzone, believes that console-based blockbuster titles require retail releases in order to make a profit–though he also believes that publishers need to work on their out-of-control development costs.

“There have been a number of highly-publicized titles that have cost $70-80 million,” Cerny told GamesIndustry.biz in an interview. “It is rather hard to spend that money in an efficient fashion. What typically happens when you’re up in that budget range is that you are not quite sure what sort of game you’re making. And so you have a seven year development period, and it changes, and your burn rate is very high because you have a large team. Those budgets can come down much more easily because there’s a high degree of inefficiency built into them.”

Cerny also said that our expectations for sequels tends to drive up developers’ costs.

“Bad sequels should be cheaper,” he said. “Good sequels require trying something new. You have the foundation, it’s the springboard for something that people have never seen before. Uncharted 2 was game of the year because it added the multiplayer. It felt very fresh. If it had been the same single-player experience again it may have not seen its Metacritic go up, it would have gone down. In my opinion it wouldn’t have been game of the year.

“It’s not trivial to reduce you budget by any means when making a sequel.”

Whether or not Uncharted 2 owes its critical and financial success to its multiplayer function is up for debate, but Cerny’s interview with GI.Biz still contains some interesting points about the gradual transformation of game development. Namely, blockbuster games that are meant to be distributed at retail are the top achievement in an industry that offers its programmers many options for profit-making and personal expression.

Cerny said, “Five years ago the [game development] route was this – you did portable then you did home. Portable was so small it was just you and three of your buddies making a game and if that went well you grow to do home console.

“Today you’ve got one more rung in that ladder because you can do your own iPad or iPhone game and if you want to go up from there you can go to the modern portables, which still take a significant team size.”

All good points with a lot of truth behind them. On the other hand, what about the PC market? The retail market for PC games are tiny, and not all PC games are fiddly little Facebook distractions. Many of them have development budgets that are comparable to blockbuster console games.

But many modern PC games eventually go cross-platform, which doubtlessly helps build revenue. What’s more, the cultural differences between PC and console gamers might prove Cerny right in the long run. Console gamers are still very used to plugging in cartridges and slipping in discs, instinctive movements that won’t be bred out of us anytime soon. Then there’s Nintendo, which is arguably the most influential company in the console industry, and in no rush to switch to digital distribution.

For now, console gamers are happy to download “smaller” games, or the extra content that accompanies a big-name release. But they also subconsciously throw their fullest expectations into retail releases.

Cerny is correct about the state of game retail, but there’s also a bit more to it. Game retail isn’t just necessary for the sake of profit: We also derive a kind of psychological comfort from its existence.

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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