At the dawn of 2011, Disney Interactive Studios initiated a round of layoffs. Then another round in March. Even now, as spring shakes off the cruel chill of the post-Christmas season, Disney Interactive Studio’s problems mount: The Mouse has taken the axe to 100 employees (how’s that for a mental image?) at Black Rock Studios, the developers behind the 2010 racing title Split/Second.
Sometimes it seems like we hear more about the cuts and layoffs coming out of big game studios than we do about the actual projects they’re working on. What’s to become of big studio development and their AAA titles? Are large publishers destined to split into smaller, more manageable entities and then regroup again in buyouts in order to shoulder rising development costs? Or are big publishers just an endangered species that’s plodding towards inexorable extinction?
Closer study of the Black Rock Studio layoffs provides some insight as to what the future holds for big game developers and publishers. Inevitable extinction isn’t likely; there will always be an audience for triple-A blockbuster core games. However, big studios that want to hang around for a few years longer will have to evolve, a process that Disney Interactive Studios has already undertaken. Black Rock Studios hasn’t been slain, but according to the anonymous source who initially tipped Eurogamer off about the layoffs, its staff staff has been reduced to a size that’s presumably suitable for working on a project that’s “promising” and “new and risky.”
(Disney has since confirmed the layoffs.)
The source also revealed that Disney Interactive Studios is trying to become more involved in social and mobile games, echoing the strategies of other publishing giants like EA. In fact, diversifying in this manner might prove to be the key to a big publisher’s survival. Titles for core gamers are becoming more expensive to develop, but they can be funded in part by serving a more casual audience with social and mobile games.
Unfortunately, when a big-budget game fails to make a profit, it can spell disaster for even the biggest studio. It’s no wonder Disney has Black Rock working on one project now, instead of two or more simultaneously. It is, however, heartening to learn that the project is (supposedly) based on a new and fresh idea. Given the increasing risks that accompany big budget game development, there’s a danger of publishers falling back on sequels, remakes, and updates. Larger studios do need to be careful about how money is made and spent, but coming up with creative ideas shouldn’t fall to indie studios alone.
There is a future for big studios, but at this point in gaming’s history, everything relating to the pastime looks a little foggy and it’s impossible to tell who will stand where in the coming years. Once the air clears and everybody scrambles to take their places, we’ll be looking at a different industry, but one thing’s certain: Core gamers are going to want their big budget titles, even if we get fewer of them from year to year.