This line only goes up, right?

18 Oct
18 October 2009

During the upcycle of a trend, it’s rare to see a quote from someone at the COO level that isn’t blue-sky / this-is-the-future / one-billionty-percent-growth-forecasted balloon juice.  Which is why Dean Takahashi’s VentureBeat piece last Wednesday, in which John Schappert is quoted as opining that the current “social gaming bubble” resembles the “mobile games hype” of yesteryear, warms my heart. 

(Even if, as Dean points out, Schappert’s comments could be designed to help EA achieve a better price for any companies they might want to acquire.  A little late for that to be useful if rumors like the Playfish deal turn out to be true….) 

The current hype cycle is nothing new.  At some point in early 1998, after we had released Age of Empires and started work on Age of Kings, someone floated an article from one of the gaming magazines around the Ensemble Studios offices showing that approximately every man, woman, and child on the planet was working on a RTS.  I believe the actual count was 88 announced PC RTSs. 

For some, this caused Chicken Little-level concern.  Clearly it signaled the coming of a market so crowded that anything we might do next would be buried.  Worse, a number of the games on the list had “knights and castles” screenshots or title — direct competition. 

A few years later, after we shipped Age of Kings and were watching it rack up million of sales, someone dug out that same list again and took a look.  Only around a dozen of the games that had been announced in 1997 managed to ship.  Of those, I think four (of the maybe 88) had sold anything north of “disappointing”. 

This trend has been repeating since this business was invented.  In ’97 it was RTSs.  Shortly before that it had been FPSs.  In ’99 the “list of 88” was MMOs.  In 2000, it seemed like every dev I knew was shifting to console work.  By 2002,  if you walked into game conference talk at random there was a 90% chance that it was about how to make money on cellphone games.  iPhone apps were the new “future of gaming” around 2007.  2009 saw FaceBook / “social gaming” take off as the trend. 

The business has been dominated by the bandwagon for most of its existence.  The chief market forces are the publishers and the publishers are public companies. Expansion is what makes stock prices rise, hence an attraction for every trend that surfaces.  Publishers provide the cash, hence when they become enamored with a particular direction, a large chunk of the development community gets steered down that path. 

This isn’t unusual and it isn’t a problem in many other industries — every car company on the planet decided to make a SUV not long ago, for example.  But the games business has a singular, Eye of Sauron style approach that blots out anything that isn’t the current focus.  If we were the auto industry, we would discontinue all other models so that we could “get into the SUV game”.

 It’s not a particularly healthy or (when tallied fully) productive model, as is illustrated by the “list of 88″ that can be drafted for any trend — we hear a lot about the success and profitability of the four who do well, not so much about the 84 who do little more than incinerate VC.

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