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What happened to video game publishers?

For a considerable amount of time major videogame publishers have been a prominent force in the industry, helping to dictate which games get into the hands of players.

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Saints Row IV

For a considerable amount of time major video game publishers have been a prominent force in the industry, helping to dictate which games get into the hands of players.

In recent years however their influence has changed, that is not to say that they no longer have influence, but the way in which they operate has become narrower and this is particularly evident with what they now release.

Publishers are still a dominant force in the industry and are responsible for some of the most successful video game releases. Yet despite releasing highly successful titles they are either another entry to an established franchise, or as seen recently the first in a predetermined new franchise. This is mostly in reference to the “big three” third party publishers; this being Activision-Blizzard, EA, and Ubisoft. With the increased costs associated with AAA development, the number of games released by the big three is noticeably less compared with the output seen in the sixth console generation (PS2, GameCube, Xbox) and the first half of the seventh (Xbox 360, PS3, Wii).

This move towards depending on just a few major releases each year is most notable with Activision-Blizzard. Whilst its Blizzard subsidiary has mostly revolved around releasing very few games, its business model is mostly based on generating revenue via subscriptions for its MMO World of Warcraft and now the addition of micro-transactions from free2play titles like Hearthstone. Although there are also expansions for World of Warcraft and the releases of non-subscription based releases such as Starcraft and Diablo.

Activision meanwhile used to have a fairly diverse catalogue of games from different developers. Yet over the past decade many have been closed down or subsumed into other studios. The result has been that now Activision effectively has three franchises that it is dependent on, those being; the Call of Duty franchise, Skylanders, and the upcoming Destiny franchise by Halo creators Bungie. Although Activision recently announced the revival of Sierra Entertainment hinting at the return of some its adventure style games. Then there is also the forthcoming Legend of Korra game that is being developed by Platinum Games, which is a digital download based on the Nickelodeon TV series. Even with these recent announcements and the forthcoming Destiny, Activision has become far too reliant on too few titles.

EA, in comparison, are not in the same situation as they do have a broader output, in part helped by its sports division. However they have also become reliant on established franchises, although unlike Activision they still have a diverse range of studios creating different titles and so are not as dependent on the absolute success of just a few titles. Nonetheless the continued success of series’ like Battlefield, Madden, and FIFA are very important for EA’s financial health.

Then there is also the exclusive licensing obtained by EA to create Star Wars titles for the ‘core gaming market‘. So far this has only resulted in the announcement of a new Battlefront game that is being developed by Battlefield creators DICE, although this is not scheduled to be released until the third quarter of 2015. There has yet to be any further announcements of future titles that take advantage of the license, although it is quite possible that with the start of the new trilogy in 2015 for new titles to coincide around this.

Ubisoft is the last of the big three, in terms of revenue, but has a large number of diverse franchises that is has developed over the last decade as well as a number of new franchises and smaller individual titles that it has released recently. This year saw the release of their new franchise Watch Dogs which, despite mixed reviews and similarities with other Ubisoft titles, provides another type of open world game to bolster its growing lineup.

However the more interesting releases have been the smaller titles that have utilised the UbiArt engine originally used for Rayman Origins and Rayman Legends. The first was Child of Light which is described as a Western JRPG and the second was Valiant Hearts which is a puzzle adventure set during the Great War. These titles allowed smaller teams at Ubisoft a chance to make single player games that focused more on a straightforward narrative whilst also doing something a little different.

Although despite the willingness of Ubisoft to create such titles, they are by no means a shining example of what a big publisher should be. Neither of the subsequent UbiArt games can be seen as a true experiment, mostly because neither does something truly new. They are in reality an example of a big studio trying to see if they still have the ability to create a new smaller title by a smaller team. Even though they had done so before with the April Fool’s joke that was Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon, it was effectively a stand-alone expansion for Far Cry 3, and this concept of a stand-alone expansion was continued with Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag.

Even though the big three can be criticised for their reduced output, it can be argued that their actions have been in response to the perceived approach of how best to create and sell AAA titles. The idea of taking a risk is far too financially dangerous for them, for every title they make now has to be a “success”. This is has been cemented in their minds after what they perceived as the cause of THQ’s spectacular implosion, even though this can likely be attributed to poor direction from the top. However there are publisher like Square Enix who struggle to make a profit with a new Tomb Raider title, despite it initially selling around 7 million units, and then having to re-release it on (now) current gen to help generate even more revenue from it. It is then understandable why publishers would want to focus on fewer titles so that they can polish to excess and then provide them with an extravagant marketing budget to help guarantee they become a success.

Deep Silver appear to be one of the few publishers that understands how to create and market a AAA game in a manner that does not require unrealistic sales numbers in order to break even. This was evident with the transition of ownership of the Saints Row series that was previously owned by THQ. Saints Row: The Third sold well, but struggled to break even, whereas Saints Row IV managed to achieve higher sales earlier on even though Deep Silver at the time were not a big player in comparison to other publishers, nor were they of the scale of THQ before its demise, making the subsequent achievements by the German publisher more impressive. Regardless of the more efficient actions of Deep Silver, it can still be argued that on the whole their titles are fairly conservative and are not experimenting with new ideas, for there is still an overabundance of guns and violence among their titles.

This is not an insight into the operations of every video game publisher, although with the current number operating it is possible, but with the start of this console generation the impact of indie developers is already being felt. The first year of a new console is usually quiet as there are only a few developers that get the opportunity and/or are able to create a brand new video game in time for the launch window. This time has seemed to have struggled with a dearth of content just as much (or possibly more so) than previous generation beginnings, and even then there have been a number of “next gen” versions and re-releases.

However during this time, especially on PS4 (and to a lesser extent on Xbox One), indie titles have neatly filled the gap due to the absence of AAA games. Whilst they may not be utilising the power of these consoles to their full potential, the ease of which they can be accessed and their prominence on the store fronts is notable. They have helped to make the PS4 have an active and diverse catalogue of titles from such an early stage, potentially helping the console to achieve 10 million sales in less than one year.

Whilst many indie games are self-published, a number of the prominent titles, such as Hohokum, are published by the system owner, in this case Sony. Both Sony and Microsoft have a number of internal studios creating first party software exclusive for their consoles, but the approach of funding smaller diverse titles is becoming a more essential component to the software lineup found on their consoles.

The downside to this is of course the demise of the AA game, for the market seems to be unable to accommodate them. Whilst some of the blame can lie with publishers not supporting these titles properly, it also has to be recognised that games of this nature are a much harder sell. They often lack the polish and the size of the AAA games, and they are not as experimental and/or unique as the indie titles. In addition, in the highly commercialised world that we live, AA games now struggle to justify their price; as AAA are seen to offer lengthy playtime (such as the Assassin’s Creed series) worthy of their higher price, whereas indie games have a much lower price and therefore if the player does not like it they have not parted with as much money.

Publishers once dominated the video games industry, but that is no longer the case. They are still influential, and their impact will continue to be felt, but with the rise of independent developers and with it digital distribution and self-publishing, players now have more choice than they have ever had and no longer rely on what is provided by publishers. Publishers are in a delicate situation and they have to carefully manage how they operate otherwise the house of cards could collapse around them resulting in another THQ situation; one which the likes of Crytek is still struggling to deal with after absorbing many previous THQ studios and IP.

Although ultimately the actions of the publishers are a response to the market; millions of people buy a new Call of Duty game every year, so why wouldn’t Activision continue to produce new titles. The video game audience is still fickle in deciding what it wants, but comparing the current titles available now to when the seventh generation started highlights how far the medium has come during the past decade. Hopefully the medium continues to grow over the coming decade. Where that leaves the current publishers, we’ll have to wait and see.

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Despite studying Politics at Undergrad and then War Studies at Master's level, James managed to write multiple essays relating to technology and more importantly video games.