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Is Call of Duty all this industry really is?

Those aren’t my words, those are the words of Peter Molyneaux. Molyneau spoke to Eurogamer at Microsoft’s Spring Showcase. He’s saying this because he’s pimping the new Fable game, Fable: The Journey, which is Kinect driven. Here’s the full quote in context:

“We’re doing the same thing that Hollywood’s doing with action movies. We’re inventing a formula, and we’re repeating it over and over again, and we’re grabbing every penny from our consumers and not bothering to think about something different. And they’re the people that need something different. They’re our fans, and this is their hobby, man! We can’t be lazy! We can’t back away from creative inventiveness now, just because it costs a bit more money. Now’s the time to double down on that. Is Call of Duty really it? Is that all this industry really is? If it is, then you should just shift me off to the mental asylum now.”

This all goes back to what we have discussed here at length — it’s what Mike spoke about when he reviewed Syndicate. It’s what I inferred when I wrote about Binary Domain — a game that needs the press and needs word of mouth to succeed. This industry, and I believe this with every fiber of my being, isn’t as big as we want to make it appear. It’s dominated by a handful of what are truly “AAA” games. The rest is filler. The games industry isn’t Hollywood.

So, yeah, in a way Molyneux’s Doomsday rhetorical question is true. We are all about Call of Duty.

When you look at the amount of money thrown at a lot of games in development today, you need to sell an unrealistic number of copies to an audience that simply is not there. Don’t get me wrong — a lot of people play games. If you define that as liberally as you like: Minecraft, WoW, Halo, Call of Duty, Skyrim, Madden, Angry Birds, online chess — we are talking a whole mess of people playing videogames. However, those same people aren’t buying the 2nd tier game. At least in not enough numbers to warrant developing them.Or — and more importantly — developing them to be more than what they are. It’s like when you are in college and you live on a budget. You can afford dinner, snacks., and beer. But not all three.

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So where does Molyneux come in here? The notion that the Kinect is the answer to the core gamer doldrums isn’t only risky — it’s sorta crazy. Now I freely admit that I’m not a Kinect fan. I own one. My daughter begged me to get it for her. I have played “core” Kinect games just to see what the fuss was all about and I am convinced that, as of now, it’s a fad that sold a ton of units much like every animated movie that comes out makes money because parents need something to do with the kids — so they go see the latest cartoon movie.

It’s going to take some smart financial planning to make the “less than AAA” retail game a success. It’s going to take some innovation, some smart marketing, some smart planning and a new way to look at how this industry operates. Is the Kinect going to take us out of this Hollywood action movie rut that is currently boring everyone to tears, according to Molyneux, anyway?

Of course..there’s always the chance that I’m talking out of my ass. I honestly have no idea how many copies of The Darkness II 2K Games needed to sell in order for developing that game to be worth the effort. We do know that THQ sold a lot of Space Marines — and it still wasn’t enough. It seems that when you shoot for that AAA pie in the sky: you better not miss. Because this industry is all about Call of Duty.

Bill Abner

Bill has been writing about games for the past 16 years for such outlets as Computer Games Magazine, GameSpy, The Escapist, GameShark, and Crispy Gamer. He will continue to do so until his wife tells him to get a real job.

23 thoughts to “Is Call of Duty all this industry really is?”

  1. We talk about this a lot, but stop charging the same goddamn price for every game.

    Nothing about the economics of this industry makes the slightest lick of sense to me.

  2. When it gets down to brass tacks, the fact is that most people do not play enough games, nor do they want or need to play enough games, to support the sort of apocryphal industry as gamers- and many working in the industry- want to believe exists. Sales figures like those for Call of Duty and Madden are illusory. They do not represent the health of the industry, nor do they represent its potential. They represent two very successful brands that have mainstream appeal. There are likely lots of 360s and PS3s in the wild that have only ever played one or both of these games in whatever iteration suits the particular owner.

    It’s easy when you’re reading about, talking about, writing about, and of course playing games a lot to think that it’s this huge, vast world- and the internet makes it seem even bigger. But the reality of it is that when there have been nearly 70 million XBox 360s sold to date and you put out a “AAA” game that sells 1,000,000 copies you’re still looking at a very small attach rate by percentage.

    I would argue that yes, the industry as it stands right now is almost entirely dependent on Call of Duty and a very small number of annualized franchises. Everything else is, as Bill stated, filler. Is it any wonder that those second tier games (and below) are chasing those CoD dollars?

    But then we circle around once again to expectation. You’ve got developers pricing out their proposals based on particular sales figures and a percieved health in a particular genre, brand, or segment of the industry and failing to meet the expectations of the people with the purse strings. Then you’ve got consumers who are trained to expect certain qualities out of every game, which every game may or may not be aiming to achieve. Then there’s the millions of dollars spent on advertising including trash transmedia and press-only events.

    It’s a mess. The worst thing that ever happened to the games business was success.

    1. “It’s a mess. The worst thing that ever happened to the games business was success.”

      I’d imagine you could apply the same logic to the music, movie, or even television industry. I disagree with you statement, though. Yes, most of the game industry thrives on just a handful of titles. Most pop music will be dominated by a few artists at a time. Where we once had only one trilogy, now trilogies seem to be the goal of the movie industry.

      But then there’s the gems that creep up. Minecraft, for example, got huge in the age of Call of Duty. It wasn’t trying to mimic what it was doing, it just did something very well. If you follow the logic that all developers are chasing Call of Duty money, then every studio would be trying to make every game like a modern setting first person shooter. Yes, there are plenty of studios trying to do just that, but there’s also a lot of smaller studios putting out games for the rest of us that want a more varied pallet as well.

      I have friends that won’t eat at anything that isn’t a chain restraunt. I have friends that refuse to eat at those establishments entirely. I’ve seen the same approach to gaming.

      I don’t see anything wrong with that. Gaming has evolved as an entertainment art form to include the entire spectrum of artistry. With the good comes the bad, but I don’t think anyone’s getting excluded.

  3. If you have little kids and a Kinect (or are thinking about getting one for your kids), you need to check out Happy Action Theater. Your kids will have a blast with that. For me, the Kinect succeeds because of two words and two words only: Dance Central. This is the kind of thing that can only be done with the Kinect, and it actually works. Not a half-assed controller replacement like the Kinect functionality in Mass Effect 3 (“better with Kinect” my ass Bioware) but a real experience built entirely around Kinect as something unique.

  4. My initial reaction to this was, well yes, if you want to make a lot of money, then you make a product that sells the most readily to the most people — i.e., Call of Duty.

    However, there are (I hope) people that want to make games that aren’t Call of Duty. I think the “Guillermo del Toro” film model of alternating between art and commerce might work with new games as well.

    1. But people don’t want something that is like Call of Duty, they want Call of Duty. This is what the industry fails to understand, CoD fans will buy very few games a year and I may be genralizing but those games tend to be CoD and the latest Sports games. These fans don’t look at Homefront and say ‘hey that looks like CoD I’ll buy that’, what they do say is ‘huh that looks like CoD’ then they put the Homefront box back on the shelf and leave the store with MS points to buy the new CoD map packs. CoD, like WoW, will kill itself and no matter how hard publishers and developers try nothing in their genres nothing will be as successful as the big dogs.

  5. I can’t speak about the Xbox market knowledgeably, but on the PC side there are plenty of developers doing quite nicely without AAA blockbusters, Paradox being the most obvious one.

    1. Console’s different. There’s a lot of experimentation going on in the PC realm, helped in large part by digital distribution platforms like Steam. Not everything needs to be $60. In the console market the range seems to be $60 for a disc release, or $10-15 for XBLA/PSN. But those disc releases really should span the gap, because not every game is worth $60. Not by a long shot.

      1. Can the No High Scores writers comment about this? I feel that if most gamers make their purchases without reading reviews and the like, then when they walk in the store and see a 30 dollar game that’s new versus a 60 dollar game, then they would be likely to get the cheaper one. I mean, the used games market thrives like crazy. If you have games like Binary Domain and Vanguish be much cheaper, people are willing to take more risks. 60 dollars for something that you have no idea will be good is not worth it for most people. When Call of Duty gets tons of marketing and major word of mouth, consumers feel confident that they will get their money’s worth.

        1. “60 dollars for something that you have no idea will be good is not worth it for most people.”

          This is part of my fear with the the industry’s push to kill the used/rental markets. People are more likely to rent/purchase with intent to resell a game like Binary Domain (when purchased at $60). If the only options are pay $60 up front, skip altogether, or wait for $30 I’m much more likely to choose one of the latter two. In fact, I’m more likely to skip it altogether just because there are a lot of games that come out every year, and if it doesn’t catch my eye immediately it’s more likely to fall through the cracks as time passes. Maybe it’ll end up like Metro 2033, where word of mouth makes me pick it up years later for $5 on sale.

          Not every game is worth $60. And for the non-CoD/Madden/Halos of the world, without some method of lowering the cost early on these companies might be slitting their own throats.

    2. Exactly Paradox proves not all games have to be blockbusters as long as it is budgeted right. This is the thing that annoys me about the industry how can these people be so dense and question why games like Homefront don’t meet expectations when they pump in millions just for the ad campaign alone especially hen it’s a ne IP, it drives me crazy. I really think the industry will suffer another collapse and to be honest I think that will come sooner rather than later.

  6. I’m not sure what old Pete’s point is here. He’s not doing anything innovative in this space – he’s making a Kinect cash-in game based on a AAA franchise.

  7. It’s a matter of buying games. For me between board games and video games I’m buying at least two games a month (last month I think it was 4) and I still don’t play all the games I want to. I have to make decisions and yeah that CoDMW10 is probably to get bought cause I know I can squeeze at least 20 hours of game play from it, where as Syndicate I might get 4. It sucks but that’s how I break it down sometimes.

  8. “We’re doing the same thing that Hollywood’s doing with action movies. We’re inventing a formula, and we’re repeating it over and over again, and we’re grabbing every penny from our consumers and not bothering to think about something different.”

    And Peter Molyneaux starts making “3D movies”.

  9. Call me an optimist; I feel like in 10-20 years we’ll see this AAA-only phenomenon disappear and be replaced with a model much like other creative industries. I think part of the problem is that gaming exploded into the mainstream too recently and too quickly, and as such, many people who are participating in the hobby are still at the ‘gateway;’ they might play your CoDs and Maddens and some Kinect game, but they’re not likely to grab Professor Layton off the shelf for some old-school puzzle-solving.

    But like any medium, at some point, many people will want more than just another shooter, or another sports game; I’m sure a lot of us got our gaming habits started from simple popular games and moved on from there.

    Okay, so my argument’s a bit simplistic, and I’m basing myself off what happened in the film industry a bit too much; but it certainly doesn’t seem like too far a stretch for me to imagine that in 5 or 10 years, all these games who started off with CoD:MW might be interested in trying a new type of game, or at the very least, a different type of shooter, like Syndicate, or Binary Domain, or maybe branch off to a different genre altogether.

    Then again, I might be way too optimistic…

    1. Or they might stop gaming altogether because they think CoD and Madden is all there is. If you don’t get exposure to more interesting, artful and innovative games early on, you might never get into them. I’m doing Art and Culture Studies, and when it comes to high-art, low-art distinctions, this is often the case. People aren’t gonna jump from popular art to high art just like that.

  10. It’s a valid message, but has Molyneux even developed a decent game recently? The last one may have been Dungeon Keeper 2.

  11. Peter Molyneux has been bat-shit crazy for years. He may have been one hell of a developer in the 1990’s, but he’s spent the last decade generating hype for his lackluster games by making wild inflammatory statements about the industry to garner media attention.

    Mission Accomplished Peter!

  12. so if you don’t count the people who play rpgs, modern combat shooters, sci-fi shooters, aimless brick building games or sports games there really isn’t much of a market?

  13. What’s ironic is that COD4 itself was trying new things at the time of its release. It was the odd man out against Halo 3 and was barely a blip on anyone’s radar at a time when WW2 shooters were still the copy-cat go-to game formula.

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