Harsh Realities of the Game Industry — Part 2
In Part 1, we went over about how likely it is that you’ll get to be the Creative Director (hint: you probably won’t) and how sometimes (or even a lot of times), you won’t get to work on your dream game. Today things are going to ratchet up a notch. Let’s talk about product success, how fleeting and unreachable that can sometimes be in games, and what happens when things don’t work out according to plan.
This article was written with game development students in mind; but anyone that wants to make video games as a career may find it useful.
Harsh Reality #3: Many games are not successful
I recently helped a group of students with an assignment from their Intro to Game Design course. Their assignment was to come up with a monetization plan and market projection for a game of their own design. When they came to me, their market projection consisted of finding two games of the same genre as their game, taking account of the revenue those games had made, and then choosing a median number between them as their target. According to their plan, they were all going to be millionaires! Ah, such optimists.
Looking at similar games isn’t a bad place to start when doing an assignment like this; the problem was that the two games they chose to base their estimate on were two very successful games in that particular genre. Highly successful games are the exception, never the rule — and therefore I advised them it was unwise to count on replicating that same level of success. While I hated to be the one to tell them that their dreams of making millions from their game were unlikely to come true, at the same time, if you want to make games, it’s very important to begin with a solid grasp of this concept:
The vast majority of games are not successful. Most don’t attract a large audience. Some don’t make much, or any money. You probably won’t become a millionaire.
I know what you’re thinking right now. You’re thinking that your idea is different. That it doesn’t matter that most games aren’t successful, because your idea is so amazing that it’s going to be that next big hit. And you know what, you could be right. I hope you are, because it would be incredible if you made a game that everyone loves! I can’t wait to play it. But what you should also think about is whether or not you still want to make that game if everyone doesn’t love it.
I once worked at a company in Colorado called NetDevil. When I joined the team, they were 3 years in on a 4 year development cycle, building an MMO called Auto Assault. You can think of it as cars + guns, with real physics — very reminiscent of Mad Max. I had been hired on as a mission designer, and I was soon immersed in the game lore, writing and implementing game content with a team of several other designers.
In early 2006, we were all excited when Auto Assault launched! All that hard work, the long hours, the late nights, we were finally going to reap the rewards of that dedication! Except… The game wasn’t a hit. As it turned out, players found it difficult to relate to playing a car as their character. Additionally, because of the true physics model, it was challenging to create environments that felt immersive and interesting to explore, because we had could only show a certain number of polygons on the screen. To make matters worse, the marketing angle chosen by the publisher was ineffective, so many gamers didn’t even know that the game had been released.
Auto Assault did find a small, dedicated audience, but the game struggled to meet its projected targets from the very beginning. After the first two months, our player numbers were so low that our publisher, NCSoft, chose to reduce funding for the development team. That sealed the fate of the game — with a small 5-person team, we couldn’t manage the updates that an MMO needs to survive. In August of 2007, the game was shut down, permanently.
So think about that. A team of 40 people worked on a massive game for over 4 years, spending an incredible amount of time and energy and blowing through a multi-million dollar budget, only to find out that the game they created is not what the market wanted. And instead of seeing their creation soar, they had to watch it crash and burn. Auto Assault is gone, without a trace of all the love and passion and effort that the team put into creating it.
This isn’t a unique story in the game industry. This happens all the time.
The truth is that extremely successful games are a crazy, lucky combination of a great idea, executed well, with perfect timing and excellent marketing. There’s almost no way to plan for a game to be a huge success — while there are ways to increase your chances, there are no guarantees. So you’ll need to make sure that’s something you’re good with from the start.
People that makes games do so because they love it. Whether or not the final game is successful, they enjoy the process of building and creating, and working with their team to make something awesome. If it does make money, all the better! That means they get to make another! But having the expectation that every project you work on is going to be an amazing commercial success is not a realistic goal for most people.
Harsh Reality #4: Some games never launch
If you’re interested in working in games, the fact that some games don’t ever launch is probably old news. You already know that for every game that successfully launches, there are several that don’t. Gather ’round and I’ll tell you a story about the time I worked on a game that didn’t launch…
It was July of 2006, and I had just joined a new team at a start-up called Perpetual Entertainment, which was located in a big high rise in downtown San Francisco. At the time, the company hadn’t released any games yet, but had two fairly large MMOs in development: Gods and Heroes: Rome Rising, being built by a team of over 100, and Star Trek Online, which had a smaller development team of around 40 people. I had joined the STO team as a Senior Designer, and after some minor reorganization, transitioned over to the a Lead World Designer role within a few months of starting.
In my new role, I spent months diving into Star Trek canon, planning out game content, and developing the world lore along with the Lead Writer on the game, a soft-spoken, brilliant guy named Mike. The two of us worked side by side, methodically designing out each sector in the game, complete with planets, space anomalies, ground locations, enemies, and encounters. We kept meticulous notes of our design on an in-house wiki, and gave weekly presentations to the team to share our vision.
While Mike and I were planning out the content far ahead of the team, the game went into production. Soon we were able to create and play through our first few ground locations, as well as fly through space. We were all incredibly excited, and I was living the dream. Game development doesn’t get any better than that!
At the same time that things were going well on Star Trek Online, the Gods and Heroes team began to struggle. While the game was almost content complete, there had only been a mediocre response from players. G&H also had serious technical issues, the worst of which left the game unable to scale up past more than a couple hundred players. For MMOs to be cost effective and make money, a single physical server or “shard” needs to support thousands of players. If Gods and Heroes couldn’t do that, it was no longer financially viable to launch.
And that’s when the dominoes began to fall. In October of 2007, the company decided to suspend development on Gods and Heroes, and the majority of the team was laid off. Star Trek Online became the sole focus of Perpetual Entertainment. At the time, we believed this plan was in the interest of redirecting the budget of Gods and Heroes over to STO. And that seems like a great plan, although in order for that to happen, there needs to be money in the bank. After a couple of months and several creative business maneuvers on the part of the owners of Perpetual Entertainment, it became very clear that the company was in trouble. If we couldn’t find more funding, and fast, Star Trek Online would never come to be.
The details of October through the following February aren’t all that important; all that needs to be said is that despite our best efforts, we were unable to find that funding. In the end, the Star Trek license and all of what we had created up to that point was sold to Cryptic Entertainment. On the official last day of the project, they came and took the artwork off the walls. Those empty walls were a glaring reminder that the game we wanted to make, the one we lovingly crafted over the course of several years, was gone. Cryptic Entertainment did manage to launch Star Trek Online around two years later (To release an MMO so quickly is a testament to Cryptic’s streamlined development and the flexibility of their existing game engine — what an amazing feat!), although nothing that the Perpetual team created survived in the final release. Our version of Star Trek Online will remain just a story, forever.
If I said that this was anything less than completely devastating when it happened, I’d be lying. I spent most of my holiday break in December of 2007 dealing with the realization that the dream was over, my game was gone, my team was gone, and all of our hard work was for naught. Of course I moved on to bigger and better things after that experience at Perpetual, but I’ll always remember that last day on STO as one of the worst moments of my career.
Star Trek Online was canceled because Perpetual Entertainment ran out of money to continue development. But running out of funding is only one reason games get canceled. It can happen for many other reasons.
Sometimes the company you work for will suddenly change course. This usually happens when the executives at the top make some high level decisions about what the focus of the company should be. Some that I’ve personally seen include, “We need to make more Facebook games. Use all of our best IPs to make more Facebook games,” and “Forget Facebook; that’s over. We need to go all in on mobile games because that’s where the users are,” and, “Free to play is the future of MMOs. All of our MMOs in development need to be free to play!” As you can imagine, this can have a devastating effect on teams and projects that don’t fit the new vision. Some projects might be drastically changed mid-development cycle and others may be canceled entirely as the studio decides what stays and what goes.
Canceling games also happens quite frequently with company acquisitions. The parent company may have different goals than the acquired company, so it’s possible that projects even well into development are suddenly canceled (even if they are proceeding on schedule), as those goals come into alignment.
Some games are canceled because they do not meet expectations during development. This can include a multitude of “maybe” situations:
- Maybe the idea was solid, but the team didn’t have the skills or experience to execute on the plan at a high enough quality level.
- Maybe the team was hindered by poor tools that didn’t let them build the game they envisioned.
- Maybe the team lost their key programmer or designer partway through development and couldn’t find another fast enough, causing them to fall far behind schedule.
- Maybe the goals of the Creative Director were too lofty at the start and the game just wasn’t achievable in the time they had.
- Maybe there wasn’t a clear enough vision when the project began, so there were a lot of false starts, complete revamps, and design-by-committee, keeping the project from proceeding on course.
Whatever the reason may be, sometimes companies choose to pull the plug, rather than continue on and hope for the best. Surprisingly, this is the least common reason a game might be canceled. Decision-makers are often hindered by the sunk cost fallacy — that once they’ve spent so much money and time on something, they think they should see it through, even if it’s not meeting expectations. But there are a few companies out there that know how important it is to try many different ideas, and then only develop the best ones: Super Cell, King, and Blizzard Entertainment are examples of companies that kill projects if they are not up to standards.
The worst reason by far for a game to be canceled is for what appears to be no reason. The project is on schedule, the game is fun (enough), yet sometimes, a game can be canceled just because someone at the top decides that development on the game shouldn’t continue. There are many reasons that this can happen: perhaps a similar game was just released on the market and releasing a competing product isn’t a smart decision, perhaps another game within the company went over budget and it’s more important than your game, so the funds are reallocated to that team.
There are too many possibilities to list here, but what they all have in common is that they are business decisions that have little to do with the game itself. The game industry is a business, after all, and at most companies, decisions about what games are developed are often made by executives that handle the business aspects of running the company, and don’t ever have a hand in actual development. Money is what drives decision-making at the highest level of any company (although us creatives like to think otherwise).
If you work in games, there is a possibility that one day, any one of these scenarios might happen to you. You could be years into working on a game you absolutely adore, imagining what it will be like when players get their hands on it, only to have it all taken away in an instant. You’ll likely have little to no control over this situation when it happens; you may be immediately shuffled onto a new team with little adjustment time, or in the worst case scenario, find yourself out of a job completely.
If you want to work in games, you’ll need to be okay with this situation. Keep in mind — I’m not saying that canceling games and laying off entire teams is okay. It’s awful, every time. However, what I am saying is that it’s a reality in this industry, and it could very well happen to you.
Are you willing to put energy into a game without the guarantee that anyone will ever play it? Do you truly love the journey of creating? Would you do it all again, even if it doesn’t work out?
This is the second part in a series relating the harsh realities of the game industry, (and trying to find a silver lining, despite the challenges!). These are drawn from my own personal experiences working at companies like Blizzard Entertainment and Electronic Arts, among others. If you’re enjoying having your game dev dreams crushed, stay tuned for more.