Is The Videogame Industry On The Decline?

Once labelled 'recession proof' by the more optimistic people of the world, the videogame industry is now finding it difficult to move with these economically tough times. Under an immense struggle to show any signs of the powerhouse it was just a few years ago, the question has to be asked: how has this happened?

The predicted slow-down before the next generation of hardware?  The sign of a new market emerging?  Or maybe something entirely different: have we as gamers finally woken up and smelled the coffee?  The metaphorical beverage odour that the industry could well be in a creative rut chock-full of sequels, rehashes and gimmicks.

Now, I don't possess to have any kind of invested experience in the industry that might otherwise shed a light on where the industry finds itself these days – though I have worked within videogame journalism for some time – nor do I have to hand the kind of hard figures that would make pinning down the real reasons behind the slump of the industry that I once cherished so much, but that has recently done nothing to afford favour. Still, my position does afford me some leeway; both in terms of the impartial viewpoint it grants and first-hand account of my own experience with videogames.

Industry veterans and studio start-ups alike will likely look at the quite unfortunate position the industry finds itself in and pull out a handful of credible reasons why sales are down across the board – UKIE/GfK Chart-Track this week announced software sales in the UK were the lowest since records began, while the US has seen retail sales of videogames fall for the seventh consecutive month. The most obvious being the state the world economy find itself in (something we've all been affected by in one way orSales across videogame hardware and software continues to fall. another), although look further afield and you might pull out the 'calm before the storm', commercially speaking, as the current generation of hardware approaches the end of its life cycle and we prepare for its successors.

That the charts are yet to track the ever-growing sector of digital downloads (home to the delights and creative richness of the indie scene you ought to be reminded) and micro-transaction-fuelled freeware, meanwhile, you'll begin to understand that getting a real sense of the economical picture is by no means an easy task.

But I feel there's more to it than those particular observations. Having been a huge fan of videogames for as long as I can remember but having recently grown somewhat apathetic towards the industry, I've found myself over the past year reflecting more and more on exactly what it is I once found so alluring about interactive entertainment. Where I was once playing videogames daily for hours on end, I now rarely so much as look at my stockpile of home and portable consoles without feeling despondent and, without sounding overly dramatic, disheartened. It's an industry in most parts that shows increasingly noticeable signs of creative stagnation. Yearly franchised sequels litter the shelves, while projects are green-lit not through being innovative but on their long term commercial viability as a franchise. 

Just take a gander at this year’s heaviest of hitters and there’s a familiar trend running through them: every single one is a sequel. Call of Duty: Black Ops II (the ninth Call of Duty in just 10 years), FIFA 2013 (an annual release), Assassin’s Creed III (the fifth in the series since 2007), Resident Evil 6, Halo 4, Darksiders II, Borderlands 2… The list, of course, goes on and on, and that’s not even to mention Nintendo and its tireless re-treading of old ground with the likes of New Super Mario Bros. 2 and Pokémon Black 2, nor the barrage of like-for-like first-person shooters that continue to run the conveyor belt of mediocrity, bankrolled by the Activision's, EA's and THQ's of this world. I ask, where has the inspiration gone? Have we really got to a point where the large majority of videogame developers have all but lost their desire to create properties from the ground-up, where boundaries are pushed and where the end-game is ultimately to deliver something new and exciting to its audience?

I won’t excuse the fact that I enjoy the fair few of those games I’ve just mentioned (in particular, Halo and FIFA) but in the same instance I can feel my interest in them waning. Where a Halo release once felt like a worldwide event to be cherished (the slow, tension-filled build-up to Halo 3, for example), they now feel muted and a little…false. How can we truly get excited about a new entry in a canon of releases when we all know the next one will be hyped up to the extreme in just a year’s time?

But it’d be unfair to blame developers outright. After all, outside of indie developers - whose low over-heads and tight-knit teams often result in amibitously innovative, wonderfully creative and charming output - studios live and die by those which bankrolls their projects. In that sense, a publisher is unlikely to invest in a new property for a developer otherwise teething at the bit to come up with something different, if that same studio has just made a global hit. Still, it might be economically sensible; but risks also being creatively stifling.

Of course, we can't be too cruel on certain big players in the industry just for trying to keep their heads above board in times where 'risk' often bears little 'reward,' especially where whole development studios can flop after just one commercially disappointing project. Moreover, games that are genuinely refreshing can often fall flat on their faces. Examples stretch far and wide over the gaming landscape - It was far from a classic, but even so, the critical reception early on for Shadows of the Damned was fairly positive, with critics praising its quirkiness. Strong sales never followed.Grasshopper Manufacture's Shadows of the Damned (while far from brilliant) managed to ship just 180,000 units worldwide after its release last year; while the poor commercial performance of the likes of Psychonauts, Okami and Child of Eden continue to hammer home the point that originality doesn’t necessarily sell.

And yet, there’s something else which I feel has contributed to where the industry stands today, and that is the increasing number of failed promises delivered by the gaming companies at its heart. I’ll admit it; I’m a sucker for day-one purchases, where the hype and anticipation for a product grows to such heights that it’s only in getting my hands on the release in question where I can let my mind settle in the knowledge that I am, undoubtedly, not missing out. And it’s for that very reason why I am now the *not so* proud owner of everything from PlayStation Move to Kinect and PlayStation Vita – all of which would be caked in dust by now were it not for my obsessive compulsive tendencies. 

Game companies gamble on the belief that others, like me, will do the same. Where the commercial success of blockbusters in cinema can so often be predicted from the opening weekend box office receipts, the same can be applied to early sales of new hardware. Vita, Move and Kinect are only the most recent examples of these companies doing their very best to instil a belief in gamers that early adopters will reap the benefits from buying opening weekend. Promises, however, are seemingly forgotten about all-too quickly.

The PlayStation Vita is the latest piece of hardware doing nothing to instil confidence in where gaming is heading.PlayStation Move, once a promising replacement to the Wii HD, has all but been brushed under the metaphorical carpet. Kinect, escaping the early hyperbole of being a ‘revolutionary’ device, still struggles to break free from the throwaway, casual experience shovel ware that so haunted the Wii during its early days. Early signs for Vita (our review can be read here), meanwhile, are far from what we had expected from the dual-analogue successor to the surprisingly popular PSP. A late retraction of the titles compatible with the likes of the Remote Play feature can partially be to blame, but Sony has still done so little in the months since its launch to instil confidence in a device whose catalogue of games is thin at best.

I might sound like a broken record when continuing to bash the games industry, but I do so in the hope that, however ludicrous it might seem, somehow, somewhere, there will be someone to take note and breathe new life into a form of entertainment that I once found so alluring. As an ‘outsider’ to the goings-on, I once again re-iterate the point I have little insight into exactly where the industry finds itself besides the reported facts and figures. But one thing is clear: manufacturers, publishers and most importantly developers must do something to over-turn the current dip in sales and, in other cases, reignite interest in its audience where it has otherwise waned. And no, no endless tirade of tired retreads and hacked-together sequels can guarantee to do that. Written by a former videogame enthusiast.

Richard Birkett