Shooting the Moon

As you may have heard, the companies behind Kingdoms of Amalur and the followup MMO are basically out of business. While I am sensitive to the dangers of schadenfreude, and loath to quote the same guy twice in three days, there was something about Keen’s final good-luck paragraph that struck me oddly:

[…] Following games closely and being so excited for something, just to have it shut down at a moment’s notice, is the hardest part of being such eager gaming enthusiasts.  Such potential for something fresh or new is destroyed, but we’ll continue to see a new Call of Duty game released every year and a horrible MMO will see the light of day simply because it has a huge publisher.  So frustrating.

Kotaku is reporting that 38 Studios only would have been saved if Amalur sold 3 million copies.

Let that sink in. Three million copies or bust. Depending on who you ask, Amalur sold between 400k and 1 million.

I dunno, I am of two minds on the implicit lament in Keen’s quote. I do consider it a serious problem that the barrier to entry for RPGs (and games in general) has gotten so high as to choke out all but the biggest studios. Remember the thousands of garbage NES games on the shelves back in the early 90s? Most were bad, but at least it appeared as though someone with a good game concept had a realistic chance of getting their cartridge on store shelves.

On the other hand? I feel like it is a bit unrealistic. It is easy to hate on Call of Duty when a “new” one is pumped out every year… but Black Ops sold 25 million copies. MW3 made $1 billion in 16 days, and that was seven months ago; god only knows how much it’s up to now.

Desiring fresh and new things is fine, but it’s code for “I’m not getting catered to.” At some point, you have to ask “Who can afford to cater to me?” If Amalur’s direction was your thing, good for you, but the market clearly couldn’t support it. So… Curt Schilling should have settled for less, designing a less expensive game with a lower break-even point. But would any of us have been satisfied with that? Would you be fine playing an indie-level MMO or other game? Would you be willing to lower your (obviously high) standards to meet the developers making the actual games you’re talking about?

I am probably not coming across very clear; in fact, if any of that makes sense to you, let me know, because it kinda doesn’t make sense to me. It is just that whenever I see a lament about how a “horrible MMO will see the light of day” as compared to presumably a good one on the cutting-room floor, I cannot help but shake the “Whose fault is that?” retort. The publisher? The fans? Or our own unreasonable expectations?

Whatever the case, I always a respect for those who attempt to shoot the moon. Win or lose, you always leave with a story – which is more than most.

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Posted on May 25, 2012, in Commentary and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. I think this relates to general thoughts about the lowest common denominator. Certainly you could create a game that hits all of my hot buttons, but for any other person not all of their hot buttons will get hit.

    So, is it better to aim for a game that is 10% lkikely to be bought by 100 million people (cater to the lowest common denominator and recognize you won’t pass the threshold for most people) or a game that is 100% likely to be bought by 100,000 people.

    It’s like craft beer, or eating at the local diner. Sure it might be better than McDonalds (or Applebees, or wherever), but there’s a chance it might be a lot worse. Do you want to take that risk? Some people do, but not enough that you’d get the reach of a chain. And, of course, scaling up to become a chain means you revert to the mean.

    For Kingdoms to need to be twice the size of SW:TOR to stay alive, 38 Studios made a bet about how good a game for how bigt a market they could build. They bet wrong. It’s actually a pretty risky bet. He’s trying to get the scale of a game that reaches the lowest common denominator with the crafting and quality of a niche game..

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  2. Had we been in a better economy, had Schilling had a history in the video game business, heck any business, and maybe this would have gone differently. The deck was stacked against them, and Rhode Island and the people working for the company are going to pay for it.

    Interesting tidbit, Salvatore’s son worked for them.

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  3. There’s so much to say to that question, but ultimately these companies are poor at managing expectations. Personal ones and those of their expectant fans.

    In this case, this company was mismanaged no matter how you slice it. More details will come out eventually, but it’s a sure bet that the finances were mismanaged. Add to that the complete lack of any titles under the studio’s belt. It was some millionare who felt all it took was a lot of time and money to get an MMO to market. He was clearly mistaken. No amount of data about the nature of the loans or otherwise will obscure the fact that this company doesn’t even have a tech demo released to the public about this game. That’s sheer incompetence on the business side.

    I think we *should* expect these studios to at least plan better. That alone will go a long ways to managing expectations.

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  4. The best MMO when you want to point the finger about how no-one is creating “MMOs like this anymore” is one that promises a lot and is then never released. It’s easy for a developer to promise a lot – and Schilling’s comments about MMOs and his background in old school EQ made a lot of implicit promises about what Project Copernicus would deliver – but actual delivery is hard. Now that 38 Studios has folded, we’ll never know for sure what the game would have been like.

    Which just leaves the promises of the developers behind it on which to claim how good the game would have been. Same thing happened to Duke Nukem Forever before Gearbox picked it up – fans claiming how great the game would have been and how old-school, but what we actually got was something rather mediocre.

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  5. It is difficult to express this without coming across as quite snobbish, but any successful entertainment title has to incorporate enough reliable crowd-pleasers for the lowest common denominator as well as have something to offer on the innovative, perhaps artistic plane. As a bonus, the inclusion of the latter can help the masses feel better about themselves.

    To be honest, I sensed something like this in the offing for Big Huge Games (which made the game for 38) ever since it was founded by Brian Reynolds. I don’t know if anyone still remembers Sid Meyer’s Alpha Centauri, which the man designed while still at Firaxis, but the tough micromanagement required in the late game, and the intellectual depth of its “ideological” factions revealed someone who didn’t give a hoot about compromising with the great unwashed. Hell, some of those faction leader quotations stand up as solid political-philosophical commentary to this day.

    It also sold worst of all the Civ clones from Sid’s studio.

    I do wholeheartedly (no pun intended) agree with the conclusion. My greatest respect, win or lose, goes to the designers who are unafraid to put their own esthetic tastes on the line, let those tastes govern the eventual product, and bet the farm on it. In the best case (Steve Jobs being the hackneyed example of this) you’ll succeed by giving customers something they didn’t realise they wanted, in the worst case you’ll fail honourably.

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    • Alpha Centauri was my favorite “Sim” game of all time, narrowly edging out Simcity 2000. I think the biggest reason I stopped playing was because when I changed computers I couldn’t find the install disk, and then spent the next three years fruitlessly searching computer game shelves in the Wal-Marts and CompUSAs and Best Buys of the world.

      It must have been quite some time ago, as Amazon has them in stock right now for $5.49. I’m pretty sure back then they were still just selling books.

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