We were right!

“I think that we traditionally thought that people only buy games at Christmas or around holiday time, and now we’re looking back and going, ‘You know what, GTA launched in May; Resident Evil comes out in March’.”
– Glen Schofield (General Manager of EA Redwood Shores Studio)

When I read this statement my first reaction was literally a facepalm. Don’t get me wrong: It is great that someone finally openly acknowledges that they were wrong all these years, but still I can’t help but feel a sense of “Isn’t that what customers and media alike were saying all the time?”. Didn’t we moan year after year when October came and the three month release frenzy began? Didn’t we say that good games will always sell no matter the season? Yes, we did but it seems like no one was listening.

The more Electronic Arts finally is coming to its more customer-focused senses since CEO Jon Riccitiello took the helm, the more I think that the execs not only of that company but also all the other bigwigs out there lived under a rock all these years. It’s very shocking to see how surprised they were that new IP (Dead Space, Mirror’s Edge) actually sold as well or even better than last years crapccessors Need for Speed, FIFA and whatever although the reasons are obvious to almost every serious gamer.

These games sold well because of two things: They were relatively new and featured some innovation and were not just the predecessor in a new box and the package one got when he/she bought the games was really polished. Of course there were still some issues like the fighting in Mirror’s Edge but most of them were purely because of decisions made during the design process and not because the controller wasn’t recognized, the game’s performance was shit or bugs seriously inhibited gameplay. But will EA or any other company really learn from this experience? My answer is a yes and a no.

The big players like Electronic Arts, Activision Blizzard or even Ubisoft Entertainment are indeed finally recognizing that quality not only sells better but keeps the customer looking forward to releases from the company and that it, the most important argument for company executives and investors, reduces operating costs in the long run. The initial bigger investment done into a proper quality assurance process saves a ton of money after release. You don’t need to pay for additional patches, you don’t need such a big customer support department and you don’t need to do an image campaign because no one wants to buy your crappy products anymore.

On the other hand there is still the issue of milking successful franchises. An aspect Electronic Arts excelled at in the past but is now seriously challenged by the newly-formed giant Activision Blizzard.

Activision-Blizzard even openly admitted to investors that they want to milk their franchises by releasing every year at least one new installment of every major brand. This means each year a new Call of Duty and each year at least one new Guitar Hero if not more (there were four new releases with that name in 2008!). The only comfort is that opposed to Electronic Arts, where each new installment was made only by one studio, Activision Blizzard at least tries to make the development cycle as long as possible. In case of Call of Duty this means that one year Infinity Ward releases a major new installment of the series, the next year it’s Treyarch Invention turn to use the technology and release a game while in the background Infinity Ward has already put one year worth of work in the next version.

The really sad aspect of this strategy isn’t that the customer still receives only marginally improved sequels every other year but also that hundreds of creative people are damned to work on the same IP year after year without a real option to break the cycle other than leaving the company or getting fired. Until then they can only do their best while hoping that the one year when the cow is finally dry and no matter how good the game may be no one really wants it, is still far away. Luckily, the mass market needs a long time to notice a decline in quality. Enough time for the parent company to buy a studio with a new, promising IP and start the cycle again…

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