On the Ball

On the Ball: AAA Extinction

Jordan Deam | 24 Mar 2010 17:00
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But when it comes to price-points and earnings reports, Pachter is on his own turf, and his musings, for better or worse, don't just point to a hypothetical future of smaller, cheaper games, but subtly nudge publishers in that direction as well. Even though many gamers are fond of accusing megapublishers like Activision and EA of being notoriously risk-averse, they're still playing a high-stakes game with AAA development: When they win, they win big, but they lose far more often. Last year, the company released 31 games that sold over a million copies each, but they still found themselves a billion dollars in the red at year's end. Pachter's enthusiasm for EA's "premium DLC" has nothing to do with the games themselves; like the 1,500 layoffs the publisher announced last year (or "lower headcount," as Pachter artfully puts it), he's into the idea because it means high-cost, high-profile failures could be averted before they manage to drag the publisher's financials down with it.

In Pachter's eyes, this arrangement is a win for both gamers and developers. Consumers are taking a risk when they purchase an eight- to ten-hour game at $60, after all, so by releasing a preliminary two- to three-hour version for $10 or $15, gamers have a chance to sample the goods far beyond what a 15-minute demo would allow; then, when the full version comes out, they'll already know whether it's worth their money. And "premium DLC" gives developers a chance to adjust the full retail version of a game based on early feedback from actual paying customers. "Imagine if Brütal Legend or Mirror's Edge had been released this way, so that EA could have adjusted the follow-on games to address criticisms," Pachter told Kombo in a follow-up interview.

That's the crucial fallacy of "premium DLC" - that it will somehow make full-price AAA games better. Instead, by Pachter's own admission, the concept's main purpose is to cut costs by making AAA games fewer. Are we really supposed to believe that a poor consumer response to "premium DLC" of Brütal Legend or Mirror's Edge would spur EA to double down on these games, effectively pouring good money after bad? Or would the publisher simply write them off as failed experiments and save millions in the process? I know how Pachter and EA's stockholders would want the company to act.

This is our not-too-distant gaming future: a world ruled not by a handful of AAA behemoths whose impending release causes lesser games to scamper for the trees, but by packs of shorter, nimbler games with a much smaller economic footprint. "Premium DLC" is just another sign that the mass extinction event has already happened. Now all we can do is wait for the dust to settle.

Jordan Deam was hoping to work more dinosaur metaphors into this piece, but ran into a deadline.

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