Dungeons & Dollars

Dungeons & Dollars
Death to the Games Industry, Part I

Greg Costikyan | 30 Aug 2005 08:00
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In those days, there were perhaps a few tens of thousands of hardcore board wargamers, and perhaps an equivalent number of people who, like Sid Sackson and Phil Orbanes, were passionately involved with conventional boardgames. And the two industries, together, grossed under $100m at retail.

Today, the figure $8b gets bandied about for the games industry, but actually, that's an undercount. It doesn't include subscription fees for MMOs (on track for $1b+, US alone, this year); casual downloadable games ($50-$100m, depending on who you believe); mobile games ($100m+ domestically this year, $1b+ worldwide); the hobby games market (RPGs, TCGs and the like - no hard data available, but quite likely $200m+ at retail); the conventional board and cardgame market (Hasbro doesn't break out the numbers, but I'd believe close to $1b); or the arcade game coin drop (I'd guess still over $500m). Not to mention advergaming, and the advertising spend on sites like Pogo.com or RealArcade.

And instead of a handful of people who consider themselves hardcore gamers, we have tens of millions.

And instead of just three types of games - conventional boardgames, cardgames, and wargames - we have dozens. RTS, RPG, tabletop RPG, MMO, action-adventure, shoot-em-up, platformer, driving games, dancing games, hunting games, sports games, LARPs, ARGs, "big urban" games, freeforms, text adventures, graphic adventures, computer wargames, 4X games, god games, flight sims, trading card games ... and on and on.

Every one of these game styles has its passionate fans. And every one of them has been invented in the last 30 years. And the last 30 years have seen huge growth in gaming.

There is a correlation here.

The growth in the games industry has been spurred by an enormous ferment of creativity. Each new successful game style spawns its own audience of fans, expanding the overall size of the market. The hardware guys would have you believe that there's a direct correlation between hardware capability and the size of the market, but that's false; people buy games for the gameplay experience, not for cool hardware, and the way to grow the market is to create new experiences - not to release game seven in a franchise.

If you look at the biggest hits in the field, you find that a high proportion - not all, but a lot - are games that came out of left-field, that did something novel. Doom created the FPS genre. Warcraft and Command & Conquer created the RTS. Sim City created the sim/tycoon genre. GTA and The Sims are spawning their own genres, too - they don't have names yet, but call them the simulated world and the virtual dollhouse.

Yes, in all cases you can point to precursors that had some of the elements of these games - Wolfenstein for the FPS, Little Computer People for The Sims - but in all cases, these games combined things in a new way.

Think of the space of all possible games. Most of the games in that game-space will be uninteresting. But here and there, in that probability-space, are local peaks, places where some combination of mechanics produce compelling gameplay - and around that peak, there are lots of possible variations on the theme. Finding a new, successful game style means finding a local maximum in the space of all possible games - and a new audience.

The publishers would have you believe that "we know what works." In other words, that all of the local maxima possible for "the video game" have already been discovered.

But this is insane. Innovative, compelling novels are published every year, and that's a medium that's 300 years old. We're only 30 years into the gaming revolution. Additionally, games are an enormously flexible form: They've been created with every technology from the Neolithic to the modern. And software is an enormously flexible medium, too; if you can specify it, you can implement it. We've gone from three genres to dozens in a few short decades, but we've charted only the merest coastline of a vast, virgin continent.

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