The video game industry has been expanding to heights that no one could have predicted back during the Atari days. Triple A games like “Call of Duty”, “Halo”, and “Grand Theft Auto” have budgets that rival the biggest summer blockbusters at the box office.
It was estimated last year that Rockstar Games’ “GTA V” had more than 1,000 people work on it over a five year span, costing publisher Take Two around $260 million. GTA is arguably the biggest video game series out there and has sold over 32.5 million copies since September, so it is pretty clear that some studios can get away with big budgets while others can’t.
We don’t even have to take our eyes of Take Two, the publisher of Grand Theft Auto, to see an example of just how much game budgets have grown. Irrational Games, creators of the” Bioshock” series, are known for focusing more on story, messaging and substance within their games than most developers who make Triple A action titles today. Headed by legendary game designer Ken Levine, Irrational Games released the first “Bioshock” in 2007 to rave reviews with critics praising its story, plot twists and atmosphere.
Irrational then began work on a sequel and being the above average studio that they are, Irrational didn’t want to make a direct sequel to “Bioshock.” So they took 6 years and over $100 million to craft what they thought was a worthy sequel, “Bioshock Infinite” changing the setting from an underwater civilization to a city floating in the sky.
Infinite’s story was also very progressive for video games because it focused on themes like slavery, child abuse, imperialism and redemption. While a lot of current video games try to offer a cinematic plot, only a few developers could match Irrational Games in terms of actually delivering a narrative that fans could show their friends who scoff at the idea of video games as an art form.
Then the cold hard truth of the video game business comes crashing in. Take Two recently announced that they were laying off all but 15 of Irrational Games’ employees, closing the studio and handing the Bioshock franchise off to another developer who presumably will not spend as much time or money on making future games.
There has been a nasty trend of top-notch video game developers shutting down over the past few years, as a result of a publisher realizing they can hire a lesser known studio to make a couple of sequels without having to pay as much for the original developers of a hit franchise.
Publishers are throwing endless amounts of money at talented but somewhat too creative developers to get a brand new game franchise out the door. Once this franchise is a moderate success, the publishers then lay off staff once they realize they can make more games at a cheaper price. You’d think they’d want to keep the core of the team that made a game successful together.
No more than a week after the closure of Irrational Games did Sony announce that they were laying off 50 employees from their Santa Monica studio. This is the same studio that developed and released the commercially successful “God of War: Ascension” last spring.
For a shining example of this trend you should look no further than “Disney Infinity.” The toy based NFC action game has sold over 3 million units since it released last August, a huge commercial success with millions of profitable toys being sold alongside the stock game every day.
Yet Disney has decided to lay off hundreds of the developers on the team behind “Disney Infinity” despite the fact that they are rolling in the money from one of the most profitable video games today.
These are just a few examples of this terrible trend in the video game industry where once a developer makes a successful game, the publisher of that game cuts them loose and uses the remnants of that original studio’s hard work to create cheaper sequels more quickly.
There are very few game studios in the industry that seem untouchable. Sony doesn’t seem to mess with California studio Naughty Dog as they continually deliver games like Uncharted and The Last of Us that are both commercial and critical successes. Nintendo is one of the few beacons of hope for long-term employment in the games industry.
Nintendo doesn’t believe that getting rid of employees is the answer for achieving profitability. “If we reduce the number of employees for better short-term financial results, however, employee moral will decrease, and I sincerely doubt employees who fear that they may be laid off will be able to develop software titles that could impress people around the world,” says Nintendo President Satoru Iwata.
In a time when the video game industry is expanding and finally becoming accepted by society as more than a dorky side-hobby that you do in your parents basement, rivaling film in terms of narrative and commercial success, but it is very jarring to see publishers consistently turn away the hard working people who make fantastic games.
There is no reason why a publisher can’t see through extensive market research what the ceiling for their games’ sales are and they should be planning to turn respectable profits off their worst-case scenarios. This industry is in a crucial time and needs to foster creative individuals, not push them into the unemployment line.