Gamasutra has an interesting article here about free-to-play MMO’s and whether or not the micro-payments business model works. It certainly seems to be working in some of the cases listed, but more interesting perhaps is the note at the end that companies can become comfortable (and need to, if they want to try this model) with bringing less money in and sending less money out.
This gives me great hope for the gaming market of the future, just as new platforms like the iPhone and Facebook have. Each new platform has given licence to small groups to try something new. They have to do it cheaply, they have to do it simply, they don’t have huge budgets and the limitations of the platforms don’t require them to. They live this idea that if they spend less money they don’t need to bring in as much to be successful.
What you end up with is an awful lot of crap. Check out facebook games, and the million-and-one “mafia” style iPhone games that rip each other off shamefully. You also get an injection of new ideas, innovation and a lowered barrier-to-entry. You get a spiritual return to the days of the commodore 64 and the amiga, where games were developed in a short amount of time by a single developer, or a small group of developers.
One of the great reducers of innovation is cost. The big multi-million dollar blockbuster games are a big investment and if they go wrong, they can do substantial damage to even a large, well-funded company. It’s no surprise really that the big game publishers resist innovation and want “the same, but different” in each release. Innovation, where it happens at all, tends to become restricted to small changes over time.
As an example, The Sims has become one of the biggest earners in the game market ever, and it was only Will Wright’s track record and influence that ever allowed the game to be made; executives didn’t think there was any money in it and were scared by the departure from the ordinary that it presents.
So I am filled with hope anytime evidence arises to show success in turning back this particular clock, any time that games can be made cheaper, with less people and overhead, then there is potential for something more risky and potentially interesting and market-changing to occur.