Independent Developers And The Opportunity They Have

This week, I will be explaining how small independent Developers are beginning to rise in the industry as the massive Triple-A Publishers start to decline. This will be a companion post to my piece from last week titled The Decline of Triple-A Publishers,which you can find on my site.

I would like to thank my friend Alex for suggesting I do this as a follow up piece. He runs his own site and YouTube Channel where he vlogs about his life in British Columbia. His latest video can be found here:

As Triple-A Publishers begin to decline and the gaming market begins to crash, this could and most likely will allow for smaller independent Developers to expand and take over the market. There are plenty of examples of indie Developers making it on their own but first, I’m going to talk about an independent Developer that is a favourite of mine, CD Projekt Red.

CD PROJEKT RED

CD Projekt Red is a Polish video game Developer and Publisher best known for the Witcher series of video games. It was founded in 1994 in Warsaw, Poland by Marcin Iwiñski and Michał Kiciñski who both worked as video game retailers before founding CD Projekt Red. Their first project was to translate major western video games, the Baldur’s Gate games, into Polish. When the project ultimately fell through they used the coding from it to begin their own original project, Witcher, based on the novels by Andrzej Sapkowski. Their first stab at the Witcher, universe didn’t prove as fruitful as they hoped it would and the company was nearly forced to declare bankruptcy; the 2007/2008 Financial crisis also had a lot to do with the threat of bankruptcy. Through their own perseverance they produced the second game in the series Witcher II: Assassin of Kings and the small studio began to increase their success. When the third installment was released, Witcher III: Wild Hunt the company received global praise for what they had done. They were named developer of the year with their game being named game of the year. They released several free DLC packs for the game along with two free full expansions, Hearts of Stone and Blood and Wine, the latter being widely considered one of the best DLC expansions ever made.

The company expanded opening a second office in Wrocław Poland in March of 2018, to assist in the development of their new IP, Cyberpunk 2077.

WHAT MAKES THEM DIFFERENT?

CD Projekt Red has long said that the players are their priority. The support and praise from the fan base helps to drive them forward and to encourage them to constantly develop new and expansive content. They also consider themselves to be “rebels” in the sense that they do not partner with any of the Triple-A Publishing companies. Instead they deal with all aspects of game development, publishing and distribution themselves. The studio follows the work philosophy which was made famous by Rockstar Games, rather than having a lot of small projects splitting your workforce, the entire studio focuses on one project to deliver the best possible content. They focus on quality over quantity and believe that by delivering a quality product the revenue will return due to the appreciation of the fans. Open communication is a large aspect of the company’s core values, this means that all financial details on project creation (development, marketing, distribution) are public knowledge.

” The moment we start becoming conservative [and] stop taking creative risks and business risks, and stop being true to what we’re doing, that’s when we should worry. And I am not worried. Our values and our care for what we are doing and – hopefully what gamers would agree with – care for gamers is what drives this company forward. It’s my personal horror to become a faceless behemoth of game development or publishing or whatnot. As long as I am here I will be fighting for this not to happen.

— CD Projekt Red founder Marcin Iwiński

EPIC GAMES

Epic Games was founded by Tim Sweeney in 1991. It was originally called Potomac Computer Systems but changed its name to Epic MegaGames in 1992. They focused primarily on computer games from their founding up until 2006. In 2006, the game industry was suffering due to copyright infringement cases from various parties and the bloom of video game piracy. The company decided to branch into console games and in 2006, the delivered Gears of War. The Gears series would go on to become one of Xbox’s biggest properties and earn the company dozens of awards and accolades for it’s content and style. Prior to their fame with Gears, Epic was known for the manufacturing of the Unreal Game Engine, and the Unreal game series. Mostly though, people know Epic Games for one singular property which has been plaguing the gaming community for almost 2 years now, that would be Fortnite Battle Royale.

Epic Games focuses on third person shooter games, which is prevalent given their library of releases. Recently, as in December 4, 2018, Epic launched their own digital game store in contention with Valve’s Steam which has been operating for many years already. Steam has long held the title of PC gaming store front, and is now having to compete with the new Epic Games store. Compete may be a strong word, tolerate is more accurate. For the most part Epic has tried to stay away from large Triple-A publishing companies instead choosing to focus on smaller more independent companies for publishing purposes. While they have partnered with the likes of Atari, Microsoft, and EA in the past, their two most successful properties have been developed and published in house.

WHAT MAKES THEM DIFFERENT?

The main thing that make Epic Games different from other Developers and Publishers, is their new Epic Game store. The store itself is nothing spectacular, like at all. If anything, it’s a far cry from the Steam store which has fine tuned the necessities of an online digital game store. The main thing that the Epic games store has over the Steam store, is their profit sharing. If a Developer wishes to release a new product they’ve been working on for years on the Steam store, they must allow Steam to take a 30% cut of the sale profits of that product in order to sell it on their site/app/program. To most Developers, 30% is nothing. Some companies spend more than that just on advertising alone, but to smaller indie Developers, that can make or break their release. Epic has realized the gap and in order to provide a competitive market and a space for indie Developers to deliver their content to a large fan base, their store only takes a 12% cut on sale proceeds. This cut means a much larger return to the Developers to ensure they continue to produce quality output. This smaller cut has allowed them to obtain exclusive contracts with 4A Games and Ubisoft. The former putting their new release Metro: Exodus on the new store and the latter putting Division 2. While these games may eventually make their way to the Steam store, they won’t be permitted to arrive there until at least this time in 2020.

There are a lot of people who are not happy with the move by 4A to the Epic Games store. So much so, that there was a large portion of the player base willing to boycott the game simply because of the exclusivity deal with Epic Games. It wasn’t solely about the exclusivity, it was about the deal coming to light mere weeks before the game’s release date. Not to mention one employee tweeting about the “whiny gamers” and going further to say “If this is the kind of reaction we get from PC gamers then we just won’t make PC games anymore”.

THE OPPORTUNITY

I know I’ve been rambling a bit about these two companies but I swear it will tie together…

Okay, so as I said this post is a companion piece to the one from last week about the decline in Triple-A Publishers, which is becoming more and more prevalent as the months tick by. Activision Blizzard is facing a huge dip in their stock prices and only have two major properties due out this year, which means they’re going to double down on their predatory monetization schemes. Already, they’ve introduced gambling style pay to win loot crates in Black Ops 4. This is all coming after they laid off hundreds of employees, signing a new CFO as well as coming months after the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) has launched an investigation into loot boxes in games. Here is an article by Kotaku regarding the subject:

https://kotaku.com/the-ftc-says-it-will-investigate-loot-boxes-1830714932

Black Ops 4 Loot Crate with Pay to Win mechanic

So, with these large companies now under a microscope and bleeding money on crumbling practices that gamers are no longer accepting, the opportunity comes for smaller independent companies to make an impact. Some of the greatest games in the last 20 years came from small independent companies that partnered with large Publishers to expand their product, Halo is a prime example. Bungie was a relatively unknown company before it partnered with Microsoft to make the first Halo game and it spawned one of the largest franchises in gaming history. But the likes of CD Projekt Red and Epic Games show that while things may be easier with having a massive Publisher to help push your game, it’s not necessary and you can make quality products with a commitment to the work and fans rather than the almighty dollar. Companies like Paradox Interactive, Mojang, Rovio, Paladin, HALFBRICK, MDHR and SpaceChem prove that you can make quality products that fans love, without the interference of large Publishing companies. If more studios follow the examples set out by CD Projekt Red and Epic Games we could be seeing a large influx of quality independently developed games in the coming years. This influx could gift us with some great new franchises that might last for years to come and help to show Triple-A companies that they need to stop using the gaming community like an ATM machine with no limit.

Any questions or comments leave them down below! See you next week!

The Decline of Triple-A Publishers

Triple-A, to some it means one of the top level of hockey you can achieve before professional, to some it means being able to get roadside help in the USA; but to gamers, it means massive publishing companies. EA, Activision Blizzard, Microsoft, Bandai, Ubisoft, these are all Triple-A Publishers that have made some great and some truly terrible games in their years of operation. A couple of them, EA and Activision Blizzard specifically, have been in hot water recently over some of their practices. This week I’m going to look at some of these practices and how it will/has lead to the decline of Triple-A Publishers.

LOOT BOXES/CRATES

Let’s start with the elephant in the room, loot boxes. Now for most people who are unfamiliar with what they are I’ll explain.. Loot boxes are digital crates you either earn in game or purchase (for either in game or real world currency) that randomly gift you with different upgrades or cosmetic items for games.

Now, loot boxes in themselves can be harmless if done correctly. It’s still not good practice to have them in games, but there’s a reason for them that I will touch on later. They are meant to provide incentive for continuing to play the game, or to provide some gamers with more unlockable material to acquire. Most of the time they contain solely cosmetic items (the way your game character looks) and nothing to influence play. Apex Legends, Rainbow Six Siege, Fortnite and PUBG (Player Unknown’s BattleGrounds) all use loot boxes the way they are intended, purely cosmetic content that has absolutely ZERO effect on your progression through the game. They do offer the opportunity for you to purchase in game currency using real world dollars to obtain more boxes, but all of these games allow for boxes to be obtained simply through playing the game. As I’ve said before, there’s nothing wrong with this style of content delivery. It allows the developers to continue making interesting new skins and material for a game without adding it as a DLC with a new price tag (another practice which is ridiculous that I’ll also touch on later) but I digress… While there are games like those listed above, which use the loot boxes as they are intended, there are many who don’t.

Loot boxes in Star Wars Battlefront II (2017)

One of the big problems that has plagued Star Wars Battlefront II (2017) since its release was the way Dice (the developer, known for the Battlefield franchise) and EA Games (the publisher) handled their loot boxes. When Battlefront II was released it faced massive backlash because of the “Pay to Win” progression system it contained.

Pay to win involves gamers forking over real life money to purchase in game weapons, power ups, XP boosts and various other content to give them an edge over everyone else. Battlefront II (2017) was not the first game to do this, sporting games like the annual NHL, FIFA, and the 2K line of games are notorious for it and Call of Duty has started adopting this practice as well. The main problem that has been raised by mostly parents and some gamers is that this is akin to gambling. Some countries, like Belgium, believe this so much that they have actually outlawed Loot boxes in video games for anyone under the age of 18. 

Here’s the full article from the BBC on the subject.

https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-43906306

Square Enix (of Final Fantasy and Tomb Raider fame), one of the companies that manufacture both console and mobile games, pulled three full mobile games from the market in Belgium to coincide with this new ruling. They didn’t pull them out in anger or frustration, they pulled them in respect of the new law.

How did EA handle this? They delivered a long winded speech that basically amounted to “Belgium’s lawmakers don’t know what they’re talking about”. EA adopted the model of pay to win years ago and have started to lean into it hard. The only issue is that gamers aren’t going for it anymore, which has caused massive problems for the company. When Star Wars Battlefront II released there were several hero characters (mainstays of the franchise), unlockable through either playing games and earning credits or by paying x amount of dollars and unlocking them immediately. Here’s the problem, the amount of time required to unlock the likes of Darth Vader amounted to roughly 1000 wins. 1000 wins. When a game can take up to 45 minutes to play from start to finish that’s an absurd amount of time. Or you could pay $20 to get enough credits to unlock him. Not only can you use the credits to unlock heroes, you could use it to buy Loot boxes that gave you random power ups, which in turn gave you an upper hand on other gamers who didn’t spend the money to buy the crates. Once this became obvious to the gaming community, Battlefront II faced a massive boycott by players until they fixed the issue. Which, to a very small amount of credit, they eventually did but it was too little too late.

PAID DLC (DOWNLOADABLE CONTENT)

Alright, now I’m not that old, I’m only 27 but I remember the good old days of video games. By “good old days” I mean when the game you purchased was finished, not full of bugs and came with ALL the content. Growing up, I remember getting games like Ghost Recon Island Thunder, ATV Offroad Fury, and Halo Combat Evolved, and what’s the one thing all these games had in common? They were finished games! Nowadays Publishers impose strict deadlines on Developers which cause a whole slew of problems. Most notably, the release of incomplete and buggy games. Rather than allowing the Developers more time to make a complete game, they force them to release the unfinished product and patches to fix the bug issues.

Paid DLC serves four main purposes, firstly to install bug fixes with patches, secondly to distribute content that SHOULD HAVE been included in the initial game release, thirdly to keep gamers interested and lastly to keep money coming in while the next game is created. Mostly though, they serve to milk gamers for more money on a single game.

Most games nowadays go for $79.99 +tax which amounts to $90. Then you have the option to buy a “season pass” to get the first year’s DLC for free, normally these passes cost another $40 on top of the game price. We’re now up to $130 for a single game for one year. If you don’t buy the season pass then each DLC for year one is normally $20 anyways, so you’re not saving any money. After the first year of the game, a new DLC patch will be released which will also cost an additional $40, we are now up to $170 for one game. Then another DLC will be released midway through year 2 also totaling $40 and now we are at $210 for a single game. This also goes hand in hand with Publishers locking content behind these DLC walls to force players to buy the content to continue being able to enjoy the full game.

Destiny 2 Content showing pay to win model and locking DLC content behind pay to play barrier

The Destiny franchise was extremely bad for this practice and caused a lot of players to lose interest rather quickly. Some developers like 343 (known for Halo) have openly stated that all DLC will be free and no content will be locked behind pay to play walls. They did, however, include Loot boxes but that’s the price you pay for free DLC.

Paid DLC is akin to going to Subway and paying full price for what you thought was a full sub. Then having the employee tell you it’s an additional $2 per topping and $3 for any one condiment.

MICROTRANSACTIONS

Microtransactions (MTX) are small digital content packs that players can purchase with real world currency for in game content. They are similar to Loot boxes but in this instance you know exactly what you are getting. MTX is most common in free to play games like Fortnite, Apex Legends, and pretty much every single mobile game. MTX exist to allow Developers and Publishers to help recoup some of the cost for making the game free to play. This sounds acceptable right? Well if they follow the earlier example of cosmetic content only, it’s not that big of an issue, but most of these games don’t follow that. Similar to loot boxes they allow players the ability to purchase in game boosters and power ups to help them win against other people. Every time a game is advertised as “Free to Play” it is nearly 99.99% guaranteed that it will involve MTX in some fashion.

Microtransactions in Forza

Now there are quite a few games that adopt both of these practices, both the cosmetic only and actual pay to win, and there’s only one reason for it, to make the Publishers money. EA in particular uses both systems without mercy. There was a time when EA made good games and cared more about the content of the games than the money they brought in. It’s sad to say that the days of EA not being a money hungry trash bin of a Publisher are long gone.

WHAT DOES ALL THIS MEAN?

Basically this all means that Publishers are losing money at a steady rate and are trying to find ways to trick gamers into continuing to spend money on their crappy unfinished and buggy games. A notable YouTube channel I follow is Upper Echelon Gaming, he creates videos explaining this exact thing. One of the videos where he discusses this is below:

What he explains in this and several other videos is that for large Triple-A Publishers, their shares are dropping at an alarming rate. This doesn’t bode well for anyone, Developers, Publishers or gamers in the long run. Publishers will continue to tighten their grip on a failing practice and in the effort destroy the limited autonomy they give the developers as is.

I’m not a business or economics major, but even I can tell that within the next 2 years we will be seeing some Triple-A Publishers in serious jeopardy of declaring bankruptcy, and the thing is that they have nobody to blame but themselves. Some Developers are starting to see this trend and are fighting back against the large greedy Publishing companies. Developers like CD Projekt Red (famous for the Witcher games) have never partnered with a massive Publisher and it 100% shows in their content. They make massive engaging games, they actually listen to the players and give them what they want instead of what will make them a quick buck. Recently, Bungie (known for Halo) has split from Activision Blizzard and put the future of the Destiny franchise back solely in the hands of Bungie. Not only did they split, but now Activision Blizzard is under investigation because of a lawsuit launched by their investors. Not only are they in hot water over fraud allegations following the dissolution of their partnership with Bungie, but they also laid off nearly 800 employees most of which are game developers and support staff. This all flies in the face of them hiring a new CFO, Dennis Durkin, and paying him a handsome $15 million signing bonus… after they laid off 800 staff.

Basically, what I’m saying is that because of the ridiculous practices most Triple-A Publishers are using, they’re all going to disappear within 2-6 years. Developers will once again be responsible for creating, marketing and distributing their own material and maybe then we can get back to the way gaming used to be.

See you next week!