It turns out that judging the videogame industry as healthy based upon its gaudy sales figures is akin to gauging the well-being of a nation based upon its average income -- if you throw a couple of Bill Gateses and Michael Jordans in there. It turns out that a massive percentage of overall sales are due to a tiny handful of games like Call of Duty, Halo, and, of course, all things Wii. It turns out, in fact, that the four top-selling games of 2008 were all for the Nintendo Wii.
"Nintendo makes more money than God at this point. I would not be surprised if they have a warehouse that's just full of money," said Bay Area game developer Seppo Helava, who has put in time at EA Games in Redwood Shores, Backbone Entertainment in Emeryville, and Sega in San Francisco, and was recently laid off by Factor 5 in San Rafael.
Of course, Helava points out, those Wii sales aren't helping local designers like him -- those games are created in Japan.
When you move away from franchise-model games like Madden Football or Guitar Hero, the economic landscape starts to look a lot less rosy -- and that's why designers like Helava now have time to sample their own creations. Perhaps 90 percent of the industry's income is derived from 10 percent of its games. Obviously, the vast majority of designers are working on the "smaller, riskier" games among the 90 percent that often don't make much money -- or, in fact, fail to break even. Those folks found their jobs to be expendable, even as many of their companies were thriving.
As a result, Helava -- who notes that he's keeping busy developing
games independently -- predicts many game companies will take a conservative
approach to the current economy and stick with proven fare.
So, the days of $30 million games developed by
hundred-person teams may be over -- or, at least, if scads of money and
time are to be invested, it'll be on fairly risk-free, unoriginal
endeavors. Still, Helava points out that Playstation Network and Xbox
Live games are often developed by teams of 15 or fewer, and can be
churned out for a couple hundred thousand dollars. And iPhone Appstore
games are almost exclusively created by teams of two or three Americans
working out of garages or rumpus rooms -- many of them locally. So there is still an outlet for
innovation. You may just have to look a little harder.