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News We Care About Update

posted on February 20th, 2009 by jay

Why Ensemble Closed
Once designer at Ensemble Studios, Bruce Shelley explained what went wrong at the DICE 09 conference. He kept it overly civilized and focused on what they should have done differently internally. Things like working on games in different genres and not expanding too quickly made his list, though he forgot to mention “Don’t be owned by a giant evil corporation.”

It must have taken an abundance of self control to not simply declare Microsoft the sole problem Ensemble faced. The studio created some of the best received and selling strategy games in the industry and sold millions of games. Despite being profitable, they were apparently not profitable enough for Microsoft to keep open. Just when I thought I was beginning to understand economics…

Single Player Games on their Deathbed
David Perry is more famous for saying controversial things than making good games. Once upon a time he worked on the excellent Earthworm Jim series and some lesser appreciated gems like Cool Spot and the Genesis version of Aladdin. Unfortunately for gamers, his last few titles have been based on the Matrix and, like the Matrix, not particularly good.

Perry also led the team that made the excellent Sacrifice.

And so now instead of discussing his games, we discuss the odd things he says at game conferences. Most recently, he stated that “the days of single-player games are numbered.” This has been said before (years ago) and it’s an interesting argument, but I am skeptical.

Despite the huge success of Xbox Live and the Wii, single player games like GTA IV and Wii Fit still sell amazingly well. There will likely be a continued shift toward multiplayer games but to assume single player games will become rare is to assume game narratives will become extinct. Books, movies, music and other arts convey meaning to us whether we are alone or with others. If games are to continue to tell us stories and present ideas to us then the death of single player is greatly exaggerated.

DSi Price and Date
The new DS is something of an oddity. It bundles Nintendo’s hugely popular DS Lite with two low quality cameras, an SD slot and a slightly larger screen. Other significant features include the loss of GBA compatibility and a $170 price point. It will be available in the states in early April so save your Passover money.

Because few, if any, companies will split the DS market by creating DSi specific software, thereby alienating the millions of DS Lite owners, it’s safe to assume the camera will function as the touch screen has in so many games – as a cute side mode created to pretend the developer is taking advantage of the hardware.

That leaves the SD card functionality and the DSware it enables as the sole reason to upgrade to a DSi. Unfortunately, the average WiiWare game is closer in quality to SPOGS Racing than World of Goo, and if Nintendo continues their current two pronged business model of “clog the download service with shit,” and “never release games in North America,” DSware won’t exactly take the world by storm.

None more black.

Steam Plays with Pricing
After screwing around with game pricing on Steam, Gabe Newell now believes games cost too much. He cites huge sales increases on games that dropped significantly in price as evidence. Still, the exact reason people jumped in the sale is not as obvious as he purports.

It’s possible that many of those who bought heavily discounted copies of Left 4 Dead did so because of the perceived value of purchasing a $50 game for $25. The appeal of getting a good deal combined with the fear that deal will end may be enough to completely explain the sales increases. Once all games cost $25 people may no longer see that price as a particularly good deal.

Even if cheaper games leads to increased sales, the current model by and large depends on physical stores. These have their own fixed costs that threaten to jeopardize any increase in revenue a sales boost may bring – discs to hold games, trucks to move discs and gas to fuel trucks are all fixed costs. Retailers are unlikely to be open to the idea of drastically changing game prices in order to experiment with different pricing schemes. Besides, it’s Gamestop’s job to undercut publishers and they’ll be damned if they’re going to let publishers undercut themselves.

5 Comments

  1. Bruce said on February 20, 2009:

    If Microsoft closed Ensemble even though it was turning a profit, it’s seriously time to dump that MS stock. Something doesn’t add up there.

  2. chris said on February 20, 2009:

    I believe Gabe Newell’s remarks included mentioning a weekend sale which resulted in a 36000% increase in a game. There’s speculation that it’s some game that didn’t sell well normally (e.g. Mount&Blade, which had a 75% off sale one weekend) but regardless… 36000% is a hell of a lot.

    Maybe you’re right that it was combined appeal/fear that resulted in all the sales, but if he convinces game retailers to lower prices, I don’t care if he’s wrong.

    Besides – with a neat system like Steam, they cut out all the costs of discs, trucks, fuel, etc – so they can better afford lower prices. Physical stores are obsolete! The end is near! Repent! And all that.

  3. jay said on February 20, 2009:

    Bruce, I think it was an issue of opportunity cost. If MS believes they should make $5 for every $1 they invest in a venture but Ensemble only pulled in $3, well then they weren’t making enough. MS figures it can use its money to invest in something that will yield more profit.

    This makes some sense from a business point of view and is also absolutely terrifying from any point of view that doesn’t involve wielding a giant erection and frothing at the mouth over thoughts of more profit. My rant about the inevitable shortcoming of the capitalist system always requiring MORE probably doesn’t belong here, though.

    There’s always the possibility that everyone is assuming they were profitable and they weren’t, though Shelley has more or less stated this isn’t the case: “I believe we thought we were immune to shut-down talk because our published games have done so well and have been so profitable.”

    Chris, I mostly agree with you that even discounting the psychological affects of a sale, there must’ve been some increase due solely to the fact that people buy more of a product that’s cheap. Grey opinions make for more boring articles though, so I decided the journalistic thing to do would be lie to you in order to prompt a response.

    Also, as a compulsive collector, the thought of no more physical games makes me sad.

  4. GJ said on February 21, 2009:

    Agree with Jay, but let’s also keep in mind there may be a lot of spin going on. No one wants to be associated with an ineffective studio. For all we know there’s more going on.

    Also, no cheap shots against my intentionally conversational opinion articles. At least give props that I made such comments before a failed game developer ever did.

  5. jay said on February 21, 2009:

    Taking a deliberate stance in order to write something thought provoking is fine by me. Notice I admit to doing it in this write up. Also, your piece had less of a doom and gloom sentiment to it. “Days are numbered,” implies there is a death coming.

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