Tune into any interactive entertainment-related broadcast, article or online forum, and you'll be privy to the game industry's oldest debate: Namely, which titles are really worth their weight in quarters?
It's a question we often ask ourselves, but for product acquisitions experts like Atari VP of Business Development Robert Stevenson, who act as software talent scouts for major publishing houses, these issues can be even harder to address. Sure, it sucks to lose $60 on a title that turns out to be a turd in Ratchet & Clank®'s clothing… But imagine what it's like for a publisher, tasked with picking the next big thing, often years in advance, with millions of shareholders' savings on the line.
"To do this job requires a solid understanding of the business, plus the ability to balance quality versus time and cost as it fits into a company's overall strategy," he explains. Meaning that just because everyone's a self-styled gaming expert – seriously, name a friend who doesn't have their own idea for a so-called smash hit – there's more that goes into deciding what titles to make and mass-produce than gameplay alone.
"Personally, I start by thinking about a concept's market potential," Stevenson says. "Will players understand the underlying idea easily? Is it appealing? Does the game appeal to a wide audience? Is the premise based on something new or an established trend? Can we make the numbers work from a financial standpoint?"
Predictably, as he confesses, few potential prospects are what you'd consider ideal candidates. "At Atari," he explains, "We've seen around 700 possible games we could've picked up for various platforms like the PLAYSTATION®3, PlayStation®2 and PSP® system this past year alone. Roughly 5% actually evolved into a tangible product – it's not unlike getting a record deal. Then again, I would guess that of the games we grabbed, only a third turn out as originally pitched."
It's hardly what you'd call an impressive ratio, explaining why even critically-acclaimed studios responsible for amazing outings like Okami™ sometimes call it quits. But, as Stevenson reveals, while gamers often hear developers' side of the story, there's plenty of good reasons why publishers periodically cut and run, inadvertently canceling even the most seemingly promising and anticipated adventures.
For one, there's the commercial element… A title that, at its genesis, is expected to review in the 80% score range and cost $1 million may, over the course of production, simultaneously under-perform while going over budget. This puts publishers in a precarious position – do they spend double in hopes of slightly improving performance, and therefore public goodwill, at the cost of profitability? Or do they, despite the developer's inability to meet its obligations, play the bad guy and push the game out the door, risking a potential critical drubbing in hopes of recovering their investment? The ultimate catch, naturally, being that they're a global entity with financial responsibilities to thousands of investors worldwide…
Then you have to consider matters of personal taste: To some, a title that scores in the 60% range in a familiar genre is a good deal. For others, only a mind-blowing blockbuster going for $50 or more will do.
Likewise, a lot of the decision ultimately comes down to perceived value. Certainly, gameplay is one of the biggest factors companies consider when making any major product-related determination, a collaborative process generally involving experts from the business, creative and marketing sides. But oftentimes, more important is the overall experience a given title offers specific audiences. As Stevenson explains, "A game that might make sense for the PSP system because of its accessibility and focus on bite-sized amusements might prove totally inappropriate for PLAYSTATION 3."
Regardless of the hurdles involved in bringing any title to market, he further insists that publishers aren't the evil entities they're often made out to be in the gaming press. "I like to think no company is really preying on consumers by selling crap in a box," Stevenson confesses. "That's a losing proposition for everyone – publishers especially. However, no matter who you ask, we've all got different expectations, quality-wise. To paraphrase the old saying, one man's treasure is another's trash."
Happily, he confirms that PlayStation® is fully committed to delivering the best possible products, maintaining an internal evaluation group of "guys and gals extremely knowledgeable about gaming, trends and pop culture." Their job: By testing and providing honest feedback to game creators, to maintain a system of checks and balances geared towards helping publishers create the hottest possible titles before publicly releasing them to wide-eyed enthusiasts.
What's more, Stevenson says, the advent of alternate distribution channels such as the PLAYSTATION®Store is making everyone's job easier by broadening the gaming market and expanding the range of existing business models. "You have to be involved with exploring new avenues like this just to keep up with the competition," he confesses. "By growing the market, Sony and other firms are making it possible to create entirely new types of games and generate interest from nontraditional audiences."
Gazing into the crystal ball, Stevenson expects you'll see more of the following soon: Casual games, massively multiplayer titles and even the sorts of awesome online outings that let you interact across vast ranges of platforms.
"Imagine a Guitar Hero™ installment that lets you export, enhance and share performances between your PS3 and PSP. Or, for that matter, a game fusing strategy and shooter elements where individual units are actually live players tuning in from any location on Earth. Cool stuff – this is where the future of gaming is going."
Not that he'd trade his day job for a spot on the couch anytime soon – even if being underappreciated comes with the territory.
"The people who green-lighted titles like the first Karamari Damacy or Tony Hawk's Pro Skater® deserve more credit for helping push industry boundaries," he chuckles. "While the developers themselves delivered a stellar experience, don't forget… Someone had to take the risk of allowing these products to be funded and built in the first place."