As hardcore gamers, we all tend to follow the industry fairly closely, and that means we are exposed, on a daily basis, to the comments of analysts and publishers. These comments tend to paint the industry in a certain light, a light that suggests Call of Duty must be emulated at all stages, that old fashioned game ideas need to be eradicated, and that brand new IP doesn’t sell well. We’re trained to believe completely in the $60, big budget, “AAA” business model. We’re led to think that multiplayer is essential, that on-disc DLC is a must, and that DRM is needed to protect computer games from all those evil pirates.
That’s why, when games like Legend of Grimrock happen, I feel so happy. Games like Legend of Grimrock allow me to think that the world isn’t quite the way those in power want it to be. It lets me know that gamers don’t just want what the major publishers tell them they want. It makes me think, at least for a time, that everything in this industry is going to be okay.
Legend of Grimrock is everything the mainstream industry shies away from. It’s a humbly priced, DRM-free, single-player, incredibly old fashioned, challenging, lengthy, dungeon-crawling role-playing game. It’s the kind of thing that your Ubisofts and Activisions wouldn’t dare to touch. It’s the kind of thing Michael Pachter gleefully rings the death knell for. Yet, the studio recently revealed that it was able to pay for its development costs several times over, and it didn’t need a major publisher backing its corner to do so. It just needed the good grace of gamers. It went out there, showed the world what it was, and the world said, “Yes, please!”
It always amuses me when some suited executive declares that single-player is dead, or that a game has to follow in Call of Duty’s footsteps in order to succeed. Sure, if you’re going to have a bloated budget and blow millions of dollars on ridiculous marketing campaigns (hello, EA!), then you probably do need to be afraid of any sort of tangible risk. Meanwhile, games like Legend of Grimrock are making a killing by seeing the gaps in the market left by the trundling behemoths in the AAA sector, and they’re humiliating the competition by managing their budgets, pricing accordingly, and giving people the kind of games they really have been asking for.
The problem with big publishers is the problem with corporations in general — they like doing things a certain way, and vehemently fight anything that challenges their complacent little universes. This is, of course, why things like SOPA try to get pushed through, and why the MPAA once said that VHS cassettes would destroy the movie industry. Corporations hate things that could change the way the world operates, and would rather destroy any threat to the status quo rather than adapt and change. In the videogame industry, this leads to publishers sticking rigidly to certain business models, certain types of games, and certain franchises. Like a child that tells a funny joke and then repeats it in the hopes of generating the same amount of laughter, a videogame publisher that sees one successful game will attempt to emulate it, almost to the letter. That’s why, even as used games grow in popularity, publishers still charge $60 for retail games and would rather throw extra charges at the consumers, rather than adapt and attempt to compete with the market.
Yet, all around them, the proof that their way of doing things isn’t the only — or even the best — way of doing things is evident. The success of Kickstarter projects like Double Fine’s Adventure and Wasteland 2, the critical and commercial triumph of Journey on PSN, and Legend of Grimrock’s bountiful profit, all point to the fact that gamers want reasonably priced games that do more than provide the same cookie-cutter multiplayer experiences. A two-hour art game like Journey is worth $15 to many people, and that’s something we wouldn’t imagine if we listened to what the executives were telling us. We’re in an industry where a developer can produce a big-budget game and get hit with layoffs, or even close down, regardless of whether or not the game was successful. Eat, Sleep, Play, lost staff and shrunk to focus on mobile titles before Twisted Metal was even on shelves. It’s an industry where game developers can’t afford to develop games, and it’s only going to get worse as a new generation of consoles bump up the budgets even further. It’s a terrifying time to be a studio working on a major console release, and it’s so risky I can understand why some of them are copying Call of Duty and desperately hoping for the same results.
The success of Legend of Grimrock, however, lets me know that everything’s going to be okay. The industry is more than what major publishers would have us believe, and gamers are willing to pay variable prices for a number of unique experiences.
It’s easy to look at the AAA market and despair, sometimes. It’s easy to fear an industry full of excessive downloadable content, endless sequels, and sludgy grey games that liberally steal from each other. I, however, am excited. I’m excited because this is the kind of stagnation that always breeds a new generation of angry, determined, gutsy, innovators. So long as you keep your ear to the ground, you can find some amazing games from the smaller guys who are willing to do what the established ruling class refuses to acknowledge. Like the alternative comedy scene of the 1980s that rebelled against the pompous, self-congratulatory, entertainment industry, the time is ripe for rogue developers with balls to shake things up and challenge the accepted state of play.
Legend of Grimrock is but one such game that flies in the face of mainstream convention, and has succeeded to tell the world about it. There will be more, and I cannot wait to see what happens next.
Oh, and if you haven’t bought Grimrock yet … do it! It’s pretty damn brilliant.
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