I had lunch yesterday with Harvey Lee, formerly of Blue Tongue Entertainment, an Australian videogame developer. Among the things we talked about were licensed videogames: apparently these are the only opportunities available to small, contracting developers.
“Think about it… What AAA(Triple A: A videogame game of the highest quality and technical proficiency.) games came out last year that weren’t licenses or sequels?” Harvey asked me (not necessarily in those exact words).
“Uh…” I responded. “Uh…”
The best I managed to come up with was “Beyond Good and Evil”:http://www.mobygames.com/game/sheet/p,3/gameId,11290/, which as Harvey immediately pointed out, didn’t sell very well. There was also “Baten Kaitos”:http://www.mobygames.com/game/sheet/p,3/gameId,11290/, which inhabits the very small niche market for Gamecube RPGs. Though it _looks_ like a AAA title, a few hours of play reveals that it isn’t.
RPG players are probably more accustomed to seeing new videogame IP (Intellectual Property) emerge than players of other genres: in the current hardware generation we’ve had _Ephemeral Fantasia_, _Shadow Hearts_, and the examples I’ll mention soon. We’re also about to see Bioware spread its wings and fly out from under the D&D(Dungeons & Dragons) and _Star Wars_ franchises with “Jade Empire”:http://www.rpgfan.com/previews/jade-empire/index.html, and hopefully we’ll soon have an English translation of Tri-Ace’s “Radiata Stories”:http://www.rpgfan.com/previews/radiata-stories/index.html.
For the non RPG players, though, the world of top-quality videogames is filled with titles like _Half-Life 2_, _Doom 3_, _Metal Gear Solid 3_, and _World of Warcraft_: all extensions of existing franchises. As Harvey noted, there is still a small development area for high-risk projects that, while likely to be commercial failures (like _Beyond Good and Evil_), could be a publisher’s next big hit and candidate for a string of sequels. That area, though, seems to be shrinking.
“If you had ten million dollars to invest, would you put it into an original videogame?” he asked.
“No.” I shot back, rapidly. I wouldn’t throw away my first ten million dollars. “Maybe if I was George Soros. He must have spent more than that financing the Democrats’ US election campaign.”
So where are the new ideas in videogames going to come from? The somewhat saddening answer hit me when I’d finished walking home. Here’s a slightly improved version of part of the email I then sent to Harvey:
One of the new things that seems to be happening is the creation of cross-media franchises from scratch, including a videogame iteration. The only examples I can think of offhand are Japanese RPGs, specifically “.hack”:http://www.rpgfan.com/reviews/hack/infection.html (Bandai), and “Fullmetal Alchemist”:http://www.rpgfan.com/news/2004/1085.html (Square-Enix). Both of these were conceived simulataneously as anime and videogame _Fullmetal Alchemist_ was also a _manga_, serialised in _ShÃƒÂ´nen Jump_. _.hack_ came out in four videogame episodes, each with an animated movie on a second DVD, which helped tie in to the television series.
Bandai was easily able to do the cross-media thing because it already had both a games and television division. For Fullmetal Alchemist (a.k.a. Hagane no renkinjutsushi), I think, Square-Enix would have had to contract out the anime and manga (I’m not sure about the details of this arrangement), but they did the game themselves. Fullmetal Alchemist was a huge success, and so they’re now investing in a new IP called “Code Age”:http://www.rpgfan.com/news/2005/1047.html, about which there aren’t many details available at the moment. As with _Fullmetal Alchemist_, we can expect it to be serialised in _ShÃƒÂ´nen Jump_, then turned into an _anime_ that will launch alongside a videogame.
This is kind of a good thing, in that it allows companies to develop new (videogame) IP, new stories and so on, reducing their risk by doing a massive cross-media promotion exercise. If one iteration fails to inspire consumers, another, better-realised iteration in another medium can bolster interest in it and possibly make up for its losses. These new cross-media IP-generation ventures provide opportunities for creative individuals to really get involved in making something of their own design (however circumscribed by the demands of the producers). Of course, this kind of project is only within the reach of established companies with many millions of dollars to invest, but it is still better than EA or the other big publishers relying on licenses from other media for its publications, and getting developers to make platformers or action adventures about _Harry Potter_ and _The Incredibles_ and so on. At least this way we can get new stories, in new worlds, with new characters, into the videogame medium on an AAA title.
Let’s just hope those new stories are good ones. Artists, jump on the cross-media bandwagon while you can.