When does a video game become too big to fail? There’s always a strange pall of judgment associated with AAA titles. A miasma of fanboyism mixed with often-vocal condemnation from those who view hit games like Halo and Call of Duty as “childish” or simply not good games. But not only are these games wildly successful; they thrive. They dominate the social conscious so much so that when Fox News needs stock footage for yet another anti-video game story, you can be damn sure it’s a title that’s shipped more than a million units.
It’s generally understood that when studios pump millions of marketing and production dollars into a game that that game will be successful. In many ways it’s a “too big to fail” mentality, one that is beginning to manifest itself in large publishers trying to force poorly made games down our throats. If we don’t call bullshit at some point, the gaming industry runs the risk of eventually turning into Hollywood – producing only a handful of good titles a year amidst a steaming pile of rotting garbage.
If you know anything about anything you can probably sit there and tick the dozen or so too big to fail titles off on your fingers. Beyond those, there are always countless more that have had millions sunk into them only to drift slowly into oblivion following launch day. These games fall into a number of categories, none of them particularly flattering.
What these terms tend to indicate is one overwhelmingly successful game that spawned a number of copycats; riding the coattails of success to certain fiscal gain. Often sequels are in fact good games and improve upon the original. However, we can always count on greedy publishers bleeding a game for every dime of its worth before unceremoniously kicking it to the curb. Take Guitar Hero for example.
Developed by notorious video game killer Neversoft (moment of silence for Tony Hawk?) and published by infamously greedy Activision, Guitar Hero began as a successful and innovative game. Within three years of the first game, almost a dozen sequels had been produced on platforms ranging from mobile phones to the Nintendo DS. From Activision’s standpoint, a title that received such widespread acclaim couldn’t possibly fail, no matter how oversaturated the market grew.
So they continued to force millions of dollars into developing titles from Guitar Hero: Aerosmith to miniature handheld incarnations sold at grocery store check stands. And that’s when “too big to fail” failed. In February 2011, six years after storming onto the stage, Activision announced they would no longer produce any Guitar Hero titles. And the world rejoiced.
We’re all familiar with the subpar games whose only saving grace is the famous name slapped on their cover. Usually these celebrity endorsements only indicate a modicum of involvement from the person whose name is on the box and, most importantly, the games flat out suck. What you have to remember though is that this is once again an instance of a “too big to fail” mentality. This is studios paying tens of thousands of dollars to famous individuals banking on their name shipping more units.
The example likely most fresh in everyone’s mind is Jerry Rice and Nitus’ Dog Football. Beyond clearly establishing the statute of limitations on associating dogs with professional football (you’re free Mike Vick!), Dog Football flirts dangerously close with being a literal joke from top to bottom. What looks and plays like a poorly rendered N64 game is almost guaranteed to sell a fair amount based solely upon the fact that the name of a the best NFL receiver of all time is emblazoned on the cover.
Some titles rely solely on the prestige of a franchise name to move units out the door. Whether it’s licensing Kirby into whatever god-awful monstrosity he’s currently bouncing through or transforming Pac-Man into a 3D ball of sadness for a party game, publishers have made it clear that no beloved video game characters can die in piece. Think about Lego titles. To any right-minded individual, a game that incorporates both Legos (really the only toy children should ever own) and Star Wars has too much prestige to fail. But it can happen, and Pac-Man Party for the Wii is definitive proof of it.
Nowhere is the “too big to fail” mentality more present than in games with long drawn-out development cycles. Studios that double down on games when all common sense says to cut and run are doing so solely with the belief that if enough money is sunk into a title it will eventually turn around. So often we see the same game displayed at E3 year after year, only to be met with sweeping disappointment on release day. On the flip side of the coin, expensive games like Homefront that initially look to be amazing can often turn into giant fiscal failures if reviews steer gamers away.
As anyone who played Duke Nukem: Forever can tell you, no game is really too big to fail. Publishers can pump as much as they want into a game, and diehard fans will ensure it makes a few initial sales. Homefront was universally hailed as utter disaster but still managed to sell over two million units. Regardless, THQ had thrown enough money at the game’s development that they lost $136 million in the 2011 fiscal year. But despite both counts, they are still developing a sequel.
Ultimately, when faced with a “too big to fail” mentality, gamers must choose to vote with their wallets and not buy games for any reason other than how good they are. Call me a games industry Darwinist, but we’ll only get great games by letting the crappy ones die.
Nationally unacclaimed freelance writer Jonathan Deesing has been writing about video games for dozens of weeks. His professional knowledge ranges from skiing to Peruvian history and of course, anything with buttons. If you can't get enough of his musings, check out his Twitter feed.
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