What's killing the video-game business?

The art of play.
Feb. 16 2009 3:27 PM

What's Killing the Video-Game Business?

Hint: It's not the economy.

Like pretty much every industry these days, video-game publishing is in some financial trouble. Electronic Arts, the world's largest game publisher, best known for Madden and the Sims, lost $641 million in 2008's fourth quarter. Activision-Blizzard, owners of the cash cows World of Warcraft and Call of Duty, reported losses of $72 million in the fourth quarter of 2008. (They lost $194 million the quarter before that.) THQ, the third-largest publisher in the United States, and known for lucrative licenses ranging from the Ultimate Fighting Championship to Pixar, had $192 million in losses over the holidays and is laying off 24 percent of its work force.

News of development-studio closings and layoffs are being reported around the world. And while publishers focus on internal cuts, many independent developers have closed outright. Such gloom, in a normally raucous industry, has set the talking heads, bloggers, and trade press to a quick conclusion: Losses and layoffs are the direct result of an economic crisis (on the premise that "things are tough all over").

But that idea, which makes intuitive sense, is completely at odds with recent sales numbers. In reality, video games are selling better than ever. The retailer GameStop announced sales of nearly $3 billion worth of games, hardware, and accessories during the nine weeks around the 2008 holidays—22 percent more than during Christmas 2007.

According to the research firm Media Control GfK, game software accounted for more than half of global packaged entertainment sales in 2008, beating DVD sales for the first time. The firm pegs game sales at $32 billion worldwide. (The U.S. market accounts for around 45 percent of the world total.) The NPD Group, which tracks sales for the industry, also reports that game software sales were up 26 percent in 2008.

So how can publishers lose money amid such incredible sales and record growth? The answer is simple: They're spending more than they're bringing in. Game development budgets have ballooned, and publishers are reeling because they can't keep the costs under control.

Games weren't always expensive to make: In the early days, a boy with an Apple II could rule the world. While there are still scads of cheaply made games on the market, all of today's big publishers employ hundreds of professional developers per game. These projects take years to complete, as each new generation of hardware allows for unprecedented advances in graphics, sound, and everything else. The greater the complexity of the game, the larger the development team. The larger the development team, the bigger the budget.

While industry leaders anticipated that budgets would creep higher, the shift to high-definition gaming with Microsoft's Xbox 360 and Sony's PlayStation 3 has proved to be more expensive than estimated. At a conference in the spring of 2006, then-Midway developer Cyrus Lum sounded the warning, telling his audience that game development budgets could rise as high as $15 million to $25 million for a single title—previously unheard-of averages. "We need to rethink how we're financing games," Lum concluded.

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When a newspaper quoted this frightening view, Lum found himself in hot water with his employer for making such sensationalist comments. It turned out that Lum's prediction was too low: Midway would go on to spend between $40 million and $50 million developing This Is Vegas, an action title set for release in late 2009.

That figure is not unusual. Budgets for next-generation development have continued to rise steadily across the board. And while executives and technologists knew that there would be heavy initial investment costs to retool—Electronic Arts spent a record $372 million on research and development during 2008's third quarter—they expected returns on that investment, something that's so far failed to materialize.

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