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The advantage of a diverse game portfolio, according to Avalanche Exclusive
The advantage of a diverse game portfolio, according to Avalanche
April 1, 2013 | By Kris Graft

We often hear about how large publicly-held publishers are keen on diversifying their portfolio of games with different genres and business models.

But that strategy is also important on the independent studio level, according to Sweden's Avalanche Studios, developer of the Just Cause series -- a franchise that many would consider a "triple-A" kind of game.

"It seems that everyone has a different definition of what triple-A is," says studio co-founder Christofer Sundberg. "I think if you're a big publisher, triple-A is associated with big budgets and huge risks. But I see triple-A as a stamp of quality.

"We don't have to develop, bigger more expensive games. We don't have to hire more people or have bigger teams. We just want to make better games. We try to combine [different genres and business models]. One of our studios, Expansive Worlds, that's doing The Hunter, a free-to-play hunting game.

"They've been working on the free-to-play model for four years now. And even though they are a very small studio, they are profitable. They don't have numbers like Supercell, but it's self-funded and doing quite well in a genre where we're almost alone."

Advantages of diversifying your lineup

Founded in 2003, Avalanche has released four games: Two entries in the Just Cause series (a third is heavily rumored), the free-to-play The Hunter and one paid digital download title in Renegade Ops.

Diversifying the kinds of games your studio makes can help mitigate the risks associated with all-eggs-in-one-basket triple-A development. Avalanche is keeping a close eye on what's happening in PC, mobile and console development, as barriers for making and releasing games continue to crumble. Lower barriers means "triple-A" studios like Avalanche can better supplement their high-budget, infrequently-released big franchise installments with smaller, more experimental games.

Stefan Ljungqvist, Avalanche's creative director, said, "I don't think big-budget games are going away. There's going to be less of them. But that's a good thing, because maybe we don't need forty first-person shooters. I don't want to play them all [laughs], but maybe we need one, two or three.

"What I like now is that there are more opportunities to be creative. Maybe over the course of the past five years, developers have pitched creative or more artistic games, but publishers had been more careful of betting a lot on those games, because they're associated with some risk. But maybe now they can [take more risks] because they need to be more unique in the marketplace."

Sundberg admits that making video games isn't just an art, but it's also a business. Working with the free-to-play model, he has to make sure to consider how a game will make money over a long period of time, and a free-to-play game's design needs to adhere to that strategy.

"The [monetization method] is so much a fundamental part of the free-to-play business model now that we have to think about it, regardless if we want to or not. It's always a tough hurdle for a game designer to get over -- to start thinking about how you can 'squeeze' more money out of your player. But that's the way we'll make money in the future."

On PlayStation 4

With PlayStation 4, developers with have yet another platform to consider. With an x86-based architecture and a more lax submission process, Sony has been taking important steps toward making their console more developer-friendly.

"It's definitely easier to develop for," Sundberg said. "I think their approach for letting smaller developers in is fantastic. And all of the [control] inputs creates an opportunity. They've created a platform for us to make better games."

But consoles in general have mounting competition from various devices that are connecting to televisions, from mobile OSes to Steam Box. "Commercially, the market is certainly pointing toward a direction that is not favorable for consoles," Sundberg admitted. "But for us consoles have always been our platform -- it's the entertainment center of your house."

For Avalanche, other attractive features of consoles include unique input devices and specialized developer support.

"You ask, 'What's the future of consoles,' but maybe there's no console anymore," mused Ljungqvist. "This is convergence -- Smart TV, Netflix is on PS3. It's already happening. I don't think we should disregard that 'consoles,' or whatever we call them, as they will be important to living room entertainment. But there is risk. Will the hardware install base grow as fast as the last generation?"

So for Avalanche, the strategy is to take measured steps onto new platforms in order to mitigate that risk and prepare for new ways to do business. "For us, I think a mix is good," Ljungqvist said. "We have to think about how to be smart on all platforms."

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Addison Martinez
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I think its smart that they prepare for a world where there are no consoles any more. It's easy to prepare for a world without a tangible IP as it just means less production cost, but when there no longer is a console then you have to really be ahead of the game to stay profitable.

Did they mention any thing they had in the works for the PS4? Sure they mentioned it will be easier to develop for but I'm curious if they have anything in development.

John Flush
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I've always wondered why we call it AAA instead of $$$ game development. AAA gives you the feeling that something first rate is coming when really it is more about how much money was thrown at it.

Steven Christian
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I bought Just Cause 1 & 2 in a steam sale and never played them, though I thoroughly enjoyed Renegade Ops on PS3!
Of course these days the PS3 just gathers dust.

But once I get better wireless controllers than the Logitech ones that I currently have (Logitech ones are cheaply made and don't register some actions, and have input lag on others), I'll be playing on the TV again but this time in Steam Big Picture.
Couch gaming is fun, but consoles are definitely a thing of the past.

I considered the OUYA, but again the wireless controller is a big let-down with input lag.

I do like the PS3 controllers but the games are prohibitively expensive here in Australia. Even the Sony Online Store is more expensive, despite the Aussie Dollar being in line with the US dollar.

I may try the XBox 360 controllers as I have heard good things about them.
Then I just need a good wireless Mouse/Keyboard to replace the rubbish Logitech ones.

Once input problems are resolved, PC/TV will be the future.

Nick Harris
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Don't fret about how best to 'squeeze' money out of your players after they have got the game for nothing. Squeeze money out of them in one megatransaction before they have a chance to get free entertainment.

If you are concerned about not being able to afford promotion, or rely on the word of mouth that comes out of the F2P model, you can always release a time / XP / level limited demo of the final polished game when you launch it. Don't waste everyone's time (including your teams), making a special Colonial Marines style early demo that you then struggle to deliver on. Just release a portion of the full product as a free sample.

Torben Jorba
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I read sometimes, that people call High End Games "QuadA" (AAAA), because their substance, cost and earnings are just so much higher than certain other games. And other "AA+" because it has really an good AI and gameplay, but not so much polish.

CoD as a franchise is a completely different beast, lets say, in comparison to Assassins Creed or FIFA. People seem to have growing problems to define those categories, or put certain games in it. The changing landscape will definitely make it harder and much more subjective to even define what a diverse portfolio has to look like, not just money/revenue wise.