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Analysis: The Vast Wonderland Of Once-Great Games

Analysis: The Vast Wonderland Of Once-Great Games

September 21, 2010 | By Chris Morris

September 21, 2010 | By Chris Morris
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[Gamasutra editor-at-large Chris Morris examines the "shaky steps" of the game industry to ensure long-term access and viability for older games, amid controversy over a GOG.com shift.]

Game industry enthusiasts take an odd joy in pointing out that retail sales for this industry now regularly beat the annual Hollywood box office receipts. It’s a fun headline that makes it look like games are winning the culture war – assuming you resist that urge to scratch the surface.

The reality, of course, is that Hollywood smokes games when you compare apples to apples. Movies don’t disappear once their theatrical run ends. There are pay-per-view revenues, DVD and Blu-ray sales (both the original release and the inevitable director’s cut), initial network rights, syndicated network rights and more. Games? Well, they tend to disappear after a brief stay on retail shelves.

That’s something the industry has been trying to correct for a few years now, but its initial steps have been about as shaky as those of a dizzy toddler.

In 2005, GameTap opened the door for publishers to realize there could be money in the recesses of their back catalog, but neither Turner Broadcasting nor Metaboli (which bought the brand in 2008) could find a way to make it a breakout success.

Good Old Games has captured the interest of more core gamers with its DRM-free sales, but in a jaw-droppingly ill-conceived marketing ploy this weekend, the site gave the impression that it was shutting down. (It is, almost certainly, simply emerging from its beta – but the damage has been done.)

Other services like Steam and Xbox Live Arcade have been more successful, but they still largely preach to the choir. And since the financials raised so far from older IP haven’t been needle movers for publishers, the interest in expanding the focus on that area is flagging somewhat – especially as so many new titles have failed to hit projections.

Several publishers have found that giving away older games as they prepare to launch an updated version – or a sequel – is an effective marketing tool. It’s also a good way for them to thank a loyal community – as Bethesda did last year by making The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall available for free on the series' 15th anniversary.

There's no denying that acknowledging fans with appropriate free gifts is a savvy and appreciated gesture. But publishers have a great many older titles that are in limbo – and they often ignore potential ways to monetize that.

Let’s stick with promotion model. Offering a free download is fine – and a deep discount on Steam is even better - but why not consider working with retail partners to whip up excitement that benefits both sides? Strike a deal with GameStop or Best Buy, making them the exclusive distributor of a classic title, which can be tied to pre-orders or given away as an in-store freebie.

The publisher gets a one-time cash bump for the exclusive rights – and the retailer gets more people in its stores and/or setting pre-orders.

Better still, it’s hardly a secret that the gaming “channels” of cable companies are shin-deep in games no one – even casual gamers – would ever touch. An alliance between publishers and those programmers could benefit both sides (though Microsoft and Sony might see it as partnering with a potential enemy).

GameTree TV, a new platform from Transgaming Digital Home, is an ideal vehicle to do this. The service, which is very reminiscent of GameTap (only it’s built for a broadcast medium, rather than the PC), shares revenue with both the publishers and cable companies. The company’s initial focus is on the casual market, but there’s no reason it can’t expand. (Cloud streaming game firm Onlive also has plans in the cable market, hence recent investments in the firm from BT and Belgacom.)

Of course, it would be foolish to ignore the potential of the iPhone and iPad markets. While many publishers have started tying in new releases, only a few – like LucasArts and Namco - have really started to explore their back catalogs.

There’s nothing wrong with focusing on the next great thing. But the game industry has dry periods, when new releases are few and far between. That’s a perfect time to capitalize on older hits – or even to reissue (and remarket) recent critical darlings that were overshadowed at their launch by one or several blockbusters.

The retail cycle for games is growing shorter and shorter. If publishers stick with their old philosophy of putting titles out of their minds once that window closes, they’re doing themselves (and their shareholders) a disservice. And they’ll forever play second fiddle to other entertainment industries in the battle to control pop culture.


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