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THE CUTTING EDGE

Myst Opportunities : Game Makers Narrow Their Focus to Search for the Next Blockbuster

March 03, 1997|GREG MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Production costs are soaring, top stars are commanding lucrative salaries while others struggle to get noticed, and a blockbuster mentality grips the industry.

The movie industry? Music? Network television?

No, computer gaming. For the same forces that have come to dominate those established entertainment industries are quickly taking root in this newest of media.

For most of its relatively brief existence, the game industry's strategy has been to pump out as many titles as possible. But now, for the first time, companies are cutting back and taking fewer risks.

Virgin Interactive in Irvine, for instance, plans to release about 25 games this year, half what it shipped in 1996. These days only those games that look like sure hits get the green light at Virgin; nearly 40% are killed in development.

The old business model was "throw as much mud against the wall as you can and see what sticks," said Martin Alper, president of Virgin Interactive. Now, he said, if a game doesn't seem destined to end up near the top in its category, "we're not interested in continuing its development."

The old model had certain advantages for consumers, because they got to decide which titles would succeed. And it was good for game designers, because a large number of their ideas--good or bad--made it to store shelves.

That model worked well during the early rapid-growth years of the market for PC-based games, which is today a $1.2-billion industry.

But the very same strategy has become a problem for game companies confronting a wave of new competitive pressures amid slowing market growth. These include a battle for shrinking shelf space in electronics, software and mass-market retail stores.

Alper acknowledges that diversity is suffering but says that overall the changes will benefit consumers because only the best games will make it.

Still, many of the industry's creative leaders fret that the chance to do innovative work is fading. Echoing the familiar laments of movie and music critics, they say that reluctance to take risks may mean not only fewer flops, but also fewer masterpieces.

Doug TenNapel, creator of critically acclaimed titles such as Earthworm Jim and The Neverhood, said consumers can look forward to a diet of sequels and conformity.

"Consumers are just going to get more combat games crammed down their throats," TenNapel said, "because that's what sells."

Not so long ago, many in the industry believed the game business was poised for greatness. PC sales were booming, and every sale created a household of potential new customers.

This was accompanied by the hope that typically affluent and educated PC buyers might be ready for something more sophisticated than the shoot-'em-up titles that dominate the market for dedicated game machines such as the Sega Saturn and Sony PlayStation.

If any game served as a symbol of these lofty aspirations, it was an unheralded gem called Myst.

Introduced by Broderbund in the fall of 1993, Myst enthralled players with surreal graphics and sounds, right down to the lapping tide and screeching sea gulls in the game's opening waterfront scene.

The game, in which players navigate an island, deciphering clues to solve a mystery, was one of the first to capture a truly mass audience. It became the top-selling PC game of all time, with more than 2.5 million copies sold.

But the game landscape has shifted so dramatically since the introduction of Myst that many executives say its prospects in today's blockbuster-driven market would have been uncertain.

Myst was what the industry calls a "slow burner," meaning its sales built momentum over months. These days, retailers often give up on slow-selling titles in a matter of weeks.

"If Myst came out in this retail environment today, it may never have even seen the light of day," said Ronald W. Chaimowitz, chief executive of New York-based GT Interactive, one of the industry's largest companies.

A few years ago, the business was dominated by specialty stores that stocked hundreds of titles and were more patient with slow-selling games. But today, big retailers are pushing the specialty stores aside, in the same way that giant bookstore chains are eradicating small shops.

A game has "to come out smoking or we have to move on to something else," said Mark Dobberstein, head buyer of PC games for Target, the giant Minneapolis-based retail chain.

Dobberstein chooses which games will be stocked in Target's 750 stores, a daunting task considering Target has room for only about 50 of the roughly 3,000 titles in release. Shelf space is doled out solely on a game's projected sales potential, a criterion that tends to favor sequels and major titles from big, well-known companies.

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