I just posted about Hellgate: London, and the fact that its producer, Flagship Studios, has basically collapsed over the past few days. It got me thinking: it's becoming less and less viable for small game companies to compete. This is a mixed blessing. On one hand, most games that are coming out these days are very polished, come with big budgets, and look and sound great. No small publisher could afford to put something like, say, Half-Life 2 together. Command and Conquer 3's cast was practically a who's-who of nerd celebrities. And Blizzard can spend half a decade or longer to make a game, dedicate a hundred or two people to it, and fund it until it's done. All of that makes for really interesting game experiences.
I'm sure that not all of the best games of the past few years were from big companies. I don't know how large the teams for, say, Crysis and Mass Effect were. Maybe they were actually pretty small. But the bar is climbing higher and higher. When I started gaming, whole games could be produced by a few people—about a dozen people worked on Might and Magic III, the game that sparked my interest in RPGs, and that game was pretty incredible for its time. Nowadays, big-budget titles could take ten times that, not even including testing and voicework. How can a small company compete with that?
I don't think they can, if they're not being fed cash by a bigger company. Most of the best games from small publishers are in different genres now. Puzzle Quest is the biggest "indie" game that comes to mind, and that succeeds because it's a totally different type of game from the big-budget titles. Most of the games produced by smaller publishers now seem to be what I'd classify as "casual" games. It takes a lot more money to satisfy more hardcore gamers now.
I think that the end result—an idea that I've read before; I'm certainly not the first person to think of it—is that the big-budget games are the ones that don't take too many risks. They're the guaranteed successes. It's not worth it to pump that much money into something that might not make back the investment. If you want the big-budget games, I think you have to live with the fact that you're going to get something that's similar to what you've played before, and it's not likely to be too innovative. I think I'm okay with that. If you want an innovative game, you have to live with it probably being lower-quality, at least as far as production value is concerned. Our boundless desire for more realism and more expensive games has changed the market into what it is today. It's our fault, both good and bad.
What does that mean for Hellgate? I don't know why Flagship failed, really. They borrowed a lot of money, took a long time to develop the game, but still it released too early. Those early reviews hurt a lot. A bigger company would have been able to wait it out, as in Blizzard's infamous "we'll release it when it's done." Did they fail because they were a new studio and bit off more than they could chew? Did they fail because they were out of money and had to release it incomplete? Probably all of that and more. I guess I'm not ever going to know.