Reply To: Activision Set to Sell Sierra

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This isn’t specifically on this subject (or at least the direction this subject is going) but I thought I might throw this out there.  I think the computer game industry is due for a radical readjustment, much like what has happened to the recording industry.  The idea of “Sierra” was largely formed in a different time when the industry was radically different than it is today.  In today’s gaming world the only games that get a “green light” are those that fit a very narrow decision gating process: the genre has to be profitable enough to justify the “R&D” costs (in gaming, the engine development and programming) and with the current demand for cutting edge everything that usually hits a number in the multi-millions.  Companies, specifically public corporations, can be very constraining as they are usually led by businessmen who may or may not have any direct experience with the product being developed.  Some of you may remember that the head of Cendant was on the Sierra Board of Directors prior to the 96 merger?  The CEO of a travel company serving as a board member on a computer game company?  He didn’t know games but he did know business and Ken Williams was around to guide the game development.  Guys like that rely on basic business skills, taught in MBA programs all over the country and the more profitable a company is the more of a demand from the owners (stockholders) that the company is led by someone who can maximize the return on their investment.  The point of all of this?  The gaming industry has fallen into the same self destructive loop that the motion picture and recording industries have fallen into – flash over substance, safe over risky, lots and lots of PR and marketing and a reduction in any “unneccesary” costs to maximize stockholder returns.  This approach works wonders in a lot of industries (mine included) but I’ve often wondered what bonehead thought it was a good approach to any creative endeavor.

At this point I’ve started to see the games on the shelf at Best Buy as the digital equivalent of the latest Britney Spears or Madonna album – the formula has been time tested and honed to maximum revenue generation potential, the PR has been insane and countless hours have been poured into focus group testing and trend analysis to make sure that the 30 million used in development won’t go into the next Diakatana or Battlecruiser 3000AD.  Cross platforming is required as the big budgets require the maximum revenue from every platform to hit the “magic” numbers so the game is crippled to the slowest or least limiting system on the market.  In short, mainstream games are the product of a Least Common Demoninator development process that ends up with the single least risky but highest selling package of manufactured “same” that we’ve all seen a hundred times before.

At this point I’d bet almost any of you over the age of 25 or so have a collection of CDs that you can’t find at Best Buy and won’t find on Top 40 radio.  Personally mine is alternative country music from Texas.  A friend of mine listens to post-modern emo rock mixed with punk.  There are hundreds of musical genres that have sprung up over the last ten years since digital distribution and direct to customer selling became a reality in the wake of the Internet – almost none of which can be found in any traditional distribution form.  I think music was the first art form to go this route, mostly because the relative difficulty of getting a CD recorded and “available” is pretty low compared to the other creative endeavors.  Indy movies are all the rage these days and their distribution is slowly becoming more and more prevalent as the Internet and a million cable channels make it possible.  I think at some point in the future games (and specifically computer games) will go this route.  The idea of “making it” by getting on a major publishing label will fade away – just as it has in the recording industry.  The gatekeepers on gaming will slowly find themselves less and less inflential as more people turn away from the brick and mortar approach and toward getting more variety at a lower fixed cost from alternative distributions.

All of this is my way of saying that seeing the “Sierra” name fade away really isn’t bothering me too much.  Just like it didn’t mean anything when Ken Williams was driving his zip locked baggies around California in the early 80s the name of whatever computer game company is going to break the next real barrier in gaming means nothing now.  Rather than hope that something pretty unlikely will happen (like Sierra getting picked up by a benovelent publisher in an industry full of Earnings Per Share slaves) I’ve started looking elsewhere for my gaming.  The more people that leave the plastic boxes sitting on the shelves in Best Buy and start tossing their cash toward hard working, innovative, non-established game developers the sooner we may all see something close to what Sierra used to be – and I think that’s a good thing.

I’ll shut up now.