Would Half Life be a Sound Investment?

July 22, 2009 § Leave a comment

If anyone’s going to shake up the videogame industry it’ll be Gabe Newell. The co-founder of Valve, and the man behind Steam and the seminal Half Life series is no stranger to taking everyone’s conceptions of how videogames (and their surrounding industry) should work, and throwing them out the window. In 1998 Newell’s company rewrote the rulebook on how to make first person shooters with the original Half Life, and then in 2003 he topped this with Steam, the content delivery service that today has over 700 games for sale and 20 million registered users.

With all this under his (well technically Valve’s) belt, it seems Gabe’s at it again, with an idea of how games might/could/should be financed in the future. In an interview with Australian gamer show ‘Good Game’ Newell expressed a great interest in fans funding game development, as opposed to publishers. In the future he hopes that new game ideas will be pitched to the community, who can then decide whether to invest in the game. In return they’d get a copy of the game at the very least, as well as a share in the game’s profits if it’s successful.

The problems with this system however, are too great to ignore. A game running over-budget under such a system would prove disastrous. Currently if a game does this, there’s (nearly) always going to be a publisher there to inject more cash. Publishers, due to their enormous size, have the wealth to do such a thing, and as a result the game’s development can be salvaged. With community investment, the prospect of further cash injections is far less certain. How can you convince more customers to put money into a project that’s already gone over-budget?

Could such a system act as a roadblock to smaller, less mainstream, more ‘risky’ projects. As it stands it’s already hard enough to get consumers to pay for a game even when it’s done and has received glowing reviews. Look at game’s like Psychonauts and Killer 7. These game’s were lauded by the press as the amazing games that they were, and yet still failed to move off shelves. How much harder would it be to sell consumers on these games without any demos or reviews to back up their claims?

It’s all very well for the co-founder of Valve to be making these comments, he is after all the founder of one of the most adored developers in the world, who have not once put out a bad game. I would – like many others – be happy to invest in Valve, because I know I’m going to get a quality game out of it. With other developers I’d be less certain. Free Radical for instance, put out one of my favourite games of all time, Timesplitters 3. They then followed this up with Haze, which was quite possibly one of the worst shooters this generation. Likewise, Factor 5 made the sublime Rogue Squadron games before they made Lair.

Even reaching potential consumer/investors might prove troublesome. The reason something like Halo, Call of Duty 4, or Grand Theft Auto is such an amazing success is because it’s not just us gamers who buy it. How do you reach your average consumer who’s content to pick up the latest Halo, but not much else? How would you even begin to try and explain this new system to them?

But maybe I’m being a bit too pessimistic even by my surly-British standards. Fans would after all gut what they really want out of a game. We’ve seen the numerous petitions on the internet, trying to force Blizzard to rethink Diablo 3’s art style, and it’s likely that if it was the investors making these petitions, then the game would be changed drastically, and fast.

The risk involved with developing a new IP would disappear completely. You’d have guaranteed revenue from the game before you even started production, and if you were unfortunate and didn’t get the investment you needed for a title, then you’re loss is going to be minute compared with what you’d have lost developing a full game. Why not try and pitch something completely off the wall? You’ve got nothing to lose after all.

If anyone can pull off such a radical shack up of the games industry it’s Valve. They have the audacity, the money, and above all the sheer talent to attempt this crazy idea, and succeed.. I’ll be waiting for a development in this story with baited breath, not least because the group who’ll benefit most from this should be the gamers, who’ll finally have a way to make money off of all their knowledge of game developers and companies.

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