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Another Column On The Game Business

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By Doug Thompson

Ubisoft, a game development company in France, announced recently that sales during their March-to-June quarter were down 50.6 percent compared to last year.

That’s just the latest industry news that shows the game business isn’t recession-proof, as it seemed to be for a while. Now sales are down industry-wide by 31 percent compared to 2008.

Some titles, however, are recession-proof. “Grand Theft Auto” is one, at least for a full console version. I suspect “Mass Effect” will be another.

Expect the game industry’s “blockbuster” business trend to get stronger.

I was going to say: Expect the game industry’s trend of only producing sequels to sure-fire blockbusters to get stronger. Then I realized that would be flat wrong.

Sure, there are ancient franchises. “Metal Gear Solid” has become more of a movie than a game by all accounts. “Resident Evil’s” still going. Heck, “Castlevania” is being made into a movie, according to news accounts.

I also must mention “The Orange Box,” which is nothing but a boxed set of really great “Half Life” games — with the original and highly successful game of “Portal” added. Portal is, by accounts, one of the most innovative and successful new concepts in gaming in recent years.

But today’s most anticipated sequels are sequels to some recent bursts of creativity. Look at how many “blockbusters” are fairly new developments.

“World in Conflict,” “Bioshock” and  “Mass Effect” came out in 2007. “Gears of War” showed up in 2006. “God of War” and “Guitar Hero” first showed up in 2005.

While you could argue that none of these were all that original or groundbreaking — just very good at what they do — none of them were direct sequels to anything either.

Even games that could have scraped by as copycat productions are being done very well. The online distributor Steam now has a new version of “The Secret of Monkey Island.” Critics say is very much improved, and not just graphically. There’s an extensive new hint system now to help people who aren’t as crazy as the game’s designers.

“Secret of Monkey Island” came out in 1990. A sequel, “The Curse of Monkey Island,” came out in 1997 and is one of my youngest daughter’s favorite games. My girl was born in 1994.

Everything old is new again, and better.

“Sam and Max,” a game series that had died after 1993, has also been reborn.

Now the game industry’s in a slump. They’re still profitable as a group, but they aren’t raking money in like they used to.

My concern is that all the creative risks were taken in when last generation of consoles arrived. We had quite a burst there. Looks like we’re going to coast a while.

The economic slump is just part of the problem in the game business. There’s also been a notable lull in the release of any good games. The pace couldn’t be kept up.

An adaptation of the latest “Grand Theft Auto” for the Nintendo DS — which always struck me as kind of odd, probably because I’m an old clunk who thinks the DS if for kids — flopped very hard.

“Tiger Woods PGA Tour 10” didn’t set my heart to racing either. “InFamous” was a great game, according to press accounts, but sales didn’t set the world ablaze.

I just can’t fully buy into the recession argument when “Wii Fit,” a game that cost $80 with the necessary balance board, is still selling 133,865 copies a week.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe “Wii Fit” sells because people are canceling their fitness club memberships and using this game instead.

One of my children just got a “Wii Fit” for her birthday. I haven’t messed with it much, but I must say that my kids certainly find it to be fun. There’s only such button mashing you can do before button mashing gets boring. Wii Fit had them doing hula-hoop moves among others.

Watching them play the game didn’t remind me of a P.E. class. Watching them reminded me of “WarioWare: Smooth Moves” for the Wii. That’s a game they has the players do all sorts of goofy stuff. It’s very enjoyable.

Maybe the Wii’s recession proof just because it’s fun. Just a thought.

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