The videogame industry has, for over a decade, been a rare portrait of fabulous success in a changing media era. The music industry imploded in the mp3 era. The TV industry has weathered a relentless array of storms: splintering audiences, DVRs that destroy ad revenue, the creeping menace of Torrent sites. The movie industry just had a record box office summer, but ever-declining ticket sales and the erosion of 3-D profits makes Hollywood’s outlook look grim. By comparison, the videogame industry looked ridiculously robust. Just last November, Call of Duty: Black Ops became the fastest-selling… well, thing in pop culture history, grossing $360 million in one day. But this summer, the videogame industry has seen a notable drop in game sales. As reported by the LA Times, console game sales fell by 34 percent last month compared to August 2010. When you include all the console hardware — including systems, controllers, etc. — overall sales were down 23 percent. What gives?
Some blame can go on the games themselves: Compared to summer 2010, there weren’t any massive populist-success releases this summer. (Put it this way: L.A. Noire was no Red Dead Redemption. And much as I enjoyed El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron, that game’s title practically screamed Not For the Casual Gamer.) As the Times points out, the delay of the new Madden game into late August made sales sink considerably lower. The low sales might also be evidence that we are simply at the end of the current console cycle — which makes Nintendo’s decision to roll out the successor to the Wii next year look like a smart move.
But there’s a larger movement going on in the videogame world that goes beyond a simple generational shift. The August sales charts don’t represent sales on XBox Live or the Playstation Network, or — more importantly — social games like Farmville or mobile games like Angry Birds. Those games might represent the future — or at least one possible future — for videogames.
Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I love Angry Birds. But it’s worth wondering whether the videogame industry will actually wind up looking like a Frankenstein pastiche of its fellow struggling media. The home-console market will depend, like the modern film industry, on big franchise releases. The ever-expanding mobile/social market will resemble television, with lots of niche products pegged to every demographic. And, much like the modern music industry, the most interesting work will occur along the margins: in online Flash games, in XBLA/PSN exclusives, and weird little mobile games that aren’t Angry Birds.
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