Why ping pong explains what’s wrong with the video game industry

IGN has an exclusive interview/announcement from Rockstar Games. The company with an essentially one-note library (plus a dash of racing) — Grand Theft Auto, Manhunt, Red Dead Revolver, The Warriors, the upcoming Bully — is making an Xbox 360 game … of table tennis. And it will cost $40, not $60 like most next-gen games.

Which is brilliant, and a sign that Rockstar knows how short-sighted its business model has been. But the surprise and puzzlement that have greeted the announcement nicely illustrate what’s wrong with the video game industry.

Rockstar’s announcement can only be surprising if we expect them (and other companies) to primarily produce one kind of game. Those expectations seem to be self-reinforcing, as that’s exactly what Rockstar did until now. And that’s the whole problem: Companies are too associated with franchises, specific kinds of games, or “attitudes” (for lack of a better word), and they’re scared of trying something different.

If I ran a video game company, I would want my brand to be known for quality, innovation, and fun — regardless of the kind of game. I would want to surprise people, go from one genre to a radically different genre from game to game. Gamers would know that whatever they picked up from my company would be satisfying, and they’d reward us for that. Too much connection to one thing is creatively limiting and bad business. At some point, that one game or one genre or one franchise will stumble, and then what do you do?

The $40 price point is also smart. It shows Rockstar recognizes that gamers understand that every game can’t justify a $60 price tag — something few companies seem willing to admit. And it makes sense, psychologically. I mean, ping pong for $60? But for 40 bucks, I’ll pick up a stubbly rendered paddle.

— March 5, 2006

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