If you subscribe to the Develop Daily email list, then you’ve surely noticed the announcement of studio closure after studio closure.
The retail market is being shaken up too; Funcom may have been one of the first game publishers to announce their future shift to exclusive digital distribution, but they will almost surely not be the last. And just because the games industry is relatively recession-proof, thanks to its unusually high value per pound compared with other entertainment options, doesn’t mean that what is taking place in the world outside our electronic escapes does not have some effect on the games people want to play.
It is a fairly well-known fact that skirt lengths tend to correlate surprisingly well with the stock market. During bull markets, skirts tend to rise with the price of equities; the all-time market highs of the recent past happened to coincide with the appearance of the booty shorts that have decorated many a racing game cover.
On the other hand, when the markets are being ravaged by the bear and prices have fallen, long skirts that keep the ankles chastely covered tend to be in vogue. Many readers are probably too young to remember the last serious recession, which took place during the early Thatcher years, but if you look at pictures from that era, you will quickly see that no one was flashing any whale tails from beneath those skirts that could have easily served as frigate sails in an emergency at sea.
This is but the most famous example of the budding young science of socionomics, which is the study of social moods and their effect on economics. The jury is still out on its practical effectiveness, but a large body of evidence has been gathered which strongly suggests certain correlations that are likely to be useful when contemplating how different sorts of games are likely to be received when they come to market. Because the game industry is so young – it was still in its first blush of youth when the last big economic expansion began – it’s hard to draw any useful conclusions from the games of the past. But, I suggest that by looking at the popular historical trends in films and books, some interesting correlations become apparent.
Compare some of the most popular novels of the Great Depression with those of the booming late 1990s. The bestselling novels of the 1930s include: Anthony Adverse, It Can’t Happen Here, Gone With the Wind, Rebecca, and that cheery, happy tale, The Grapes of Wrath. In contrast, the best-sellers of the late 1990s mostly consisted of Danielle Steel’s romances, Tom Clancy’s odes to military hardware, and John Grisham’s stories about lawyers making lots of money. While one might well argue that being forced to read the latter collection is more likely to inspire a literate man to kill himself, there’s no question that the social mood implied by the former group is much darker.
It’s much the same with movies. Think of the difference between the British films being produced by Hammer during the postwar period compared with the Merchant Ivory productions of the more prosperous Eighties and Nineties. In America, the recession of the Carter years saw the birth of numerous slaughterhouse franchises such as Halloween and Friday the 13th; until very recently, the only horror films being made were parodies such as the Scary Movie series.
So, what does this indicate for game design? If we are entering a period of economic contraction, then the social mood will darken and thereby inspire a taste for darker themes in entertainment. This means games that have more in common with GTA IV and Age of Conan will likely do better than expected, while more light-hearted games such as Diner Dash and Super Mario Galaxy will tend to disappoint. Games with art that is more somber and shadowy should do better than those with bright-colored, cartoonish styles. Musical themes will likely incline towards the more gothic and heavy rather than sprightly and cheerful.
Now, there are always exceptions to the overall trend, so it’s entirely possible that the bestselling game of 2010 will be a brightly colored side-scroller starring a little girl in pigtails who collects puppies, kittens, and butterflies to the tune of ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go Go’ by Wham! But a much better bet would be a terrifying design revolving around the werewolves of London, or a historical simulation set in Whitechapel entitled Jack.