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We’ve Gotta Play SOMETHING

The video game industry doesn't stop just because AAA releases have

The runaway success of Manor Lords this month, coming so soon after the runaway success of Helldivers 2 and Palworld, once again has people asking: what's so special about these games? How are they breaking through to achieve the kind of sales and awareness that used to be reserved for games with 10x their budget?

It's a line of questioning you see everywhere from Twitter to video games websites to, if you're unlucky enough to ever see it there, Linkedin. Consultants, publishers, marketers, developers, even journalists, everyone wants to know why these weird little games are blowing up, what is it about them that makes them so special, and everyone thinks they have an answer.

The more surprise hits we get like this, though, the more I'm wondering: what if there isn't an answer. If you think the secrets of Manor Lords or Palworld will eventually be revealed to you by staring at them long and hard enough, then by all means, keep staring! But what if they're successes not because of what they are, but what else there isn't.

A couple of years ago I wrote a piece called "2022 Was The Year Big Video Games Stopped Coming Out". It pointed out that, as AAA gaming has grown ever more expensive, unwieldy and cautious, whole tiers of video games have simply stopped hitting the shelf:

It’s easy to forget, as comfortable with its routines as we are, how much of this industry still revolves around that calendar, blissfully unaware (or unwilling to accept) that it’s not 2003 anymore. The timing and volume of AAA game releases has been the cornerstone of everything from major events like E3, to development schedules, to sales periods, to retail channels, right on down to when the writers of video game websites like this one used to be able to take a vacation (until recently it was never in October or November, that would be too busy!).

Over the last few years, what used to be a flood of high-profile releases slowed to a trickle, however, and by 2022 it was more like a slow drip. But the framework around those games, which has settled in like scaffolding that nobody knows how to or wants to take down, is still there. Huge parts of the video game industry have spent the year echoing around it, lonely footsteps booming through a cavernous, empty church. 2022 wasn’t a year notable for its big games. It was a year notable for their absence.

Sure, some came out. They always have and they always will. Elden RingGod of WarHorizon, a revamped Call of Duty. But what else? As recently as four to five years ago the year would be full of big, expensive releases from major publishers. Especially now, during holiday seasons that were once jam-packed with the kinds of games that begged you to pre-order them with big posters at a GameStop, that would clog up an E3 press conference. In 2022 you could hear a pin drop for whole months at a time.

That piece was mainly about the kinds of games we weren't getting anymore. Two years down the road we're now finding ourselves at the logical endpoint of this trend: if those games aren't coming out, people are playing something else instead.

I'm going to be very general here, but while a whole class of AAA (and maybe even a whole AA tier under them) has seen their release schedule slow to a trickle, the demand for video games hasn't changed. We're still out here, loving them, wanting to play them, wanting to buy them, wanting to talk about them online. And if there isn't a Mafia or a Civilization or a Killzone or a Deus Ex coming out anymore, folks will simply play (and discuss) whatever is coming out.

Like I said in that 2022 piece, the machine this industry has built for itself is undying. It does not stop. Steam always needs games on its front page, PlayStation's Twitter account always needs something to tweet about, influencers are always out there influencing, Redditors need something to argue about and websites are always out there looking to talk about games (and cash in on that buzz). The limelight never dims, and it turns out that if the traditional custodians of that space--more frequent releases from EA, 2K, Nintendo, Take-Two, Square Enix, etc--aren't coming out as often, something else will take their spot! Something else has to take their spot.

And so we keep getting this succession of games that, while I'm sure they would have made money and attracted fans regardless, get these enormous boosts to their awareness -> sales -> discourse by being the thing that everyone talks about for a few weeks.

That's not to say that any of these surprise successes are bad games, or somehow unworthy of the attention simply because they've inherited an empty release calendar. These are, for the people buying and enjoying them, very good video games! If anything it's great that we're living through a time where a game can be (mostly) made by a single person and have it capture the world's attention for a week. It's incredibly cool that we can all be talking about a medieval city-builder for much of April instead of a generic third-person action game.

This isn't the only reason they're selling millions, of course. It doesn't take much insight to realise that lots of people were into Palworld because of Pokemon's stagnation, or Manor Lords because bigger city-builders (like Skylines 2's disastrous launch) aren't in a great place, or Helldivers 2 because Destiny 2 is tired but people love blowing up aliens together.

But I do think that however good these games are and however successful they could have been, what makes them constant case studies is the fact they're perceived to be too successful, or at least more successful than any kind of analyst or armchair pundit could have predicted. People just keep looking at these hits and saying, huh, weird, they shouldn't be selling this much!

But they should, they are, and they will keep on doing so. And if that keeps making you wonder what's up, maybe you need to be looking at the spotlight these games keep finding themselves in, rather than the games finding themselves in it.

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