We often hear about how large publicly-held publishers are keen on diversifying their portfolio of games with different genres and business models.
But that strategy is also important on the independent studio level, according to Sweden's Avalanche Studios, developer of the Just Cause series -- a franchise that many would consider a "triple-A" kind of game.
"It seems that everyone has a different definition of what triple-A is," says studio co-founder Christofer Sundberg. "I think if you're a big publisher, triple-A is associated with big budgets and huge risks. But I see triple-A as a stamp of quality.
"We don't have to develop, bigger more expensive games. We don't have to hire more people or have bigger teams. We just want to make better games. We try to combine [different genres and business models]. One of our studios, Expansive Worlds, that's doing The Hunter, a free-to-play hunting game.
"They've been working on the free-to-play model for four years now. And even though they are a very small studio, they are profitable. They don't have numbers like Supercell, but it's self-funded and doing quite well in a genre where we're almost alone."
Advantages of diversifying your lineupFounded in 2003, Avalanche has released four games: Two entries in the Just Cause series (a third is heavily rumored), the free-to-play The Hunter and one paid digital download title in Renegade Ops.
Diversifying the kinds of games your studio makes can help mitigate the risks associated with all-eggs-in-one-basket triple-A development. Avalanche is keeping a close eye on what's happening in PC, mobile and console development, as barriers for making and releasing games continue to crumble. Lower barriers means "triple-A" studios like Avalanche can better supplement their high-budget, infrequently-released big franchise installments with smaller, more experimental games.
Stefan Ljungqvist, Avalanche's creative director, said, "I don't think big-budget games are going away. There's going to be less of them. But that's a good thing, because maybe we don't need forty first-person shooters. I don't want to play them all [laughs], but maybe we need one, two or three.
"What I like now is that there are more opportunities to be creative. Maybe over the course of the past five years, developers have pitched creative or more artistic games, but publishers had been more careful of betting a lot on those games, because they're associated with some risk. But maybe now they can [take more risks] because they need to be more unique in the marketplace."
Sundberg admits that making video games isn't just an art, but it's also a business. Working with the free-to-play model, he has to make sure to consider how a game will make money over a long period of time, and a free-to-play game's design needs to adhere to that strategy.
"The [monetization method] is so much a fundamental part of the free-to-play business model now that we have to think about it, regardless if we want to or not. It's always a tough hurdle for a game designer to get over -- to start thinking about how you can 'squeeze' more money out of your player. But that's the way we'll make money in the future."
On PlayStation 4With PlayStation 4, developers with have yet another platform to consider. With an x86-based architecture and a more lax submission process, Sony has been taking important steps toward making their console more developer-friendly.
"It's definitely easier to develop for," Sundberg said. "I think their approach for letting smaller developers in is fantastic. And all of the [control] inputs creates an opportunity. They've created a platform for us to make better games."
But consoles in general have mounting competition from various devices that are connecting to televisions, from mobile OSes to Steam Box. "Commercially, the market is certainly pointing toward a direction that is not favorable for consoles," Sundberg admitted. "But for us consoles have always been our platform -- it's the entertainment center of your house."
For Avalanche, other attractive features of consoles include unique input devices and specialized developer support.
"You ask, 'What's the future of consoles,' but maybe there's no console anymore," mused Ljungqvist. "This is convergence -- Smart TV, Netflix is on PS3. It's already happening. I don't think we should disregard that 'consoles,' or whatever we call them, as they will be important to living room entertainment. But there is risk. Will the hardware install base grow as fast as the last generation?"
So for Avalanche, the strategy is to take measured steps onto new platforms in order to mitigate that risk and prepare for new ways to do business. "For us, I think a mix is good," Ljungqvist said. "We have to think about how to be smart on all platforms."