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DICE 2011: Mark Cerny On The Death Of The $50 Million Game

With the console industry contracting, Mark Cerny used a D.I.C.E. Summit talk to address how the industry is going to have to learn how to reduce project budgets from current historic highs.
In his nearly 30 year career in video games, industry veteran Mark Cerny (Marble Madness) says the only constant has been change, and recent downward changes in the size of the console market have the veteran designer pondering some pretty serious questions. “As a guy who’s been through some pretty tough times in games, I have to start wondering -- is this the end?” the Sega and Sony-affiliated veteran asked at a D.I.C.E. Summit speech in Las Vegas today. The answer, Cerny says, is probably no. Unlike the arcade and console industries that crashed spectacularly in the early ‘80s, today’s console market is not plagued by a dearth of genres, which Cerny considers the “canary in the coal mine” of industry health. What may actually be in trouble, Cerny argues, is games with budgets approaching and surpassing $50 million. The existence of such games is a relatively recent development in the history of the industry, he points out, with average game budgets only reaching $2 million around 1995 and $10 million around 2000. The fast growth in budgets and team sizes since then made sense in the context of an industry that had been growing for ten years straight. But now that the console market is contracting, Cerny argues that bloated teams with separate designers for each tiny element of a project just aren’t going to thrive. This doesn’t mean an end to big-budget games, Cerny says -- games with budgets of $20 million or so can still do quite well. And the industry has a rare chance to get back to those 2004-era project sizes by taking advantage of increased efficiency, he argues. “We are in a very rare time now,” he said. “Technology is not changing, it’s a quiet time, and they don’t happen very often.” That means that developers now have a chance to really focus on learning their craft, rather than learning how to develop for yet another difficult-to-master new system. Adjusting to a changing market situation also means developers have to unlearn some ideas that have been hardwired into them over the years, he said. This won’t be an easy process -- Cerny pointed out it’s taken 30 years for the arcade-inspired ethos of punishing difficulty, constant death and short play sessions to finally fall out of favor. Extending that lesson to today, Cerny says it’s going to take at least ten years for the industry to unlearn old rules about monetization and multiplayer gaming that are being upset by new gameplay forms. He highlighted games like Demon’s Souls, which integrates social play and information sharing into a traditional RPG form, to show this unlearning is possible, though. “I’m looking forward to unlearning the lessons of today’s games and learning the lessons of socialization,” he said.”

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