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Will THQ collapse under its falling stock? Will SEGA rebound from the staff cuts and cancellations? Why does Microsoft keep losing talent? These are just a few of the questions that have circulated the gaming world in recent months. But they all focus on the same issue - who are these giants called "publishers," and how are they really doing?
The recent news about THQ (a favorite of mine) has finally pushed me to complete this 3-part feature. For the past 5-6 years, I've maintained an internal database where I track the industry's largest players. It started out as a desire to map their portfolios, to see which publishers were the most active in which genres. But it grew into something more, as I recorded the rise and fall of talent within those companies, the closing and buying of development studios, and the relative success of dozens of franchises.
I can't claim to have a perfect analysis of every company - there is simply too much involved in the success/failure of these publishers, and much of the information is never disclosed to the public. But I've looked at twenty of the major players in the industry, and have categorized them by their relative standing today.
In part one, we'll be looking at the bottom third of the publishers. The rankings are not based off personal opinion or size of the companies. What we're more interested in is stability and growth - financially, staff size, amount of titles, etc. We're also interested in the diversity/depth of a portfolio, and the general quality of the titles in that portfolio.
I'd love to hear your feedback below, including your thoughts on whether the "niche" publishers will be able to break out, and whether you think the bottom 3 will survive to the next generation.
Niche Publishers Failing to Grow
I wish I could give Capcom a better
placement than this, because I am a huge fan of many of their games – but this
is an analysis, not a popularity vote.
Capcom is definitely the strongest publisher in this category, and the
couple markets they dominate are so huge I hesitate to call them niches. But
the fact remains that Capcom’s successful
franchises all fall within 2-3 genres. And outside of that, their lineup
reads like a shopping list of bargain-bin games.
We’ll start with the company’s strengths. It’s almost impossible to mention
Capcom without thinking of Resident Evil, and for good reason. The original game was ahead of its time, and is still
mentioned among the best titles of all time. Resident Evil has become more than just a game, it's almost a
market of its own. The countless spin-offs, sequels and handheld versions have
kept the franchise at the top of Capcom’s revenue charts. Along with the
Dead Rising series, Capcom has a firm place in the horror market.
The other juggernaut for Capcom is their fighting games. Street Fighter was
dominant during the golden age of fighters, and Street Fighter IV is often
credited as resurrecting the genre a few years ago. That’s no small
accomplishment, but Capcom has not rested on their laurels. Marvel vs. Capcom
3, Super Street Fighter IV, and Street Fighter x Tekken are just a few of the
follow-ups from the last two years. The next publisher on this list likes to boast
about having the best 3D fighting games, but Capcom has nothing to prove and
they know it.
Beyond those two genres, Capcom’s portfolio drops off. Which isn’t to say
they don’t have other successful franchises. The Mega Man series, Devil May
Cry, Monster Hunter, and Okami are just a few of the action/adventure success
that Capcom can boast. The upcoming reboot for DMC should prove again that
Capcom isn’t a two-trick pony.
So why is Capcom on this list? Because despite the many amazing games they
publish, they also produce a LOT of junk. Almost every shooting game Capcom has
ever made could be in that category. I’ve liked a few of them, and reviews are
mixed for some, but there always seems to be something missing, something
glaring mistakes holding them back from blockbuster level. They haven’t found
the sweet spot like they have with fighters and horror, and it shows in the
Dark Void, the Bionic Commando Reboot, Lost Planet 2, and the recent release
Operation Raccoon City could all fall under that category. Lost Planet has found
a bit of success, but factor in the production costs and the marketing
campaigns for these shooters, and Capcom is still losing. The company seems
desperate to break into the shooter market, but no matter how many times they
try and how much money they throw at it, they haven’t been able to succeed.
And it’s that desperation to grow that stands out most prominently when
ranking this publisher. Add the fact that Capcom has little-to-no presence in
most genres (RPG, racing, sports, strategy, etc.) and we see the limitations of
Capcom’s portfolio. They are probably the greatest “niche” market publisher to
exist, but niche they remain until they can find success in some other genres.
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Namco was a very tough publisher to place. On the one hand, the company
seems quite comfortable and has not shown signs of failure like many other
Japanese publishers. Namco is a very old company with a lot of classic and
recognizable titles. But on the other hand… their portfolio is not very
diverse, and their attempts to succeed with new IP have been largely
unsuccessful. Which gives off the impression that the company is stagnating,
unable to truly evolve or expand.
In the end, it’s those half-hearted attempts that feature most prominently
in my mind. I think they are most telling of where Namco is trying to go, and
But first, let’s look at what the company has going for it. Started in 1955,
Namco has been around since before video games existed, and before most of us
were born. They started by operating children’s rides on the roof of a
department store, and expanded into amusement parks and then arcade games.
In the 70s, Namco bought part of Atari Games and got further into the game
industry. Namco eventually started making games of its own, hitting it big in the early 80s with titles like Galaga and Pac-Man. Many of these titles are still around, and form
the stable of classics that the modern-day Namco tries to leverage. As a
side-note, Namco still runs amusement parks and rides to this day.
Namco’s triple-A portfolio was born in the mid-90s, with titles like Ridge
Racer (93), Tekken (94) and Soul Edge (95). The two fighting series (now Soul
Calibur and Tekken) are among the strongest franchises owned by Namco. The
resurrection of the fighting genre over the last 2-3 years has made those franchises
more valuable, so that Namco’s fighters are now a cornerstone of the game
The third pillar of Namco seems to be its abundance of license games, most
based on popular Japanese anime series. The most recognizable of these would be
the Naruto games, Gundam games, and Dragon Ball titles. Though none of these have
reached blockbuster level in the states, they are a consistent, annual source
of success and revenue for the company. They also give Namco its most credible
entries in the Action genre.
So with those three successful pillars (classics, fighting games, anime
titles), what’s wrong with Namco? Pretty much everything else. Beyond the
afore-mentioned titles, Namco’s portfolio is very limited and weak. Ridge Racer
is a shoe-in launch title for most platforms, but financially it’s not making
any waves. The “Tales of” series of RPG games have been decent, but again,
don’t really give Namco a strong presence in that genre. There’s really nothing
to speak of in the sports, strategy, or survival horror genres.
The recent attempts by Namco to change this, and expand their portfolio,
have not worked. The attempted reboot of Splatterhouse was not a success. Their
other forays into the action genre, like Enslaved and Afro Samurai, were
likewise disappointing (though the reviews were better than the sales). The
only successful “new” IP Namco can brag about is Dark Souls, but then again, we
all knew the sequel to Demon’s Souls would do well.
So in the end, Namco is just another one of those niche publishers trying to
Disney was a much easier publisher to place than Namco or Capcom. And
frankly, there is a lot less to say about this one, since Disney has been
licensing out its IP to other companies for years. But Disney Interactive
Studios is composed of about six developers at the moment.
The most noteworthy of those is Junction Point, the home of industry
luminary Warren Spector. Many assumed that Spector’s involvement with Disney
would bring forth some original (and possibly M-rated) IP from Disney
Interactive. When Epic Mickey was unveiled, hopes were high that the game,
while not a new IP, would still raise the bar on Disney games. Reception was
mixed, and while I won’t offer my own opinion on the game, the fact remains
that it was not the publisher-defining title that Disney hoped for.
Two other developers with Disney were working on games for a more “core
gamer” audience, Propaganda Games and Black Rock Studios. Propaganda made the
2008 version of Turok, the 2010 Tron title, and was working on a sweet-looking
Pirates of the Caribbean game (which got a good preview from our friends at
GI). Black Rock made Pure and the arcade racer Split/Second, which was received
fairly well (and is a blast to play).
Unfortunately, both of those companies have now been closed, and the Armada
of the Damned (the Pirates title) has been cancelled. Between those closures,
and Warren Spector’s continuing work on a Mickey Mouse game, Disney has made it
clear that they don’t care much about branching out. The company is focusing on
their licensed titles, and that is about it.
To be clear, licensed games does not just mean the fun Disney-movie kid
games, like Toy Story 3, Wall-E and Cars. It also means a landslide of poorly
done TV-show titles, like The Cheetah Girls, Phineas and Ferb, Hannah Montana
and High School Musical. Games that I doubt many self-respecting readers on GIO
have ever even considered.
Which isn’t to say that those games don’t sell. Disney has their niche
market, they don’t care about the core gamers, and the core gamers probably don’t
care about them.