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

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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 sales numbers.

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.

  • Strengths – The #1 fighting game publisher, corner on the horror market with Resident Evil and Dead Rising, Mega Man franchise, strong action titles like Devil May Cry
  • Weaknesses – Embarrassing list of shooters despite their best efforts, lack of presence beyond 3-4 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 failing.

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 company.

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 be more.

  • Strengths – Fighting series Soul Calibur and Tekken, leads the market in anime-based games, huge portfolio of classic titles like Pac-Man & Galaga
  • Weaknesses – Beyond the 3 niche categories they lead, almost  no presence in all other genres, attempts at finding new IP or rebooting old franchises have failed

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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.

  • Strengths – Lots of great IP to use in kid’s games and licensed titles, Warrren Spector with Junction Point
  • Weaknesses – Closure of Black Rock Studios & Propaganda Games, retreat from the core gaming market