The Housemarque Debacle
A little over a year ago, Finnish game developer Housemarque published a rather bold letter to their fans proclaiming that “Arcade is Dead.” This, coming from a company known for stellar, arcade-style home console games like Super Stardust, Resogun, and Nex Machina, was a bit shocking. And as the letter went on, it was clear this was going to be bad news. The piece started out detailing the company’s proud history of critically-acclaimed titles and their passion for the “arcade” genre. All good, all understood.
Things took a turn for the worst in the second paragraph, with the following concession: “Despite critical success and numerous awards, our [Housemarque’s] games just haven’t sold in significant numbers. While some of them have reached a massive audience due to free game offerings across various digital sales channels, this unfortunately doesn’t help pay for development, which gets costly for high production quality.”
Though they expressed their deepest thanks to their fans and partners, it didn’t make the impending news any easier to swallow. They continued, saying, “…It’s time to move on to new genres. Lackluster sales of Nex Machina have led us to the thinking that it is time to bring our longstanding commitment to the arcade genre to an end. While this genre will always hold a special place in our hearts, the industry is moving more toward multiplayer experiences with strong, robust communities, and it’s time for Housemarque to move forward with the industry.”
I didn’t know at the time what Housemarque’s next project would look like, but I hoped for the best. Perhaps the studio would bring that magical arcade touch to the AAA realm. Surely, a company with such integrity would never sell out.
But now, I just don't know.
In a year’s time, we’ve seen a lot of change from Housemarque. And in a December 20th Medium blog post written by CEO and co-founder Ilari Kuittinen, we were provided some more insight into their future plans. Still pushing the usual “Arcade is Dead” mantra, the post explains that the studio has “…made the jump to AAA development and [is] working on a new, unannounced IP.” The letter once again reminisces on the joys of creating “…two decades of arcade-inspired and arcade-hybrid games…” while falling back on the same “critical success, commercial failure” justification.
Next comes the icky part. Kuittinen discusses the transition to bigger-budget game development, starting with their upcoming battle royale title Storm Divers. They acknowledge the backlash but also explain that they “…inititated this project back in early 2015 and started prototyping with a small team after finishing Alienation during the Summer of 2016.” Apparently, Housemarque had wanted to explore PvP in their own way long before that Arcade is Dead nonsense went down.
The post goes on to detail how their internal team has grown substantially and tell us, again, that Housemarque could no long sustain itself on their “beloved arcade genres.” Kuittinen finishes off with the following remarks: “As for Housemarque, we are building both Stormdivers and our new AAA game on our strong foundations in understanding how to create great second-to-second gameplay experiences. You might say that we are actually jumping on two bandwagons, but our dedication is the same as always — we want to make great games. And we will always love arcade. So perhaps arcade is not completely dead — the spirit is still alive at Housemarque — but as everything must evolve, it is changing, and we dare say that you will still see elements of our love for arcade in future titles.”
Responses to this announcement have been kind of mixed, with most of the hardcore fans standing by good ol’ Housemarque. Some players are still upset with Housemarque for abandoning its roots—claiming the studio sold out—while others are optimistic—wishing the company the best of luck with its future endeavors. The responses on Twitter are particularly indicative of the mild turmoil. On the positive side, we have comments like these:
“Nex Machina is one of my favorite co-op titles. Really excited to see what your team does next!”
“All I want to say is thanks for the incredible fun memories and moments while playing Super Stardust HD, Dead Nation, Resogun, Alienation and more :) I will be there for whatever your come up next (sic)!”
“I have followed you, and will continue to follow you, until the ends of the earth. I trust whatever you end up making.”
“I hope it's a huge success for you. Such a huge success you can do the arcade games without needing them to pay the bills. The best of both worlds.”
And on the negative side, we have comments like these:
"’We went where the money is and are developing a soul less cash grab to try and capitalize on the Battle Royale fad!’ Yeah, good luck with that.”
“Mate, with all due respect, Battle Royale genre doesn’t need more games. We need something new, with proper marketing when launching, whatever the genre is. I have all the games you guys released on the PS3/PS4; I would keep buying them. Anyway wish you good luck.”
“This is very sad for me because i love arcade games.”
“Mate, when they said they were going to do a Battle Royale I too expected a Dead Nations/Nex Machina style game with battle Royale features, not a Fortnite clone. It looks just like Fortnite, I have never wanted to be more wrong about a game, I hope it’s better than it looks.”
And that, folks, is the Housemarque debale. After digesting both the original “Arcade is Dead” post and this recent piece, it seems that Housemarque was perfectly justified in their decision. The games were good, but the money was not. So why, if everything adds up, is the backlash so strong? Did Housemarque really sell out?
I think what makes this news so polarizing is primarily the fact that it’s coming from Housemarque—a company with a very unique identity. Gamers have come to love this studio because of the niche they fill, not in spite of it. The company built its profound reputation on the back of fine-tuned, arcade-style games crafted by small, dedicated teams. This is why people know and love Housemarque. Pulling a complete 180 like this—creating wildly different types of games with much larger teams—diminishes that sense of identity. To me, it almost feels like we lost a little piece of Housemarque’s integrity with this news.
Beyond the fact that Housemarque is known for their arcade-style titles, the specific genre they’ve decided to jump into—and the specific time they’ve chosen to do so—feels just the slightest bit suspicious. They’re justification for shifting into “AAA” development was perfectly reasonable. However, I think it was almost impossible to avoid looking like sell-outs when jumping from some of most niche genres to battle royale—at a time when battle royale is at its peak. There are a lot of companies fighting for piece of that profitable battle royale pie right now, and this unfortunately makes Housemarque seem like they are simply hopping on the bandwagon.
Had they unveiled that new, unannounced AAA intellectual property instead of just another Fortnite, I could see this going much differently. Housemarque is beloved for their unique flair. Battle royale is not unique. I’m sure it’s true that they’ve been inching toward AAA since 2015, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t allured by certain factors. They’re a studio running out of funds; battle royale is a space with tons of money to be made. I hate to say it, but suddenly eschewing a long-standing tradition of “arcade” for the video game industry’s current gold mine reeks of selling out.
Additionally, I’m afraid this transition may not be the financial boon Housemarque is counting on. Battle royale is an incredibly competitive space. A mega-niche indie studio going up against juggernauts like Fortnite, Player Unknown’s Battle Grounds, and Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 sounds pretty intense. Of course, they may knock this release out of the park and find real success—or the title will be plagued with empty servers and simply die out. Like one of the Twitter users quoted above, I want Storm Divers to succeed so that we can receive the best of both worlds: profitable AAA hits and more arcade-inspired side projects. Unfortunately, I’m afraid we’ll end up not getting either of those things.
No matter how successful the game is, I really hope they don’t continue with their clickbait-y marketing tactics. We get it, Housemarque; you couldn’t make “arcade” profitable. Just stop telling us it’s dead. If other indie studios have been plenty successful with arcade-infused titles—and the actual arcade industry is still alive and kicking—there’s no need to alienate your audience for clicks. Arcade-style games may not have paid Housemarque’s bills, but these kinds of experiences sure as heck ain’t deceased. As Adam Pratt said on Twitter, “They are still misusing the word "arcade"—I really don't see how they think that pushing this line is supposed to help them sell more games. Just makes them look clueless about the subject.”
Since Housemarque is pretty firm on their new direction, I should probably address what this means for true coin-op arcade gamers like us. Unfortunately, I’m fairly certain that arcade Nex Machina is not happening. And that, like, actually stinks, man. When Raw Thrills’ coin-op version of Nex Machina was announced in July 2017, I was pumped out of my mind. Heck, we probably all were. It was supposed to be a revival of the twin-stick shooter genre in an arcade climate dominated by rail shooters and drivers. Unfortunately, we haven’t seen any news since the official cabinet render was released all those months ago, and I doubt will get any more in 2019. I sure hope it’s not cancelled, but if it is, Housemarque should communicate that with us. Their fans need to know.
Even if Housemarque’s AAA games end up being really solid, I’ll never stop believing that their true destiny was to work with Raw Thrills on more coin-operated arcade games. Perhaps consoles weren’t the proper home for Housemarque’s output. Maybe they were meant for actual arcades. I suppose we’ll never see that now, though. This backlash only exists because it’s such a radically different path from the one the studio once traversed. And while I usually like to sugarcoat things, I’m pretty sure Housemarque sold some of their soul to battle royale and AAA development. (Maybe just a little.)
We’ve certainly got a whole bunch of crud to chew on as we wait for Storm Divers to release in 2019. Personally, I couldn’t care less about battle royale, so I’m going to sorely miss Housemarque’s arcade-inspired glory days. Still, I’m curious to see if they’ll remain the company we’ve grown to love or if their new direction will consume them. The fun thing about niche studios like Housemarque is their strong sense of identity. The true mark of selling-out, though, is losing your identity.
Don’t lose your magic touch, Housemarque.