With sales down sharply last year, the video game industry is in search of a hit. Can BioShock Infinite, the hotly anticipated title from Irrational Games of Quincy being released Tuesday, provide that jolt?
Five years in the making, the game follows in the footsteps of BioShock, Irrational’s 2007 award-winning game, which sold over 4 million copies. Early reviews have ranged from favorable to ecstatic, suggesting that Irrational and its parent company, Take-Two Interactive Software Inc., have another hit.
But BioShock Infinite enters a video game market in turmoil.
Costly games for desktop computers and game consoles, once the mainstay of the industry, are fading in popularity as consumers move to simpler games that cost little or nothing to play and run on smartphones or tablet computers.
Last year, sales of packaged game software for consoles and desktop computers fell 21 percent from their 2011 level, according to the market research company NPD Group.
John Riccitiello last week resigned as chief executive of Electronic Arts Inc., one of the world’s leading game companies, after years of heavy losses and the bungled launch of the company’s latest game, SimCity.
Another major company, THQ Inc., filed for bankruptcy protection in December and was liquidated in January.
In Massachusetts, Zynga Inc., maker of the social video game FarmVille, shut down its Boston operation in October, eliminating about 45 jobs. ImaginEngine, a studio in Framingham, shut down at around the same time, taking 30 jobs with it. And just over the border in Rhode Island, the company started by former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling, 38 Studios, collapsed last year, costing 400 workers their jobs.
But Michael Pachter, a gaming analyst at Wedbush Securities in Los Angeles, said much of the softness in the console market is due to the fading popularity of Nintendo Co.’s once red-hot Wii game machine and its DS hand-held game device.
That should be some consolation to Irrational; BioShock Infinite runs on the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, as well as Windows PCs.
In addition, Sony and Microsoft are expected to introduce consoles within a year or so, which could bring a sales surge.
Meanwhile, there’s a boom in free and “free-to-play” games available via the Internet and playable on smartphones and tablets. Users can enjoy a free-to-play game at no cost but get extra access and features by ponying up a little cash.
“More than seven in 10 gamers are saying, I am moving away from pay-to-play to free-to-play,” said Robert Crawford, vice president of research at Frank N. Magid Associates in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
In a December survey, Crawford found that the typical free-to-play gamer had paid $9 in the previous month for access to extra features, suggesting this segment of the market will become increasingly lucrative as more people log in.
Moreover, these games are attracting fans who do not play console or PC games, including a growing number of women.
Timothy Loew, executive director of MassDiGI, a state-sponsored game development center at Becker College in Worcester, said mobile and free-to-play are largely untapped.
“As people develop new tools to understand how the money’s flowing, then I think we’ll be pretty surprised how much bigger this industry is than we even thought,” Loew said.
Meanwhile, employment in the industry appears to be holding up.
Jeremy Gaffney, executive producer at Carbine Studios, a California game developer, said the company has hired about a dozen survivors of 38 Studios.
“We actually flew guys out to talk to them as the layoffs were happening,” Gaffney said last weekend while in Boston for the PAX East exhibition.
Disruptor Beam Inc. in Boston, maker of the Facebook game Game of Thrones Ascent, is hiring, but chief executive Jon Radoff said he can’t find enough engineering talent.
“It is a challenging recruiting environment to find qualified people,” Radoff said.
Darrin Drader, a former writer for 38 Studios, hasn’t been able to find a full-time job. “It’s not the easiest thing in the world to find work again when you’re a writer” instead of a game designer, he said.
Loew said it is common for laid-off video game workers to strike out on their own. “You see a lot of green shoots come out of game company failures,” he said.
In another positive sign, Turbine Inc., of Needham, on Monday announced its new online game based on popular characters from the DC line of comic books. Infinite Crisis will let gamers become reimagined versions of superheroes such as Batman and Catwoman.
Turbine is best known for the Internet game Lord of the Rings Online.
It was acquired in 2010 by Time Warner Inc., which also owns DC Comics.Hiawatha Bray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.