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可以“复印”的游戏

Chadwick Matlin 2011年04月07日

法国手机游戏公司智乐迎来了最好的年景。但是,其成功之道让人感觉似曾相识。

    设想一下,过去几年间,你一直在写一本小说,现在它终于出版了。这是一本科幻小说巨制。书中描写的是外星人入侵被推翻,一位坚忍的战士挫败了外星人的阴谋,也许在战斗中还用到一两种很酷的武器。现在,它出版了,热烈祝贺!这本书大获成功——买书的人成千上万,疯狂跟风之作层出不穷,出版商已经要求你赶快再写几本续集了。

    但是,出于种种原因,出版商没有及时将你的书改编成适合手机用户阅读的版本。而就在你还没回过神来时,其他人已经大干快上了。有个出版商很了解人们在手机上的阅读方式,它已经编出了自己的书——书里是个无名英雄领头,有外星人大举入侵,还有必可不少的暴力元素。但这本书比你的故事短,更简单,更便宜,是为那些没工夫一看就是一小时的人量身定制的。

    你不是唯一一个碰上这种事的作者。很多没将大作转为手机版的成功作家已经看到自己的作品被搬到了手机上。从古希腊史诗到伊拉克战事回顾,再到种族主义的未来寓言——这家公司已将所有这些作品都据为己有。靠着这种做法它已经赚得盆满钵满。

    这家公司的大名是智乐(Gameloft)。而确切地说,我们此处要谈的并不是书。智乐公司生产的是视频游戏——与其他公司已推出的游戏有时候极其相似的游戏。这些游戏大多发布在手机上,这是原版游戏还未进入的领域。通过填补这一空白,智乐已获得了显而易见的成功。上周,智乐宣布其营业收入为1.41亿欧元,这实在令Rovio公司相形见绌,尽管Ravio作为《愤怒的小鸟》(Angry Birds)的出品方,名气比智乐大得多。这一数字证实了,对视频游戏那种“懒洋洋的”消费趋势已从微软游戏机Xbox一路延伸到iPhone了:只要是不错的东西,消费者就会买,哪怕他们已经玩过了。

    耀眼的巨额收入使智乐成为西半球第二大移动游戏开发商。但它并非总是这么光鲜。1999年,它被另一家游戏公司育碧(Ubisoft)剥离出去,从此致力于开发欧洲和亚洲的手机游戏新兴市场。(智乐总部位于巴黎。)11年后,即2010年,智乐的游戏下载量达到1.5亿次——每天超过40万次。公司共有4800名员工,其中4000人专职设计游戏,这些人中1000人专为苹果公司iOS设备开发游戏。公司的员工分工比例与其收入结构是吻合的——22%的收入来自苹果公司的App Store,这是智乐最大的收入来源。所有这些因素共同作用,让公司的净利润达到1360万欧元,年度增长率高达127%。同时,该公司股价去年上涨了30%。

    这些数字如此出色,让智乐得以逼近艺电公司(Electronic Arts)手机部门的业绩。艺电公司是西半球最大的手机游戏开发商。2010年,艺电公司手机游戏净收入为2.12亿美元,而智乐公司的净收入按美元计算,则达到了约1.98亿美元。

    艺电公司与智乐完全不同:它的产品主要是家庭游戏。整体而言,艺电是一家庞大的、收入达到65亿美元之巨的公司,在家庭游戏终端上拥有大量的经常性授权产品。相比之下,智乐只是个“蓝精灵”,两者可谓力量悬殊,因此,要对艺电发起挑战,智乐公司要采取两大战略:

    1. 购买授权,以在成型的授权产品如《阿凡达》(Avatar)、《钢铁侠》(Iron Man)和《优诺》(UNO)的基础上开发游戏。(没错,这些都是卡式游戏。不过,这并非智乐最意想不到的授权游戏。这意想不到的要属以《迈阿密犯罪现场调查》(CSI: Miami)为原型的产品。“帮霍雷肖、卡雷、德尔科亚历克斯•伍兹博士调查设想、弄清真相!”)

    2. 为手机开发模仿其他成型产品的新游戏。智乐58%的收入来自于此。

    这些拷贝版游戏的名单可够长的。《光环》(Halo) 变成了《光晕战争》(N.O.V.A),《战神》(God of War) 变成了《斯巴达英雄》(Hero of Sparta),《侠盗猎车手》(Grand Theft Auto )变成了《孤胆车神》( Gangstar),《星球大战》(Starcraft)变成了《星际前线:撞击》( Starfront Collission),《最终幻想》(Final Fantasy) 变成了《不朽的神迹》(Eternal Legacy),《塞尔达传说》(The Legend of Zelda) 变成了《圣奥德赛:艾登的崛起》(Sacred Odyssey: Rise of Ayden)。还有更多。《神秘海域》(Uncharted )变成了《孤侠魅影》(Shadow Guardia), 《使命召唤:现代战争》(Call of Duty: Modern Warfare)变成了《现代战争》(Modern Combat),《文明》(Civilization )变成了 《工人物语》(The Settlers),《刀魂》( Soul Calibur) 变成了《愤怒之刃》(Blades of Fury)。智乐的游戏可能不算是原创,但它们却有着原创的创意。

    这真是桩好买卖。但这算是不道德吗?几年前,在iPhone还未成为手机游戏平台时,艺电公司针对智乐的策略做了一次批评演示。最近,Quora上有人对智乐为何没有遭到起诉颇为不解。而在游戏博客Destructoid上,吉姆•斯特拉则最好地表达了不同意见:“如果新游戏还是遵循智乐一贯的模式,我很可能会玩并且很可能会喜欢它。这样有错吗?”

    显然,智乐并不认为自己的企业道德有问题。首席财务官亚历山大•德•罗切弗特表示:“看看视频游戏业,它似乎并不是每星期都在推出新款游戏。”游戏行业只是遵循着长期以来听取消费者需求的传统。“过去20年,这个行业一直就在反复开发几种类型的游戏。”所以,智乐凭什么要与众不同呢?而且,视频游戏为什么就要和小说不一样呢?毕竟大多数作家都同意,一些基本情节一直就是无数不同版本的基础。最后,亚历山大•德•罗切弗特拿出了老套的妒忌假说说事:“我感觉,作为这个行业的新人,我们有点要为自己的立足付出代价的意思。”

    德•罗切弗特的观点有理有据。大型家用游戏开发商没有准备好迎接iPhone,而智乐正好填补了这一空白。但是,将《吉他英雄》(Guitar Hero)最吸引人的部分改编成《摇滚乐队》(Rock Band)(这个游戏用的是不同的乐器,不同的游戏设置和不同的创意),与将《吉他英雄》(Guitar Hero)最吸引人的部分改编成《吉他摇滚之旅》不可同日而语,后者就是Guitar Hero的微缩版。(这是Tapulous游戏公司又一次盗用了《吉他英雄》,随后,该公司推出音乐游戏《Tap Tap Revolution》,成为iPhone上首个大热的游戏。)

    于是,我们还是周而复始地享用着这一切。我们所知道的是,智乐其实只是其所处环境的产物。毕竟,所谓的创意从来就不是App Store的专长。苹果公司的前25位热卖游戏排行榜让出品商了解哪些是热销产品,同时相对较低的进入门槛更是鼓励了各家竞争者对那些市场热捧的创意和类型一拥而上。

    就算是所有手机游戏的福星,《愤怒的小鸟》,也是剽窃之作。就在这款游戏在iPhone上首发的几个月前,一款名为《摧毁城堡》(Crush the Castle)的在线游戏已经流行开来。在这个游戏中,玩家要用炮弹摧毁藏在精心搭建的堡垒里的小人。可是,当它最终要从在线游戏转变为手机游戏时,7500万玩家已经不去下载它了,他们正不亦乐乎地玩着《愤怒的小鸟》呢。

    谈到《愤怒的小鸟》,德•罗切弗特绝不会让市场的任何奇思妙想白白浪费。“我们从(《愤怒的小鸟》)中得到的启发是,我们要推出更多非常非常普通的游戏。”或许,智乐公司应该将这些游戏中的某款命名为《被放逐的鸵鸟》(Ostracized Ostriches)。

    译者:清远

    Imagine you've finally published that novel you've been working on for the past few years. It's one of those sci-fi epics, where there's an alien invasion to be overturned, a stoic soldier to defeat it, and maybe a cool gun or two to use in the process. And now that it's published, congratulations! The book is a huge success -- millions of people bought it, there's a rabid and devoted following, and the publisher is already forcing you to bang out several sequels.

    But for various reasons the publisher has been slow to adapt your book for mobile readers. And while you've been absent, others have flourished. One publisher with a far better understanding of how people read on their phones, hascreated their own book with a faceless lead, a grunting alien swarm, and the requisite violence. But the book is shorter, less complex, and less expensive than yours, customized for an audience that isn't sitting down with it for an hour at a time.

    You're not the only author to whom this has happen. Dozens of other successful writers whose publishers didn't adapt books for mobile phones have seen their general narratives transferred over. A historical Greek epic, a gritty Iraq war narrative, and a futuristic parable about racism -- this other company has appropriated all of them. And it's made hundreds of millions doing it.

    That company's name is Gameloft. And we're not actually talking books. Gameloft publishes video games -- video games that are at times extremely similar to ones that have been published by other companies. Most of those games are published on mobile phones, where the originals haven't yet migrated. And filling that void has been phenomenally successful for Gameloft. Last week it announced 141 million euros in revenue, dwarfing the revenue of the far-more ballyhooed Rovio, makers of Angry Birds. The numbers confirm that a lazy consumer trend has followed videogames from the Xbox to the iPhone: people will buy anything good, even if they've already played it before.

    Gameloft's gaudy revenue numbers make it the second-largest mobile game developer in the Western hemisphere. But it wasn't always like this. In 1999 it was spun off from Ubisoft, another game company, to focus on the emerging market for cell phone games in Europe and Asia. (Gameloft is based in Paris.) Eleven years later, 150 million Gameloft games were downloaded in 2010—more than 400,000 per day. The company has 4,800 employees, 4,000 of whom design games all day, and 1,000 of whom do it for iOS devices. The company's workforce split ratio matches revenue -- 22% of its money comes from Apple's (AAPL) App Store, the largest contributor to Gameloft's balance sheet. All of this has led to 13.6 million euros in net profit, a 127% annual increase. And its stock is up 30% in the last year.

    The numbers are so good that Gameloft is nipping at Electronic Arts' (ERTS) mobile divison, the top mobile developer in the West. EA took in $212 million in net mobile revenue in 2010, compared to Gameloft's ~$198 million, when converted to U.S. dollars.

    EA is exactly the kind of company Gameloft isn't: one that has games people have actually played at home. EA as a whole is a hulking, $6.5 billion company, with huge, recurring franchises on home consoles. Gameloft is a smurf in comparison. So to wage what must be an asymmetric fight with EA, Gameloft is pursuing two main strategies:

    1. Buy licensing rights so it can make games based on established franchises like Avatar, Iron Man, and UNO (Yes, the card game. It's actually not Gameloft's most unexpected licensed app. That honor belongs to the one modeled after CSI: Miami. "Help Horatio, Calleigh, Delko, and Dr. Alexx Woods investigate hunches and uncover the truth!").

    2. Create new games for phones that mimic established ones elsewhere. 58% of Gameloft's revenues come from this second category.

    The list of those copyapps is lengthy. Halo becomes N.O.V.A.; God of War becomes Hero of Sparta; Grand Theft Auto becomes Gangstar; Starcraft becomes Starfront Collission; Final Fantasy becomes Eternal Legacy; The Legend of Zelda becomes Sacred Odyssey: Rise of Ayden. There are more. Uncharted becomes Shadow Guardian; Call of Duty: Modern Warfarebecomes Modern Combat; Civilization becomes The Settlers; Soul Calibur becomes Blades of Fury. Gameloft's games may not be the originals, but they have the original's conceit.

    This is good business. But is it bad ethics? A few years ago—before the iPhone became a viable mobile game platform—EA put together a chiding presentation about Gameloft's tactics. More recently, somebody on Quora wondered why Gameloft doesn't get sued. Jim Sterling at games blog Destructoid best expressed the dissonance, "If this new game follows GameLoft's usual pattern, I shall likely play it and likely enjoy it. Is that wrong?"

    Gameloft certainly doesn't think so. CFO Alexandre de Rochefort says, "When you look at [videogames] it's not as if the industry is creating new genres every week." It's just following in a long tradition of listening to what consumers want. "The industry has been reinventing the same genres over and over again for the last 20 years." So why should Gameloft be any different? And why should videogames be any different than novels, where most authors agree a handful of basic plots serve as the foundation of endless variations? Ultimately, De Rochefort falls back on the old Jealousy Hypothesis. "I get the impression that we're a bit paying for the rest of the industry for being the new boy in town."

    De Rochefort's points are valid. Major console developers were unprepared for the iPhone, and Gameloft filled the void. But there's a difference between adapting the best aspects of Guitar Hero to make Rock Band (a game with different instruments, different gameplay, and a different conceit) and adapting the best aspects of Guitar Hero to make Guitar Rock Tour, a game that's Guitar Hero in miniature. (Then again, it was Tapulous that stole Guitar Hero first, making Tap Tap Revolution into the first major iPhone gaming hit.)

    So around and around we go. What we do know is that Gameloft is really just a symptom of its environment. Creativity, after all, has never been the App Store's specialty. Apple's Top 25 leaderboards let publishers know what's selling well, and the relatively low barrier of entry all but encourages competitors to quickly swarm to the conceits and genres that are resonating.

    Even Angry Birds, that mascot of all mobile gaming, is cribbed. Months before Angry Birds debuted on the iPhone an online game called Crush the Castle was making the rounds, asking players to use cannon balls to destroy little people hiding inside of elaborately-constructed fortresses. But when Crush the Castle finally made the transition from an online game to a mobile game, 75 million people didn't download it. They were too busy playing Angry Birds.

    Speaking of Angry Birds, de Rochefort is never one to let the whims of the market go to waste. "Our learnings from [Angry Birds] is that we're going to launch more games which are very, very casual games." Maybe they should call one of them Ostracized Ostriches.

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