Rob Fahey of Games Industry International has an outstanding opinion piece up regarding the state of AAA development in lieu of the changes that Microsoft was forced to make regarding the Xbox One. I love his overall point, and the way he makes it:
AAA development isn’t sustainable. That’s it, in a nutshell; that’s the fear that won’t let some of this industry’s most talented and creative people get to sleep at night. The business is broken. Games cost too much to create and release, and don’t make enough money in the end. A handful of enormous hits generate most of the profit, while everything else feels lucky if its losses aren’t too huge; the industry has always been hit-driven, but never has the gap between the hits and the misses felt so large. Studios stagger from one release to the next without ever seeing a royalty cheque, just delighted that their work on the last game was good enough to get them a publisher contract for the next, probably unprofitable, title – just another shot at making the next Call of Duty and actually working on something that doesn’t piss money up the wall.
Rob spends a lot of time going over what AAA has to change in order to right the ship. I have a better idea: let it burn, get me a fiddle to play while the fire rises, and some salt to lay on the Earth once the destruction’s finished.
Simply put, budgets have grown out of control for the biggest games. It used to be a big deal when games hit $50m in budgeting; now, $150m is the cap. Games used to be successful if they sold a million copies; in 2013, Resident Evil 6 is a failure because it doesn’t hit 6m in sales, and Tomb Raider is a failure because it doesn’t get 5m. It’s simply impossible for all but the biggest games – Call of Duty here, FIFA1 there – to constantly hit those thresholds, and in the case of those games, they’re profiting so much largely because they’re keeping their costs relatively down; when was the last time a Call of Duty game was lauded for its graphics?
The way companies have been getting around this is by coercing more money out of already bought customers. The $60 game simply isn’t enough anymore, there has to be $30 worth of paid DLC, and that’s only for those who buy the “season pass” so they get their DLC drip-fed once it’s out, sight-unseen. In many cases, once the dual specters of DLC and microtransactions are through, a game can cost up to $120 to be truly “complete”. While it’s easy to write off DLC as being just like old school expansion packs, there are numerous cases of companies developing DLC with the mind of exploiting extra revenue for things that would normally be included on the disc. Capcom in particular has been notorious for locking content that’s included on the disc behind a code, particularly in their fighting games, but other cases, such as EA locking an important character in Mass Effect behind DLC, and NIS locking two characters in the party selection screen in Hyperdimension Neptunia, that also stand out as odious. Is the game someone’s going to buy for $60 going to be one of the good ones, like Skyrim, or one of the bad ones? They usually have to buy the game to find out, or wait for reviews.
Simply put, the AAA industry is using the same kind of coercive techniques that the free-to-play industry is, only on a larger scale: psychology and a play to our desire to be complete. Candy Crush Saga is one of the most evil games I’ve ever seen2, even by the standards of freemium, but really, is their concept of jacking up the difficulty on “buyers”, to coerce those who have demonstrated that they are willing to spend with psychological tricks to spend more, any different from that of a AAA publisher putting out expensive DLC knowing that the hardcore audience will buy it no matter how hard they complain?
The result is we’re spending more money on the back-end of games, and to handle the dirty, thieving gamer who dares to buy or borrow second-handed, companies are instituting roadblocks to them enjoying the games in question, even going so far as to label them no better than pirates in public. Despite all of that, we’re not getting much for that money; even the best games of the past year have either been sequels, reboots, or rehashes of a popular idea. Here are the really big, popular games of 2013: The Last of Us (zombie game), The Walking Dead (licensed zombie game), Fuse (generic first person shooter), Resident Evil: Revelations (spin-off of a massive franchise), Tomb Raider (reboot), Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance (spin-off), Deadpool (comic franchise), and Star Trek The Video Game (franchise, and awful). There’s not one original idea in that mix, and the only games that pull off something remotely original in the AAA sphere that I can see are Metro: Last Night (sequel, but significantly better than its predecessor) and Remember Me, which most people only care about because it has a female protagonist. For all of the money going into these games, we seem to be getting a lot of regurgitation, and yet the answer is that they need more, more, more, and for that, we, the players, need to take less and less.
Unfortunately, the companies putting out these major games are only beholden to one group of people, and unless a gamer buys stock, they’re not in this group: shareholders. Electronic Arts, Ubisoft, Nintendo, everyone of note in 2013, they are all publicly traded entities, and if there’s one thing shareholders hate, it’s risk. New IP doesn’t sell as well as old IP, as gamers are unwilling to shell out $60 for something that’s untested unless it’s so mind-blowing that they can’t ignore it (see: The Last of Us), so no one’s going to test it. Much like the movie industry, where the biggest movie in the country is Iron Man 3, companies are content to put out sequel after sequel after zombie game, because that’s what the masses are playing. The masses might wear out eventually, but that doesn’t fit into a quarterly report. Rob Fahey stated in his piece that “salvation must come… from a resurgence of creativity and a concerted effort to engage with a wider audience”, but no executive who wants to keep his job is going to recommend anything but the tried-and-true involving zombies, space marines, male protagonists with a three days’ growth, of a combination of all three of those things.
What’s sad is that it doesn’t have to be like this. The PlayStation II’s library is filled to the brim with outstanding games that sold well and tried original ideas. Even bigger companies such as EA haven’t been against trying new things that were outside the box; NHL 2003 had a commentary team of Jim Hughson (currently of CBC) and Don Taylor, the campy3 sportscaster from Rogers Sportsnet, who basically called the games like a comedy trope, with Hughson playing the straight man. I can’t imagine them doing that for even their minor sports franchises at this point, let alone their second most popular one, and it shows; NHL ’13 is basically a six year old game with marketing buzz words replacing actual changes and improvements.
Instead of trying to figure out how to save AAA gaming and all the largess it entails, let’s go one step further: let’s hasten its demise. That’s right: I’m arguing it’s Old Yeller time.
In effect, we’re already on the path towards this goal. Of the top five games on Metacritic under the PlayStation 3 when browsed by Metascore, only one is a AAA retail game (the top one, The Last of Us). The others are either indie (Guacamelee!, Hotline Miami), or smaller games by established publishers (Magic: Duels of the Planeswalkers 2014, Dungeons & Dragons: Chronicles of Mystara, which is an arcade upgrade). On PC, it’s even more pronounced: not a single AAA game to be found, with the only one even close being an expansion to Crusader Kings II, and the top game if the recently Steam-released Fez. Reviews don’t always equate to sales, but on the PC, these are the games that are leading the pack on digital distribution sites such as Steam. Plus, while it’s easy to dismiss the iPhone for being a haven for bad games, the leaderboards are loaded with top-rated games such as Limbo.
The takeaway from this is that AAA gaming has plateaued, whereas smaller, lighter independent games are starting to make their mark, and the cream is rising to the top. The Calls of Duty of the industry will still have their top spot in the sun, and even as I speak, the atrocious PC port of Final Fantasy VII is the #1 seller on Steam, but it’s important to also note that Rogue Legacy, a retro-themed roguelike that came out of nowhere, is the #5 game on the largest distribution service in the industry. Even if larger games take up a significant amount of real estate on both the top sellers list and Steam’s featured spots, I’m willing to bet the margins for those games are far tighter than they are for Monaco. Gamers are speaking, and eventually, even executives are going to have to start listening.
Soon, and hopefully sooner before later, the industry’s money men are going to see that the indie segment – which is all it is to suits, a “segment” – is booming and should be catered to. This will result in a couple of Journey-like success stories, and a whole bunch of hilarious, Benny Hill-level catastrophies. The big publishers will attempt to purchase even more studios – think Playfish, or OMGPOP – and try to incorporate those studios into their own corporate structure, the games will suck, and everything will crash and burn, while smaller, more nimble competition will eat their lunch. While this will result in some games that should never exist, by and large, the quality will outstrip the crap. Single player gamers are a sizable chunk of the market, and virtually the entirety of the PC market, and they will be catered to, no matter how depressing the success of one or two games can seem.
That last part is the key: where some fall, others will take their places. Those of us who grew up with a certain style of game don’t have to play them on old consoles or emulators, we can simply get some of the amazing work that’s being made today, by people just like us. And while the death of AAA gaming, and the publishers pushing it out, will result in less games like The Last of Us, it will also result in less games like Aliens: Colonial Marines. Even better, the market shows that we don’t need those massive budget games to have amazing experiences. Yes, The Last of Us was unbelievable, but so was To The Moon, and it cost $50 less.
I could care less if EA, Ubisoft and other massive publishers survive this shift. I find it ironic that people who celebrate the free market cry when that market bites them in the rears. Companies need to either adapt or die, and if they end up doing the latter, no one should mourn their death. Personally, I’ll be too busy playing Knights of Pen and Paper ($10) to care.
EDIT: I accidentally wrote Rogue Galaxy instead of Rogue Legacy. This has been fixed. Whoops.
1 – Most people would argue for Madden instead of FIFA. My answer to that is, no one in Europe is buying Madden… but *everyone* is buying it in Europe. FIFA’s sales numbers blow Madden’s away.
2 – http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/RaminShokrizade/20130626/194933/The_Top_F2P_Monetization_Tricks.php
3 – For sports fans unfamiliar with Taylor’s work: imagine if ESPN’s Kenny Mayne was Canadian, and even more obnoxious.