Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Are Triple-A Titles Untenable?

Strap in, it's going to be a long ride.

I say this first, with earnestness that unfortunately cannot be properly transcribed to the Internet. I am not writing this out of a need to fearmonger, or to shock, or for any other negative reason. I speculate now to achieve an aim: to go forward into the future with eyes open. This is something that I believe I may have been building to, but something recently provided me a decent catalyst to center my thoughts around.

The catalyst in this case would be some comments from Alex Hutchinson, creative director of Assassin's Creed 3. He recently went on record as saying, "We're the last of the dinosaurs [...] We're still the monster triple-A game with very large teams [and] multiple studios helping out on different bits. There are fewer and fewer of these games being made, especially as the middle has fallen out."

Now, his perspective is obviously biased. I would never call Assassin's Creed 3 the last triple-A title, not even close. However, I look at the world of gaming as a whole, and I take something into consideration: can we really keep this up?

I've commented in the past that triple-A titles aren't inherently good or bad, but when so many resources and so much manpower gets funnelled into a game, the consequences of success or failure increase manifold. There have always been last ditch gambles, like Square's Final Fantasy and Tecmo's Dead or Alive, each franchise so named because if they hadn't found success they would likely have been their respective company's last endeavours; still, these days we seem to be reaching a threshold where even exceptional is no longer good enough.

When I make that comment, my mind is going to the fate of Radical Entertainment, which saw closure this year after Prototype 2 failed to sell to expectations, this despite the fact that it was a well-received game that topped the best seller list in the month that it debuted. While it is true that the sales for that month had decreased a drastic 42%, to think that having the top selling game for the month would still result in the studio behind it being shut down is far from a comforting one. It's also hardly the only troubling sign I've seen as of late.

This year has seen THQ hit hard, and even giants like Electronic Arts struggling and weighing their options. You can dismiss EA's recent woes to the idea that the company is not well liked among gamers, but there must be more to it than that, considering the success of titles like the Mass Effect, Dragon Age, and especially the Battlefield series. So what is happening here?

I believe that the answer lies in a one-two punch of ever increasing production costs and ever diminishing returns. It seems that these days a lot of mainstream titles have a choice: be huge, unparalleled successes, or fall by the wayside to make room for titles that can be. The current climate seems more unforgiving then ever before, with little to no margin for error.

Not only is the current high-stakes way the industry works a problem for the big guns, but the small fry are going to suffer as well because of this. It's true that the indie scene is strong and continues to produce good, if niche, titles; what concerns me is the fate of games that have been great experiences in the past. If we keep going, then are we going to be able to see more titles like Shadow of the Colossus, Beyond Good and Evil, or more recently series like No More Heroes and Katamari Damacy? It's hard to speculate, but the more resources that the "next big" titles demand, the more unwilling studios and publishers will become to try and take a risk on anything that isn't a guaranteed hit.

Maybe I'm making a mountain out of a molehill. I hope I'm wrong, I really do. I don't think that this -- even if it is as big a problem as I'm speculating it may be -- will cause the industry to crash. What I do think is that this is going to cause everyone involved in gaming, from the big three, to the major publishers, to the developers, and yes, even us as well, to take a long hard look and reevaluate just what's important in games. Technology is great, amazing even, in what it can provide, but I think that perhaps it's come at a cost of losing some of the core premises of what make games great to play.

I'll grant you, this might just be the jaded asshole in me talking (which obviously means that it's just me talking *rimshot*) but I think that some introspection certainly couldn't hurt matters. If we can still have great games that don't need six hundred strong teams and budgets that are growing to rival and beat blockbuster film costs, then that can't be called a bad thing. This stands a precipitous moment: we're on the edge of the next generation after all. If the trends continue then the technology will demand greater and greater investments, and while it may not prove completely untenable, it's certainly far from the best solution to the problem.

Will any of this come to pass? I certainly am in no position to say one way or another. I'd be lying if I told you that this train of thought didn't worry me greatly, and the reason for that is of course the fact that I care about games, they've been an integral part of my life, and I know I'm not the only person that considers that a truth. Still, I believe that the paths we walk on are by no means set in stone, and perhaps this would even be a good thing, a new beginning? Again, I cannot say, but whatever the results are, even if there are none in particular, I will be sitting, watching, and playing. 

1 comment:

  1. A while back, I read that it's entirely possible for the video game industry to crash again like it did in 1983 -- maybe not for the same reasons, but thanks to problems you've outlined.

    I remember once for a school project, I brought up a few stats about video games. I said that it cost about $20 to $40 million to make a game, and because of that companies have some high stakes in the product. Fair enough. And then I hear that Star Wars: The Old Republic cost $200 million dollars. And that $200 million is considered a modest sum. And that $200 million is apparently just a fraction of the actual cost.

    In the immortal words of Joe Swanson, "How can you afford these things?!"

    The obvious answer is that they can't. No one can. All these costs are weighing the industry down-- to say nothing of the prevalent creative bankruptcy, and the cynicism it's inspired in developers, journalists, and of course gamers. Even an optimist like me can't help but feel a little wary...and weary.

    *sigh* At least I've still got my DS -- a bastion for cheaper games AND more satisfying games. Devil Survivor 2 always puts a smile on my face.

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