It’s safe to say we never hear the end of publishers and developers complaining about the cost of making videogames these days. It’s not hard to see why – increasing complexity of gameplay mechanics and visuals (assets, animations, physics etc.), paired with expectations of cinematic elements like CGI cutscenes and professional voice acting, ensure a modern “mainstream” videogame is going to cost a lot of money to make.
Publishers and developers argue game pricing has not kept pace, and they now have to look at other methods of generating income – think of the infamous “horse armour” DLC, micro-transactions, “Project $10” online passes, season passes, and now loot boxes. All choices that annoy consumers and lead to controversy. I’ve no doubt people are buying them, and I’ve done so myself, but the internet provides an incredible echo-chamber for negative sentiment that must affect sales.
Mad Max. Common features: Third-person, open-world, dozens of identical mechanically-boring sidequests and collectibles.
These new business practices are coupled with sales predictions, often tied into vague threats regarding the future of the IP, that rarely make sense for new or established IPs. In the aftermath of EA shutting down Visceral Games, an employee suggested they were unhappy with Dead Space 2’s four million lifetime sales. This expectation after the original shipped two million (which was probably decent back in 2008). Where were these sales going to come from? Sure, the game got a bigger marketing budget and pushed more action-packed cinematic moments, but it was still a survival-horror title and narrative-driven, making it tough to dive into blind. It would have made sense to design the game, expecting sales similar to Dead Space, counting on increased sales from established brand awareness, assess the results, then incrementally edging forward.
The divisive Dead Space 3 pulled even further away from survival-horror, offering up a co-op mode, an emphasis on third-person shooting, and a crafting system designed to push micro-transactions. Even after the apparent disappointment with Dead Space 2, EA announced before launch that the game would require five million sales for the IP to remain viable. As anyone with a sliver of common sense could predict, this change in design put off existing fans and attempted to pull new sales from a genre that was already saturated. EA has said very little about sales, other than the fact they were again disappointed, and the last estimated figure was only one million sales.
Rise of the Tomb Raider. Common features: Third-person, open-world, dozens of identical mechanically-boring sidequests and collectibles.
Sticking to the horror genre, we recently got news that Capcom is somewhat disappointed that Resident Evil 7 has only hit four million sales a year after release. Just before launch they had ramped up their predictions to 10 million lifetime sales. I love the game and think it’s a fantastic way to reignite interest in the series, but it’s still a tough, first-person survival-horror game. I only wish Alien Isolation did that well as it’s on the back-burner with only 2.1 million sales. Where is the evidence for this 10 million-strong survival-horror market they were targeting?
If the last few years should have taught publishers and developers anything, it’s that throwing money at something and chasing the same trends do not guarantee sales. Sure, you'll read about the success of the yearly juggernauts, such as Call of Duty and EA or 2K Games sports titles (who must pay a fortune for licenses), but this doesn’t always hold true. Innovation and diversity is often the key to success; just look at Minecraft from Mojang Games, or the clunky, unpolished PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds from Bluehole Studio Inc. The indie scene, although getting increasingly crowded and apparently less profitable, got off to a strong start as people realised they could make commercially successful games, at a competitive price point, through intelligent use of resources. I think big developers and publishers need to look to both independent developers and past business practices for ideas on how to bring down their costs while pleasing their consumer base.
Mass Effect: Andromeda. Common features: Third-person, open-world, dozens of identical mechanically-boring sidequests and collectibles.
Firstly, learn how to impress with less. You can design and render an entire countryside, down to individual grass blades, but it’s ultimately meaningless if you don’t have the time or budget to fill that game world with equally detailed and engaging activities. Sure, it makes for a dramatic backdrop as you clear out enemy camp #137, but by that point it’s meaningless. If the activities are bland, no pretty backdrop you’ve spent millions of dollars and hundreds of hours on will make any difference to the experience. Any sense of wonder or exploration is completely destroyed when the player looks out over a vast game world, knowing full well the only thing they’ll find is another identical activity. Reduce the scope of the environment, increase the complexity of the activities, provide more permutations to every event if you want to encourage replays; just go look at IO Interactive’s 2016 Hitman to see how much gameplay you can eke out of a smaller, curated environment. When did wasting time become a gameplay feature? These repetitive, simplistic activities simply reinforce opinions that gamers have had to argue against for decades.
Secondly, developers and publishers need to use the technology and assets they’ve created more effectively, especially if they’re planning on releasing games every year (or multiple times each year). I understand PC specs are always improving (although not nearly at the pace the used to), however, with consoles as the dominant platform, why keep changing up your tech when the hardware remains fixed for several years? Optimise and tweak sure, but why an overhauled or game-specific engine for every title, especially those from the same publisher or sequels? Just consider the number of games from the 1990s and early 2000s built on id Tech’s original “Doom” engine and “Quake” engine, or 3D Realms’ “Build” engine, or Valve’s “Source” engine.
Ghost Recon: Wildlands. Common features: Third-person, open-world, dozens of identical mechanically-boring sidequests and collectibles.
I appreciate that Unreal and Unity are used extensively as third-party engines by indie and resurgent AA developers but if big publishers want to invest in their own engines, why not use them more extensively, internally? Why have hundreds of people creating one massive, kitchen-sink style game (see just about anything from Ubisoft) when you could split them into multiple projects, each capable of producing a full-priced AAA game using the same tech, that would appeal to different corners of the market? You could throw in some experimental AA or indie-type experiences as well on budgets that approach 100 million? You would think hedging your bets would be a good business decision, yet we see dozens of massive AAA titles, from multiple big publishers, releasing in close proximity, that share the same basic feature-set. Hell, some publishers even seem happy to cannibalize their own markets. With everyone focused on making games as a service, how much longevity do you expect a game to have if it's providing the same damn service as everyone else?
My final suggestion, again based on past practices; Publishers and developers should not be be afraid of making fully-fledged sequels or high-cost expansions using the exact same tech. Black Isle (at times in conjunction with Bioware) did an incredible job creating yearly Dungeon’s and Dragons RPGs using the Infinity Engine. They spent their time integrating new D&D rulesets, producing new assets, quality writing, recording narration and voice actors, yet never fundamentally overhauled the engine. I was happy to pay for each and every one of those games, at full price, as I was there for the role-playing, twisting narrative, and great characters. If companies want to spend excessive amounts of money on each new game, spend it on the creative side rather than obsessing over the underlying tech that the bulk of gamers will probably never notice. Regardless of what the raging internet minority has to say, most people want for new experience, not new technology. Sometimes they go hand-in-hand, but we've seen entire games shifted to new engines with no notable gameplay changes.
Middle-earth: Shadow of War. Common features: third-person, open-world, dozens of identical mechanically-boring sidequests and collectibles.
As an example of high-cost, high-quality DLC, you could look to Firaxis’ massive expansions for their XCOM reboots - Enemy Within and War of the Chosen. These expansions modify aspects of gameplay and introduce new assets, but ultimately run on the original tech. Released at a $40 price point, they represent excellent value, renew interest in the IP, and could draw new players by offering a modified experience, rather than one that relies on knowledge of an earlier game.
As an example of expansions that could have been fully-fledged sequels, just look at the excellent expansions for Dishonored and Dishonored 2. If Arkane had merged The Knife of Dunwall and The Brigmore Witches DLC into a continuous campaign, it could have been launched as a sequel. Sure, it may not have changed the underlying tech, but it provides new locations, a new protagonist, new powers, a great narrative, and anywhere from 5 to 15 hours of gameplay, not dissimilar from the base game. It would also have benefited from being marketed as a new game with an essential narrative (which it was as events tie directly into Dishonored 2). Arkane released Dishonored: Death of the Outsider as a $30 standalone expansion to Dishonored 2 and I happily sunk another 15 hours into that game. If they polished up the cutscenes and restored some of the simplified mechanics, I would have happily paid $60 for what was essentially a complete Dishonored experience.
Assassin's Creed: Origins. Common features: third-person, open-world, dozens of identical mechanically-boring sidequests and collectibles.
There are so many games being released these days it’s difficult to stand out, even as a big developers and publishers, but the situation could be considerably improved if they spent less money trying to outcompete each other by creating massive games that desperately fight over the same market share. Make better use of resources - spread the budget, make more diverse games, with realistic budgets and conservative sales expectations, that target every corner of the market. If you succeed with a new IP, aim to nurture your audience keep them buying the sequels. Don't start exploiting consumers for every last cent or try steer their beloved IP towards the market leading trends and be left wondering why consumers moved on to the next best thing.
Enjoys games with awesome stories and characters, along with new and interesting hardware. Dislikes day-one patches and driver updates.
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