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Triple A Arms Race

Dane Smith / August 3, 2015 at 8:00 AM / Gaming, Gaming Opinions

“Effectively what we see is an arms race between the top studios in the world to invest ever-increasing dollars into larger and larger product development cycles.” I could not agree more with the Just Cause 3 studio head. With improved graphics, and larger memory capacities, developers can do more and more to give players new, original, and immersive experiences. But those improvements come at a cost. Games now require millions upon millions to make in 2015, and it doesn’t look like the Triple A companies are going to be slowing down any time soon.

This arms race is leaving a door wide open. This door is what, I believe, led to the rise of indie developers. In 1995, companies were working with sprite based graphics and 16-bit technology to bring us classics like Final Fantasy. Sprite based graphics are not dead, and we see them more prominently in the realm of the indie game because of how much cheaper and easier they are to produce than full 3D graphics. Graphics are just one example of the ever evolving arms race. Twenty years ago there was no voice acting except for the occasional “Get Ready…GO!” style of dialogue. Music is performed by professional orchestra’s instead of on someone’s computer. All of these additions and upgrades add to the budget of a game.

This retro-style void, while good for entrepreneurs, is one missed opportunity for the big devs to make more money in the world of smaller budget games. How many years does it take to create a Tomb Raider or a Resident Evil 6, two games now infamous for selling a ton but failing to live up to their own company’s financial goals. Yes, people, we’re living in a world where a game selling millions of copies is a financial flop.

Some critics and gamers have decried the Vita dead.  Fire Emblem and Pokemon have proven time and time again for Nintendo that to a lot of people gameplay is more important than graphics. How much would it cost a major company to create a hit SNES-era RPG exclusively for the Vita like Square Enix making Chrono Trigger 2, Konami making Suikoden 6 or even Sega making a true sequel to the Phantasy Star series?

Progress does not mean the past is without merit.

Progress does not mean the past is without merit.

I don’t want to say we’re heading to another industry crash as experienced in the 1980s, but it is disconcerting that major companies are betting their future on a role of the dice. There are no guarantees that any game will prove successful. The coding is infinitely more complex than the SNES-era, as we have seen with delay after delay of Triple A games. Nothing is easy, and it is not as polished and spectacular as the hype would let to believe. See Watchdogs. This is not to say failures did not happen in the past. What I’m suggesting is creating older style games, with a more compact structure and world, should be faster for today’s top devs to create and polish, like Mega Man 9 for example.

We are coming to a breaking point where games are getting bigger, budgets are expanding, but the cost to the consumer is kept low. In 1995 when I was a kid in Canada, SNES games were $100. If you got a crappy game then you’d be out a hundred gold coins. That was the risk. Even the best ones, ranging from Street Fighter II, Phantasy Star IV, and Super Mario Kart, were not what people would call prolonged experiences. Now games the previous few generations have been $60 USD on average. Something has to give. Either companies scale back or games become more expensive.

I hope that in the future the big devs will take a long, hard look at the state of the business and realize there is a place for both retro and new-gen style games. That creating games for both doesn’t put all their eggs in one basket, and helps diversify their business portfolio and helps bunker them in case of a game going bust.

What are your thoughts about the state of the industry? Do you think developers are putting all their eggs in one basket by betting on Triple A games to succeed? Is there a place for small budget titles on the consoles?

Dane Smith

When not behind the TV screen playing the newest RPG, or penning my novel series ("The Lasombra Files" found on Amazon), I'm behind the podium teaching across the world. Licensed teacher by day, gamer and critic by night, motivator for life.

  • Iconoclast

    this has been going on for long time now.

    I think the AAA industry should look into making a viable “B” segment, where they make games that while not polished to a shine still have solid gameplay and cater to niche but loyal audiences, like Cities Skylines.

    That game was made a by a small studio and the graphics might not be the very best are still nice and the game play is fantastic. It was everything players of city builders wanted that EAs expensive AAA flop Sim City didn’t deliver on.

  • Sebastian Mikulec

    “I don’t want to say we’re heading to another industry crash as experienced in the 1980s”

    I’ll say it, though I don’t think it will be as spectacular a crash as in the 80s. Like most entertainment industries, video games is very much a monkey see monkey do world. Blizzard hits it out of the park with WoW and publishers spend the next decade+ (mostly unsuccessfully) trying to replicate the ridiculous success of that MMO. Riot Games hits a home run with LoL and everybody and their grandmother suddenly makes a MOBA, trying to get a slice of that lucrative pie, with pretty much everyone except Valve failing to get more than crumbs. The scariest one is the mega success of GTA V. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a fantastic game and it deserves the success it has had and the gamble Take Two Interactive made with GTA V’s insane budget paid off in troves, but for every GTA V success story there are (at least) 5 failures. GTA V raked in a ridiculous amount of money, breaking records left and right, and other publishers get dollar signs in their eyes when they hear about it and want to replicate that highly lucrative success, ballooning budgets higher and higher trying to outdo each other in the spectacle department. The higher the budget, the more spectacular and costly the loss if it fails. With budgets rising to the astronomical high 8 figure and even 9 figure levels, any single publisher could get completely sunk by an unfortunate string of high budget flops, and it’s bound to happen sooner or later. Hopefully it doesn’t happen to multiple publishers at the same time.

    Most concerning, to me, as a gamer, is where the money in those ballooning budgets is going to. It seems the money is mostly going toward bells and whistles: bigger, more spectacular setpieces, flashier graphical effects. I’d much rather a larger part of the budget were going toward the creative end of the formula: better writers, more time and effort spent fleshing out characters, their backstories, personalities, motivations, more fleshed out worlds with carefully thought out cultures, economies, customs, etc. Instead we get the same BioWare stock characters with Twilight-tier melodramas and Bethesda cardboard cutout characters and empty lifeless worlds. There are, of course, exceptions, like the wonderfully realized world of The Witcher series (admittedly CDPR had an advantage in this since they were working off a pre-existing world with pre-existing characters that were created and fleshed out by a high quality writer, but CDPR still did a great job making the world look and fell like a real breathing place). Still it seems much of the true quality creative writing happens at the indy level these days, with titles like Shadowrun Dragonfall being a showcase for what quality writing in a game can truly be, and at a teeny tiny fraction of the budget of the AAAs.

  • cptk

    I agree as well.

    I’m also suprised that studios don’t make the most of game engines to bridge the gap. Launch the latest engine with a flagship title and then have a few tiny dev teams use their experiance with the engine to knock up some crazy ideas.

    Just off the top of my head, you could focus on the base capture in Far Cry, make it multiplayer and have split roles so maybe a scout would be the only one with a camera, only a stealth guy could do takedowns and have silenced weapons, only a medic could heal and so on. For a twist another player could arrange the defences and act as general of the base who’s death is the win condition for the attackers.

  • DukeMagus

    No, I just can’t agree with your example.

    Mega man 9 was a sad joke about how much budget cuts the series received over the years. Then they decided to do it again in MM10 because a licensed “fan-game level” piece is too cheap to avoid. But they never did it with resident evil or other big names.

    What I think we need is mid-level games: something polished and intricate, where being expertly made can surpass poly count and texture resolution.

    Hell, if capcom released a resident evil with ps2-level graphics, perfect atmosphere and the pace of a classic survival horror (less arcade/fps/tps/parkour BS), I’d be overjoyed

  • cypher20

    I’m no industry expert, so I could be 100% wrong. Still, from what I’ve been reading from a few sources, it certainly seems like game companies are headed for a rough patch. Like you said, it’s pretty crazy when a game can sell millions and yet still be a flop.

    So, a few thoughts. One, the price of games does seem to be awfully low. Even though $60 is not chump change for most us, the industry has been at this price point for years and years now even as games continue to get more expensive. I think this is exactly why we’ve been seeing the rise of DLC, special editions, and the push for pre-orders. They need to get as many orders as possible and try to basically “raise” the price of the game without being seen to be raising it. Whether all of this is a good thing or not is debatable and I would argue we’ve seen some good DLC and pre-order bonuses and some terrible ones, with lots of “meh” in between.

    On the cost of making games, I would really love to know where all the money is going to. I’ve heard, although I’m not 100% certain, that Witcher 3 was relatively cheap for a AAA game but it has sold buckets. Now, Witcher 3 is in an odd spot as it was developed by a company that doesn’t have a big-name publisher really and CDPR also have the money from helping them out. Still, it makes me wonder if perhaps by peeling back some layers of management/bureaucracy, could the budget of games be brought down?

    Really, one could spend all day on this. Maybe companies would be well-served by making some “retro” games that are cheap and shorter. On the other hand, the games market is already so saturated that I’m sure all of us have a backlog, maybe it would be a bad move. Regardless, there are definitely some interesting years ahead for gaming.

  • cypher20

    More “mid-level” games could definitely be an answer. I’ve seen Ollie Barder at Forbes advocate for that. My only concern with that strategy would be sheer games overload. Already, I know I’ve got a backlog of games, probably all of us do. Release even more games on the market and could it be too much? I don’t know, but I still am partial to the idea of maybe toning down the number of AAA releases and increasing mid-level releases.

    I would hope we could do a bit better than ps2 graphics though 🙂

  • Brad Sherard

    It would be interesting to compare this to the movie industry, which is also known for throwing 10s or 100s of millions of dollars behind ideas that are not clear to make a return.

  • Jesus Zamora

    Japan’s made a great show of this sort of “mid level” for a while now. Companies like Namco Bandai, Tecmo Koei, Atlus and others use highly stylized art and exaggeration to hide the fact that, no, they’re not going after the highest detailed box textures in the world. The problem with exploding budgets is almost entirely on the back of an obsession with chasing photo-realism on the part of western developers, and when that starts swallowing publishers left and right, the worst that happens is that the market returns to being Japanese-dominated.

  • Jesus Zamora

    And that’s the issue the games market seems not to get. Spending gajillions of dollars on super-detailed realism DOESN’T guarantee success. World of Warcraft? Even for 2004, it wasn’t going to win any graphics awards. Call of Duty? They’re STILL running a modified Quake III engine, and clearly cutting graphical corners to maintain 60fps at all times. Anything at all from Nintendo? You’ll never see orgies of technical graphics achievement from the Big N – they get by on style, like most Japanese publishers.

    Indeed, some of the most enormous juggernauts of the past generation have trounced graphically superior competition on a consistent basis, and I expect that trend to continue for the foreseeable future.