Are Triple-A Games An Endangered Species?

The last six months have been far from smooth sailing for the makers of the best of the best video games. Aspiring triple-A developer 38 Studios went bankrupt under the weight of poor business decisions and an underselling game. Irrational Studios is losing top staff as BioShock Infinite allegedly struggles to its spring 2013 release date. BioWare has faced gamer and critical backlash over its last three big games (Dragon Age 2, Star Wars: The Old Republic and Mass Effect 3). Blizzard’s Diablo III has faced criticism over having to be always online (exacerbated by server issues during the first week after launch) and a poor endgame.

Sure, there are still game studios dedicated to putting out only the best games but some games are being crushed under high expectations. This begs the question if the so-called Triple-A game developers we have now are long for this world and if we’ll see any new developers rise in their place.

Developers who previously could do no wrong are stumbling over their own feet with their latest offerings. It’s not just me or the user review trolls on Metacritic who say this. Look at what gaming writers and bloggers have to say about some recent games. BioWare has been hemorrhaging SW:TOR users since launch and fell on its face with terrible PR for the Mass Effect 3 ending and Day One DLC controversies. The Final Fantasy series has long been lauded but Square’s Final Fantasy XIII has been described as one long hallway which is a long way from the open world maps of Final Fantasy VII.

If it’s not the games that are in trouble, the companies that make them that are in trouble. We’ve all read about aspiring triple-A game developer 38 Studios who collapsed under the weight of over $150 million in debt after putting out a game that seems to have cost too much to make. LA Noire developer Team Bondi shut down after publisher Rockstar Games cut ties with the developer and going bankrupt. Irrational Games is trying to get the third instalment of the BioShock franchise out for February 2013 but the developer is suffering from a staff exodus.

Over the last twelve or so months, it seems that no matter how good of a game that top developers put out or how good their track record is, the triple-A game developers are struggling. Some are struggling to put out a game that everyone (or, at least, the majority of gamers) likes. Others are struggling just to survive. So what exactly is going wrong?

What is a Triple-A game?

These are the best of the best games. They’re the games that have the highest production values (in terms of graphics, gameplay, story and voice acting) and also have the highest costs to produce. When you talk about Game of the Year contenders, your list of candidates would almost exclusively of triple-A games. Basically, these are the games that are built to sell enough units to recover the upfront cost of development and fund other games the developer is making.

Mind you, chances are that you already knew that if you’ve read this far in this column.

Who are the Triple-A developers and which games are they putting out?

While I might be examining if and why there are increasingly fewer triple-A games, that’s not to say that there still aren’t companies making them. My favourite game developer at the moment is Valve who have released Half-Life, Portal and Team Fortress which are games beloved by both the critics and the masses alike. In terms of consistent quality, there are few companies as good as Rockstar Games who have the GTA and Red Dead franchises in their portfolio. For the last 25 years, the Nintendo EAD group of developers have been putting out triple-A games in the forms of the Legend of Zelda and Super Mario series.

In the last year, Bethesda has shot to the top of the developer heap with the critical success of Elder Scrolls V. Staying in the Bs, Blizzard might have had some backlash over Diablo III but previous efforts like World of Warcraft and the Starcraft series are still gamer favourites being played today. The newest member triple-A developer has to be Rocksteady who have made one of the best superhero games of all-time in the Batman: Arkham series.

These are just a few of the many triple-A developers and games on the market. However, only Rocksteady has joined the ranks of triple-A developers in the last couple of years. Not everyone can be considered triple-A but not many new companies are stepping up to that level.

You forgot Call of Duty, Assassin’s Creed and sports games. Aren’t those Triple-A games?

Yes and no. While I’m sure that a lot of effort is put into making the next annual iteration of an annual gaming franchise, it probably doesn’t match the effort of the franchise that goes a couple of years between games or the one-off triple-A game.

I’m not a Call of Duty player (I’ve seen my cousins play it and apart from good graphics and sound, there doesn’t seem much to the games beside shoot everything in sight) so I’ll omit that franchise from the example. However, if you look at sports games (be it Madden or FIFA or NBA 2K), there isn’t a significant change to how the game is played from year-to-year. Graphics are improved, rosters are updated and maybe a handful of gameplay areas are tweaked. In other words, they build off the work of previous year’s game but, like your favourite sports team, it’s not really a brand new game every season.

Assassin’s Creed has featured a new historical location in addition to their graphics and gameplay tweaks in the Ezio trilogy so feels a little less formulaic that CoD or sports franchises. However, despite various additions to the franchise over the last three years, they do all play roughly the same.

Because of what is essentially the effect of economies of scale, meaning the more games in a franchise that are produced, the cheaper it is to produce them, these annual franchises aren’t really the triple-A games I’m talking about. While they may have high production values, those costs aren’t likely to be as high as less regular franchises like Final Fantasy, Elder Scrolls or Grand Theft Auto where the new games look like they’re started pretty much from scratch with each new edition.

Maybe I’m being picky when I don’t include annual franchises in the category of triple-A games. However, I don’t think that a game can be considered triple-A when triple-A effort isn’t put into each year’s game. Little tweaks to a game and releasing it full price when you get under 10 hours of gameplay out of it shouldn’t be considered a triple-A game. Sure, there are other short games like the Prince of Persia franchise, Portal 2 and Uncharted which were under ten hours but made up for it with original games and not just a new script on the prior year’s game with some tweaks to shore up some of the weaker elements of the prior year’s edition.

But not all Triple-A developers going the way of 38 Studios and Team Bondi.

While triple-A developers aren’t all going bankrupt and ceasing operations, the term “triple-A developer” refers to the quality of games that a studio releases. It’s all well and good that BioWare is still operating with eight studios worldwide but you can argue they’re no longer a triple-A developer when the last three games they released were generally panned by the end-customer of their products, the gamers.

Making money isn’t the only thing that makes you a triple-A developer. Your game has to be well received by the critics (it’s hard to sell a game when the critics say you’re better to burn your $60 for warmth on a cold winter’s night) and gamers. You can’t call yourself a triple-A developer and say you make triple-A games if you can’t produce games that people call triple-A quality.

If Triple-A games and developers are actually “endangered,” wouldn’t we see fewer critically acclaimed games?

The biggest problem with using game reviews and game awards as a basis for determining if a game is a critical success is that the major gaming sites are in bed with the developers. Remember the fan accusation that BioWare cast IGN’s Jessica Chobot as a character (and potential love interest) in Mass Effect 3 in order to get a good review and favourable coverage of the game? Well, IGN scored it a 9.5 out of 10 (only 0.1 lower than fan favourite Mass Effect 2) and writer Colin Moriarty was the one of the loudest voices in the gaming media supporting the much maligned original ending (or denouncing people who hated the original ending which is roughly the same thing). That’s one hell of a coincidence. But would any major publication that values its continued existence bite the hand that feeds them with advertising dollars and exclusive news and content?

Impartiality really only exists as a perception whether a writer or website is in fact impartial or not. It’s why financial auditing standards mention auditor independence in appearance and independence in fact since Enron. You can actually be completely objective regardless of the circumstances but if it can look like you wouldn’t be impartial or independent to a third party, that appearance of bias is all that it takes to discredit what you say.

(On that note, here are the games I’ve reviewed on this blog that have been provided free-of-charge by publishers/developers: NCAA Football 10, Green Day: Rock Band and Young Thor. Other reviews were paid for out of my own pocket. Yes, that includes the Mass Effect games.)

I believe that, on the whole, the masses tend to be correct. They don’t have any interest in liking one game and hating another apart from personal taste. It’s pretty easy to sort out the voice of the masses from the voice of the vocal minority. I’m not talking about the trolls on Metacritic’s user reviews either (there’s your vocal minority because not all games on Metacritic are poorly reviewed by users). While there were people who defended the original ending, it sure seemed like people who didn’t like the original ME3 ending far outnumbered those who liked it.

At the end of the day, for triple-A games to be made and triple-A developers to survive, the games need to sell. The media handed out good to great reviews for Kingdoms of Amalur but 38 Studios still went bankrupt. The Call of Duty franchise is never in danger of threatening to win a major Game of the Year award (unless the NRA starts handing them out) but it’s the best-selling video game on the market. Video games critics and writers aren’t likely to financially make or break a game or developer. People will buy what they want to buy.

If Triple-A games are “endangered” and the quality of a game is indicated by how many and how much people like it, are you blaming developers or gamers for fewer Triple-A games?

I don’t think that you can isolate the issue to one specific group. Developers are looking for the safe bet when it comes to putting money into games with high production values. If that means creating a franchise with very few innovations but just polish on the previous iteration, that’s what they’ll do. The purpose of a business is to make money. (Profit is an accounting term. Positive cash flow shows health in a business). It seems as though the way to go is to a big upfront investment to establish a franchise and smaller costs to put out a new edition (that borders on an update to the original) each year to make money off an established brand and brand equity from the first game.

We, the gamers, aren’t without blame either. We vote with our wallets and it seems as though our wallets say that we want annual franchises. In 2011, annual franchises were seven of the top ten selling games. All of the games on that list were either a sequel or spinoff. As much as gamers and the press lamented the lack of original IPs at this year’s E3 (some going so far as to dub it the worst E3 ever), we aren’t buying original IPs. Our wallets say that we want what’s familiar.

The obvious counter argument is that the best games that the industry is releasing are in a franchise, not necessarily just the annual ones. Skimming through some best games of 2011 lists, that statement seems pretty accurate. The critics like sequels, prequels and spinoffs that are part of a franchise more than the first game of a prospective franchise or one-off efforts. That does get to a sort of cart before the horse argument. Do developers pick ideas to make a franchise with and hope it doesn’t bomb to the point where it doesn’t make sense to carry on with part two or do they make a game to the best of their ability and if it is successful enough, go ahead with part two?

If you look at any of the Assassin’s Creed games (for what it’s worth, I haven’t finished Revelations because I couldn’t be bothered since it just lacked the fun and/or historical intrigue of the other games), the endings of each game is more or less a cliffhanger to bridge you into the next game. Did the ending to Portal seem like a cliffhanger? No but the game was such a critical and cult hit among gamers that Valve created a great sequel (Portal 2) which I thought was last year’s game of the year.

There is a third group that has to play into this discussion though. One of the reasons thrown around as to why we didn’t see many new IPs at E3 was because this console generation had reached the end of its life cycle and developers had pushed the technology as far as it will go. It’s as if the developers are waiting for the PS4 & 720 before launching something new and revolutionary. Sure, Watch Dogs and Beyond: Two Souls are going to be on current gen consoles but those were the only two new current gen IPs that anyone was excited about.

What had people buzzing at E3 was anything next-gen. While they weren’t next-gen games, Watch Dogs and Beyond had considerable buzz not just because they looked like next-gen games but because it was new compared to the other sequels and spin-offs that dominated the rest of E3. Star Wars 1313 looks like Uncharted in the Star Wars universe. It wasn’t unique but it had people excited (though the failure of The Force Unleashed 2 and The Old Republic probably helped people get excited for a new direction for Star Wars games). The tech demos for Epic Games’ and Square Enix’ next gen game engines definitely had people talking.

The reason people get excited about next-gen games isn’t a case of “Ooh! Shiny things!” (That’s more of an Apple fan thing.) Granted, game developers have pushed the current generation’s technology as far as they can. Some were disappointed with the lack of improvement in Uncharted 3 over Uncharted 2 but UC2 basically maxed out the technological capabilities of the PS3 so there wasn’t too much farther they could push the game in terms of graphics and level size and amount content on the disc. Uncharted 2 maxed out the PS3’s technical capabilities some three years ago and gamers and developers have been waiting for new bounds to be pushed for years now.

Releasing the next console generation can help reinvigorate the industry. As we near the end of the current generation, new and exciting intellectual property is drying up in favour of established franchises. Yves Guillemot, CEO of Ubisoft, says that there is less risk to releasing a new IP at the start of a new console generation because people are more open to new ideas on a new console. He also rightly points out: “If you can’t take risks because people don’t buy, you don’t innovate. And if you don’t innovate, customers get bored.”

It’s taken me this far to get to the probable cause of our problems with a lack of triple-A games. There is little room for further innovation because this console generation has been pushed about as far as it can go. People want more out of their video games but there’s little more and new that can be done from a purely technical perspective. The risk for the companies to spend big on games that are far from a safe bet isn’t worth it from a financial perspective.

So who is to blame with critical and gamer dissatisfaction over some recently released games? While developers aren’t entirely without fault in all cases (Hi, original ME3 ending), there is only so much they can do right now. The industry can be reinvigorated with a new generation of consoles. Gamers are sounding increasingly critical because they’re being handed a series of games that are same old, same old. It’s hard to have fun playing games with an overwhelming feeling of “been there, done that.” As long as Sony and Microsoft hold off on announcing the PS4 and XBox 720, nobody is going to work on new ideas that can thrive on a new console where people are likely to go for something new. It looks like people won’t be happy with the current crop of “triple-A” games until we get the next wave of triple-A games and franchises. When that happens is up to Sony and Microsoft.

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