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AAA Gaming's Disappointing Roadmap and How We got here
Has it hit rock bottom yet?
Blizzard must have known I was writing this article. Before it has even been released, we get another disappointment. Overwatch 2 announced it would be cutting their hero mode PVE mode content. This was the main reason they justified the existence of Overwatch 2. Disappointed 📌
Gaming has come a long way since the days of arcade cabinets and 8-bit computers. With the emergence of new technologies and ever evolving consumer preferences, we have witnessed some incredible games and experiences over the last two decades. As someone who grew up during the era of PlayStation, Xbox, and GameCube, I have fond memories of the games that had a huge impact on me during my formative years. However, the AAA gaming industry has been grappling with a persistent problem for years now, which was brought into sharp focus with the recent failures of both Jedi Survivor and Redfall within a few days of each other. It is clear that the AAA gaming industry is in rough shape, but how did we get there? The short and cynical answer could be summed up in this graph…
Video Games are big business, and gamers are willing to spend lots of money. But it would be a disservice to draw a conclusion from a single graph, so let’s take a closer look.
Rising Costs and Monetization
Creating a game that meets the expectations of gamers in the 2020s is an expensive task. The rising cost of game development is a major factor contributing to the current state of AAA gaming. If we take a look at the list of Game of the Year winners hosted by The Game Awards since its start in 2014, the average estimated time to develop these games is 4 years….
Additionally, many components of these games started as exploratory mechanics in previous games, so their development lifecycles could be argued to be even longer. For example, the open world component of Breath of the Wild, which was a major focus of the title, was an expansion of the non-linear gameplay that Nintendo experimented with in The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds. Not only that, but often times a AAA game needs a string of well performing previous games before a company even has the resource, talent, and numbers to attempt such a large project.
The costs of developing a game are not just limited to time though. Huge marketing budgets for AAA games also contribute significantly to the cost. While economic and psychological theories such as the attention economy and the mere-exposure effect do play a role in why these budgets are so large, I won’t get into them here mostly because I’m not qualified to. Nevertheless, it is important to recognize that there are real, scientific benefits to spending large amounts of money on marketing your game. Marketing has become such an important component of society that there is almost no domain that it doesn’t touch. Even in things like gratis open source software, where the software is being given away for free, marketing is essential for getting your product noticed, as highlighted in Andy Kelly’s article Why I'm donating $150/month (10% of my income) to the musl libc project.
With budgets in the tens to hundreds of millions per game, and sometimes over 1000 employees at a company, a game needs to make multiple times its development cost to keep the company afloat. This means like the iPhone, games need to be developed in parallel to keep up a consistent cadence. While this may seem daunting, it is not necessarily a bad thing. This also safeguards against spending too much time in slump if one of your games does poorly and can help keep people employed.
This doesn't mean that companies that split their focus between multiple games deliver poorer quality products. For instance, Elden Ring was developed alongside Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, and both games ended up winning Game of the Year awards. Focusing on one game at a time and releasing it every 4 years also presents its own problems, especially for smaller teams. This was mentioned by John Carmack of Doom and Wolfenstein fame in his interview with Venture Beat.1 Also keep in mind that most the games referenced so far represent the best case scenario. They end up being so good they win Game of the Year. There are plenty of games that have even larger budgets than the ones mentioned, that have to seek alternative monetary pathways to justify their high development cost. But while rising costs have certainly led to the hyper monetization in video games, it's not the only thing contributing to the current state of the AAA industry. We must go deeper.
Lack of Innovation and Risk-Taking
One of the biggest criticisms of the AAA gaming industry is the lack of innovation and risk-taking in their titles. Many AAA games today feel like rehashes of previous titles, with little to no significant changes in gameplay or mechanics. This trend is likely due to the high cost of game development, which puts pressure on developers and publishers to play it safe and stick to proven formulas to ensure a return on their investment.
This lack of innovation and risk-taking can be seen in the overuse of sequels, prequels, spin-offs and remasters. The Call of Duty franchise, for example, has released a new game almost every year since 2005. Let that sink in… They are at Final Fantasy levels of numbers of games, with a franchise that is 1/3 Final Fantasy’s age. Skyrim is another great example of milking a franchise. There is…
Skyrim (2011): The original game that was released for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360.
Skyrim Legendary Edition (2013): A bundled release of the game with its DLC included along with some patches to fix glitches.
Skyrim Special Edition (2016): A remastered version of the game for PC, PS4 and Xbox One.
Skyrim VR (2017): For VR headsets (I only have 48 minutes in this game because I got stuck in the floor and couldn’t get out. Damn you, Todd Howard!)
Skyrim Anniversary Edition (2021): A new version of the game for PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One and Xbox Series X/S which included the Special Edition content, as well as Creation Club content
All of these versions of Skyrim have various incompatibilities with each other, which have broken mod support many times over the years. This combined with mostly small changes between versions have led to the mixed reviews that the most recent version, Skyrim Anniversary edition has on Steam.
Another aspect of the lack of innovation and risk-taking is the focus on graphics and visuals over gameplay and story. While there's no denying the impressive graphical fidelity of many modern AAA games, this focus on visuals can come at the expense of engaging gameplay and storytelling. Many games today seem to prioritize creating a visually stunning world over creating a world with engaging mechanics and a compelling narrative.
This lack of risk taking doesn’t have to be a weakness though. There are plenty examples of games whose life started out as mods, that ended up being full length games with a little AAA game studio polish. Games like Counterstrike, Dota 2, Team Fortress, Chivalry: Medieval Warfare… Okay Valve maybe carrying this trend, but does anyone remember PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds and how much of a buggy mess it was? This game would become the father of some of the most popular (and profitable) battle royales today, Fornite, Apex Legends, Call of Duty Black Out the list goes on. Triple A game studios can put their vast resources behind a new genre of game and really deliver a quality experience that is very hard for smaller studios to replicate. So, while remixing, remastering, and rereleasing can be a crutch used by large Game Studios to avoid taking large risks, it can also result in great games for players. Therefore, it doesn’t tell the whole story.
Exploitation of Workers
It is no secret that game devs are some of the most overworked and underpaid of the software engineers. The crunch during the last stages of development of a video game, combined with the volatile nature of the industry, leads to poor employee mental health. You don’t have to look far to find a myriad of headlines that talk about this, and some of the worst offenders are the AAA game studios.
Some of the volatility is to be expected, as Jon Blow puts it your entire game dev career is based off of making games that
A priori no one has any reason to give you money for and want to use and getting them to do that.
That’s a tough sell even for a good game, especially in today’s current market. Not only are you competing with every AAA coming out, but every one that has come out before. Additionally, many games are live service games that are continually updated. This provides players with a steady stream of content, and companies a steady stream of revenue. But it is often the case that new features are released in these live service games without comprehensive QA. Either due to a company having a small QA team, or the company having no dedicated QA team at all. This leads to the player base ultimately being the QA team for a game. In modern MMORPGs the concept of a dedicated GM who manually resolves issues in game is rare to non-existent, which leads to frustrating player experiences with automated ticketing systems. Since the various support staff for most games that have them are kept as lean as possible, the stress and turnover rate among these teams are high contributing to the overall poor workplace health of game studio staff. High pressure environments, low employee morale and mental health lead to employees that can’t work efficiently, and the games suffer as a result.
What can be done?
With all the evidence stacked against it, the AAA space might seem as good as dead. And the next question is. Who do we blame? We could look at the popular shitpost that was going around on Twitter for the answer.
This definitely upset a lot of game devs and rightly so, but many frustrated gamers agreed with it. But as we’ve seen there are other factors within these studios that contribute to a game developer not being able to work at their best. We could also blame the gamers themselves for preordering games without waiting for reviews, spending too much money on microtransactions, being apologists for their favorite game studios, and generally enabling the terrible monetization practices we see from them. I’ll be the first person to take the blame if we go that route as I’ve done all of those things. Or we could blame the “greedy corporate executives” that make 8 figure salaries while their companies make record profits on ever shrinking player bases and continue to layoff employees. I think we’ve been doing that for years, and it hasn’t really led to anything.
But I believe the biggest reason why AAA gaming is in a sorry state is that the stakes for failure are so much higher now, for both the companies and the consumer. Back in the day, when you got a bad game, you were out of some money, and you left a bad review. If that was the last nail in the coffin for a studio they closed shop, and at most a couple dozen people were looking for a new job. Now adays it’s so much worse. AAA games take our money early with pre-orders, early access, and hype us up with their millions of dollars in marketing. They sell unfair advantages behind one week head starts in their digital deluxe editions, and they provide pay to win mechanics in their battle passes. They exploit us psychologically with their FOMO mechanics, and then serve it to us for $70. When it isn’t good, we are left with tarnished franchise legacies, underpaid and overworked staff, and an us vs them mentality between game developers and gamers. And the worst part about it is that a game can still be really good in spite of all of these things and will be rewarded financially because of it. This gives the people at the top the wrong messages about what it takes to develop a game, which perpetuates over and over and over again.
Call To Action 📣
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