It’s not enjoyable to bring up possibilities of something similar to what happened in North America in 1983 occurring now, but most working in the industry ignoring the possibility are—quite frankly—making that possibility all the greater a chance to become reality. Sure, markets shift, lucrative moments happen for some great developers, and there’s rousing game ideas hinted at with new stuff around the corner; but these moments, as great as they may seem, are shrouded in an industry where many ‘big dog’ publishers believe they’re backed into a corner enough to think homogenization and consumer-unfriendly ideas are the only way to avoid seeing their numbers in red text. Although the top brass can have their fair share of the blame, the problem extends much farther than that. The reason I’m framing the header in the title as “AAA empires,” aside from the fact I’m trying to shoe-horn in a Star Wars subtitle as desperately as I can, is to posit how destructive the zeitgeist surrounding most AAA-budgeted companies—from executive to hired artist—truly is and how they're destined to crumble under their own weight unless something is done.
If you’re not familiar with the ever-so-infamous video game crash of '83 many posters may mention, allow me to give a brief recap. What we would call the initial generations of the video game console begun in the 70's eventually grew into one of the most rewarding businesses of that time, accumulating over a three billion dollar market share and a lot of games. No, I mean a LOT of games. Because of the get rich quick notion so many businesspersons saw with this, companies from Quaker to Purina actually invested into shoving their own published titles out in order to rake in easy money. After so many unfinished/finished products looking identical to the series they were stolen from flooded the market, consumers dropped the hobby altogether which resulted in next year’s market share plummeting below ninety-five percent of its previous. A couple of years later, Nintendo basically saved consoles and here we are today.
So what exactly is the moral of that period in history? Although several auxiliary factors can be accounted for back then which don’t register in today’s world, I think one ideal remains the same: striving to only feed off of another creator’s success ad nauseum can—and will—stifle consumer demand. The dreadful nature of these companies sole existence to make money is simply history repeating itself as big publishers/developers are constantly vying for someone’s attention by saying things like “cinematic” since that works for the precursors of its popularity who actually used that as a design philosophy to construct their own nuance. Now, we have to see the same thing time and again in what a game has to offer solely based on what the chart says: multiplayer of some sort needs to be included and the title needs to be obsequious to Hollywood actions tropes for the sole reason to check that off a list. This isn’t to say developers COULD just be inspired by those works and want to create something similar; however, when even Dark Souls II production is said to have a much larger budget despite the fact the first was a commercial success all its own by not taking that route, no one can really discern which big title’s direction is now more corporate-influenced or artist-influenced. And when gamers continually raise that question to the forefront for years, their enthusiasm for most of those titles dwindles.
The sad part of it all is how publishers are led to believe striving to do the same—or something terribly similar—as said originator (or “commercializer” in most cases) should result in that dedicated fanbase already won to move over in droves. Place your sights back between the time of EA rebooting Medal of Honor to the upcoming Battlefield 4 with a brand spanking new engine and you’ll see how startling it is that Call of Duty, whose popularity was tripled (or more) when moving to the modern military genre, can keep those same types of fans even though the series’ landscapes have varied beyond that to a Vietnam game and near-future one with silly contraptions. Between two Medal of Honor games and soon-to-be two Battlefield games, critical and commercial reception varies from great to sub-par with all kept in the same darn time period.
You’ve probably seen regurgitated examinations stated above about gaming corporates addressed before, yet I think the situation is still rather interesting when considering the other side of the coin.
Of course, the corporate/artist dynamic is as old as creative mediums itself: the artistic mind behind the book, movie, game, etc. is a pure visionary while the publishing mind is just a bureaucrat solely focused on the bottom line. This realm of thinking is so universal in part because reality has seemed to carry it out for so long. The problem is though that perpetuated perception often sullies another accurate, less-flashy part of the problem: outrageous costs. With game development taking a tremendous leap in production costs from this generation and now only looking to get worse when all three next-gen consoles are officially released, Microsoft and Sony are now poised in releasing high-end consoles to a market still laggard from 2008’s recession and a consumer base with less disposable income than 7th gen’s start as a result. When high-cost gaming production is at a vulnerable stage, we’re now doubling down and pushing forward impressive new tech despite recent history telling us the least-powerful console of said generation has usually been the most successful.
Yet we’re constantly told from those in the industry this push is necessary. Gamers are vying for prettier, bigger stuff to play with, which demands more processing power, which requires newer machines. Even though most of those same people stating this realize these AAA Empires are unconscionably investing more and more into these products (emphasis on costly marketing tactics, popular voice actors, more polygons, yada yada yada) to the point of unsustainability, we’re told the show must go on because ‘X/Y/Z’ chart says the market is demanding it. So blame is cast on US for demanding such a narrow set of options while publishers are obliged to deliver said limited selections, while the oh so poor artists are “stuck” in creating them. There’s certainly truth to that in many cases, but I’m just not sure it's the only truth.
When it comes to markets in entertainment, consumers can only know they want a different widget when they’ve actually seen it for themselves. Which begs the question: are we sure this volatile, limited AAA business the masses buy into is what they only want or has the constant me-too delivery dulled them into thinking they shouldn’t expect anything else? We’ve given/been giving the deserved majority of blame to the greedy businessmen for quite some time, but I think we could—conceptually—extend it to some of these beloved artistes as well.
Now, I may not have personal experience working in the video game industry, but I’m given reason to believe a lot of those involved in designing video games—particularly on the visual side—will always want to play with the coolest tech they can get their hands on. You didn’t see Crytek running with open arms to architecture as archaic as the Wii during its run, did you? No, they’re a team (or teams considering they have satellite locations) devoted to cutting-edge stuff in practically all of their games. And it makes sense for them and other high-cost developers to strive after that. If given a near-unlimited selection of toys to play with, wouldn’t you use that chance to occupy yourself with the best of them? Of course! And just like you’d want to do that, so too would visual artists want to create with the best stuff money could buy. Even beyond the thrills of anti-aliasing, more pixels, and other techie gobbledygook, it’s a more lucrative career for visual designers to show off their record having worked with the best stuff possible to apply in other artistic mediums they’d like to be involved in.
And this go-for-broke graphics wet dream by certain developers seems to be just as pervasive in those directing the games. The current poster boy for this mentality would be David Cage, co-lead of Quantic Dream. At the forefront of his games (which I’ve enjoyed so far) is this overblown push for casting television/film actors for starring roles and pushing facial recognition technology because, in his view, that’s the best way for games to move towards conveying more believable emotions. Never mind how blatantly false that assertion is (see: uncanny valley effect), there comes a time to ask how many people still actually care about this schmitt now and if these extravagances are worth the expense of helping a market gradually eat itself whole. The fact that even some game developers are now expanding their franchises/titles to have television incorporated into the gameplay or lore of the story shows the Hollywood-wannabe style is not going away any time soon. If you watched the Xbox One conference, you may have noticed two intellectual properties getting that specified treatment: Halo and Remedy’s new Quantum Break. Although details are currently scarce, the rundown for both is this: 343 studios are doing another bunch of live-action Halo episodes in conjunction with Steven Spielberg (whoa!) and decisions in Quantum Break’s gameplay affect its own television series. So now gamers want studios to take on the multifarious tasks of directing/producing real-life shows on top of the plethora of expensive, must-have features in today’s blockbuster titles?
Although it makes sense for graphics to typically be shown at the forefront for an intellectual property so soon into announcing the title since that’s the only thing to be advertised, we seem to be focused on only one style of progression: realism. We’ve oh’d and ah’d after so many miniscule things: how many particles are simultaneously shown, textures on wildlife, etc. Now that this console generation is winding down, we’ve seen so much that there’s really not such an immense difference between high-end/low-end sort of stuff to the average consumer. And that’s great! Now that the newest console from each company is capable of HD in some form, there’s nothing wrong withholding money and people to go any farther than ‘just’ looking good and focusing more funds on more important facets like gameplay.
Instead of that ideal, the message ringing out from PS4’s/Xbox One’s reveal and their E3 presentations has developers excited to see how much further they can go with new hardware, pump more money into production, and raise heights required to keep companies going. I’m not trying to sound antagonistic to the idea of any artist striving for those peaks, but there’s comes a time where someone—publisher or developer—takes a step back to reanalyze the entire situation and act like an adult with their money, rather than playing follow the leader.
I understand that art can be expensive, but it’s absurd to know cutting corners rarely seems to be more than a passing thought to most big budget developers despite the fact that producing great visuals with limiting constrictions—be it money or something else—is what has elevated a person or company to LEGENDARY status. In regards to film, one doesn’t need to look farther than A New Hope’s documentaries to see how Lucas’ independent production company employed cost-effective ideas to produce one of the most imaginative blockbusters ever made. Placing that kind of emphasis on budgeted approaches is what has made any artistic industry thrive. And since that kind of adventurous spirit can only lead to cheaper methods, I think blame is more than worth casting at certain creative people behind the project as well as the corporate ones.
So what are we left with? Another case of an AAA industry resembling that of the ouroboros: fascinated consumers that have shown demand with rationed expectancies from retail games, publishers filling that need as soon as possible (leaving out unique ideas in the process), and certain creative types that don’t seem to be treating this art form very maturely. Are these expensive titles the same case as the unplayable stuff before the ’83 crash? Certainly not! And I don’t expect such a radical outcome as that to happen again. Nevertheless, it’s impossible to ignore the recent outcry from fans and the below-expected sales of certain franchises to see something scary lies ahead. At this point, it’s not a question of if any more of these AAA empires will strike out but a question of when.