Editorial: The AAA Stranglehold

Many videogames today are veering dangerously close to becoming commodities rather than art.

Think that is an odd descriptor? It may seem so at first, but in an age where yearly sequels to massive, over-bloated franchises such as Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed are now commonplace – and, in fact, expected – I think it is quite apt. There was once a time that we only saw this business model used for EA’s sports titles – but as games in general have become more mainstream, so too has the yearly, all-inclusive release.

I do not believe this is a good thing. We are at an odd crossroads in the world of videogame development today: while a notable indy development scene is rising, the industry as a whole is moving toward becoming a faceless, corporate-dictated business that seeks only to identify and fulfill the desires of the general populace, rather than to take risks and innovate.

Enslaved Screen 1
A screenshot from Ninja Theory's Enslaved: Odyssey to the West.

Tameem Antoniades, creative boss of development studio Ninja Theory (responsible for last year’s acclaimed action title Enslaved: Odyssey to the West) was recently interviewed by GamesIndustry.biz. The interview is quite interesting, and I highly recommend giving it a read. Given the big-budget nature of their games, which include the upcoming Devil May Cry reboot, many gamers may be unaware that they are, in fact, an independent developer. Yes, Sony owns Heavenly Sword and Namco Bandai owns Enslaved – but Ninja Theory has remained independent.

So, as an independent developer playing in the “big leagues,” what does Ninja Theory boss Antoniades have to say about the current business model of mainstream console gaming? Well, in his own words:

The whole digital revolution is happening now and it can’t come soon enough. The model we’re under, the big retail model, is creaking.

It’s such an opportunity for fun creative games to reach a target audience, there’s this stranglehold that the AAA retail model has which I think is just crushing innovation and access to creative content. If you’re paying that much for a game, you don’t want to take chances. You want everything to be there, all the feature sets. You want it to be a known experience, guaranteed fun. That’s not healthy.

Earlier in the article, Antoinades admitted that Ninja Theory had, indeed, been considering the route of developing smaller-budget games. Interesting, no?

Black Ops Gameplay
Guaranteed fun.

Antoinades speaks the truth with words such as “guaranteed fun.” This goes back to my previous comparison of videogames to simple commodities; innovation is smothered because the business has become dependent on blockbusters. These days, a game cannot simply be a success. It has to be a smash hit, a cultural phenomenon, a game-of-the-year contender. Now perhaps at this point, I might sound suspiciously similar to a stereotypical gaming-hipster whining about big game companies. But this is becoming a legitimate issue that has grown exponentially worse over the last six years – that is to say, over this console generation.

How has it become worse? Because the stakes became higher. Video games became massive money-makers and cultural phenomenons in ways that they never had before. The big publishers had always been around, but only recently have they effectively “come unto their own” as the literal kings of the console software market – because they had the ability to do so. With the stakes as high as they are, smaller players have been forced out – or, at best, bought up. It is simply the way of things now – and, as gamers, we are in a sense responsible. Perhaps not us personally – I am well aware that the average LusiCom reader is a conscientious gamer.

Those to blame are the seven million people who purchased a copy of Call of Duty: Black Ops within its first 24 hours of release.

Also to blame are those who ignored Enslaved initially, then bought it used almost a year later.

I happen to be both of those people. So, I must take part of the blame.

So now we reach a time where the game industry is in a state similar to the popular music industry, wherein studios produce unoriginal crowd-pleasing fodder that can be spoonfed to the tasteless, casual masses.

Outland Screenshot 1
Because this game is pretty.

I apologize for the hipster-ness of that paragraph, and it is obviously exaggeration, but it makes a point. What I am really getting at is this: just as independent music has become an increasingly effective force in the world of music, independent game development is poised to explode. Gamers are catching on. Publishers are catching on. Console manufacturers are catching on. Sony has recently taken several surprising steps in encouraging independent development, including the announcement of how cheap PS Vita dev kits will be. Ubisoft published Outland (and I say that mainly to laud Outland yet again). I am hardly saying I want the AAA gaming business to go anywhere. I cannot wait to play Uncharted 3, Arkham City and -yes – Modern Warfare 3. I am simply encouraging a peaceful co-existence, which is obviously more than feasible.

As a longtime gamer it can be disappointing sometimes to see the direction in which the industry at large moves. Profit and reliability are preferred over the risk of innovation. But it is the price the industry pays for finally being accepted into “mainstream” culture. And that is, I believe, what many of us wanted. I think in many ways, the industry is in a state of re-organization right now, and the rising independent scene is by far the most interesting and dynamic part of that. What are your thoughts, denizens of the L.coms? Am I a pretentious gaming hipster-hypocrite? Are independent games a significant blip on your radar as a gamer? Are you fine with what mainstream console gaming has to offer? Sound off!

8 comments

  1. There’s just too many games out there worth playing. I don’t have time to play all the AAA games coming out this holiday, let alone the lesser known ones. If only time grew on trees…

  2. Is Oliver trying to deliver our souls to his infernal master?!

  3. My Economics teacher tells us that a huge driving force for innovation is competition. Sellers in a market have to compete to make better products or find a way to make their products cheaper so that they can sell their products at the lowest possible price. One of two things is happening here. Either there is not enough competition, so companies charge as much as they want without having to change anything about what they’re making, or this trend of horribly similar games is considered the latest ‘innovation’ in gaming and consumers not only fall for it, but embrace it. Probably, it’s a bit of both.

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