Rising budgets, and a desire to connect to the community directly, caused the shift.
Epic Games, in many ways the inventors of modern AAA game development, with their Unreal Engine, and their Gears of War franchise, have made a marked move away from that this generation, moving to smaller titles, such as the MOBA Paragon. The move was a very conscious one, that came about as a result of the escalating development budgets Epic saw with the Gears of War series.
“The very first Gears of War game cost $12 million to develop, and it made about $100 million in revenue,” Epic’s Tim Sweeney said in an extensive feature published on Polygon. “It was very profitable.”
However, the costs continued to rise- “By the end of the cycle, Gears of War 3 cost about four or five times more than the original to make,” he says. “The profit was shrinking and shrinking. We calculated that, if we built Gears of War 4, the budget would have been well over $100 million, and if it was a huge success, we could break even. Anything less could put us out of business.”
These kinds of frightening costs for games development are what led tot he collapse of the mid tier gaming industry, causing former mid tier stalwarts to either collapse and go into bankruptcy, like THQ, or pursue AAA game development, like AAA. Today, AAA games have massive budgets, going into hundreds of millions of dollars, and need to sell millions of copies just to break even; they also take a long time to be developed, and are generally ‘safe,’ in order to ensure that they can recoup the massive investment.
But this scenario was not the only thing that caused Epic to rethink its strategy. Something that happened with Gears of War Judgement did, too.
“When we released Gears of War: Judgment, a bunch of community players were complaining about all the multiplayer levels we created. We realized that, you know, there are some problems with this, we should rework it, create a bunch of new content and release multiplayer around a new game just like we did in the project that was the genesis of Unreal Tournament,” Sweeney said. “We had all these plans to do this, and so we went to Microsoft and we said, ‘Hey, we want to do this.’ And they said ‘No, you don’t want to do that.’
“We weren’t asking them for money, but you know as our publisher and proprietor of Xbox, it didn’t fit into their business plans and so they said no. That made me realize very clearly the risk of having a publisher or anybody standing between game developers and gamers — and how toxic and destructive that process could be to the health of a game and its community.”
So it was also the realization that they wanted to shift to a more community oriented model of development that caused them to rethink how they would approach game making.
Is this new Epic better than the older one? That remains to be seen, but so far, Paragon, their first new game since the shift, does look good. We’ll see.