Over the last few years, we have seen AAA game releases become really, for lack of a better word, messy. There have been several trends that have been adopted by most major AAA game releases in the last decade and a half, that fans of the medium around the world have come to decry. A lot of these trends seem to be accelerating and becoming more emphasized and exacerbated as time goes on, too. Some of them are fairly benign, such as the loss of exclusivity for most games (even first party ones!), or repeated and long delays; others, however, are explicitly disruptive to a player’s experience, and are degrading the medium as a whole, whether it be the disastrously buggy nature so many new game releases have these days, to the homogenization of big games, where all big games play alike, have similar mechanics and tones, and have incredibly abusive monetization practices – just to name a few.
There’s more than just these trends as well – for example, have you considered how cross gen games have become so much more prominent as time has gone on? Have you considered how so many games now launch with less content at release than their older counterparts may have had? Have you noticed how publishers around the world are now sticking with sequels over new IPs (and even when we do get new IP, it’s usually a reskinned variant on a popular existing trend, rather than something actually new)?
Of course, as players, we want the industry to walk back these kinds of degradations to our AAA game playing experience – but here’s the thing, ultimately, it is a certain kind of player’s drive towards demanding the latest and greatest cutting edge AAA tech based video games with nothing less than the most immersive possible worlds and stories that has ultimately caused the current state of things. You may not like hearing that – but the reason to blame for the state of things is the very thing so many of you love.
Ultimately it comes down to the never ending push for cutting edge tech in video games that causes these problems across the board. It manifests in three separate ways:
- More money is needed to develop games
- More time is needed to develop games
- More complexity needs to be managed
Each of those three factors ends up contributing to some (or many) of the common complaints players have, so let’s go through them one by one and try to understand how exactly this is contributing to the situation on hand.
MORE MONEY IS NEEDED TO DEVELOP GAMES
More money necessary to make games has multiple effects. Budgets become massive which means a few things, but most importantly, it means that publishers become risk averse. In turn, this means that publishers are now less likely to try new and unproven things – because given the investment that goes into making these games, they need to have a certain degree of assurance of returns on that money before they allocate it to development. Effectively, this is why so many publishers now rely on franchises and sequels and re-releases and remakes endlessly – not just third parties like Ubisoft and EA, but even, for example, PlayStation is now moving to a model where tentpole releases are franchised into cross-media properties, whether it be a Ghost of Tsushima movie or a The Last of Us TV show.
But the lack of new IP isn’t the only problem that bloated budgets contribute to – it also means that when we do get new IP, it is effectively just a reskinned variant on something that already exists, just in a new setting or characters. This is most obvious with Ubisoft games. Because publishers are still sinking in a lot of money into these games upfront – so if it’s a new IP, they still need assurance that they will get returns on it, and it being a new IP has already introduced a lot of risk to the equation. Relying on tried and tested genres, mechanics, and game style is a way to alleviate that risk – but in turn, it’s why we end up with so much homogenized design across a publisher’s portfolio. And Ubisoft isn’t the only publisher to blame for this either – while the whole “Sony exclusive template” meme is rubbish, ultimately it is undeniable and indisputable that Sony’s lineup today is far more homogenized than it was back on the PS2, PS3, or PS Vita – those systems had games such as Ape Escape standing next to God of War, Gravity Rush next to Killzone, Tokyo Jungle next to Uncharted – and we got a lot of those crazy types of games. Today, the bulk of Sony’s focus goes towards a certain kind of narrative driven cinematic action adventure game, and while the other, more quirky kinds of games still exist in their lineup, they’re also far fewer in volume and overall proportion of their total output than before. Because games cost too much to develop, and taking risks on unproven or experimental stuff can be financial suicide.
This homogenization of games is still not the end of the problems that escalating game development budgets create though. The biggest one, the one that most people will agree with being a huge problem, is the abusive monetization practices we see in games across the board – pre-order bonuses, expensive special editions, DLC, micro transactions, loot boxes, season passes, battle passes, all of that. Those are all ways for publishes to cushion the risk they are taking on – because it means that with those, they don’t need their games to sell some ungodly and unreasonable amount to make their investment back, they can generate more revenue even from fewer copies sold to try and make back the cost. High budgets are directly responsible for how many publishers are trying to nickel and dime customers these days. They are why games now cost $70 (while these micro transactions and nickel and dimming schemes exist).
The move towards higher budgets has also caused other repercussions for video games as a medium and as an industry, though many of those are for the better to be entirely fair. For example, the reason most games now release as multiplatform is specifically because of the huge upfront investment that goes into the development of one – given that, limiting your audience for no reason doesn’t make any financial sense. It’s why Microsoft and Sony are releasing their games on PC too now – because with the costs being as absurdly high as they are, it is very literally impossible for their games to be profitable if they are just limited to one system – yes, even for Sony, who sell more games than Microsoft does by an order of magnitude. It’s also why so many games are cross-gen right now (including, again, for Sony) – because those games cost too much for anyone to just limit them to two systems that have collectively sold less than 25 million units. Have you wondered why Sony has its big budget AAA productions like God of War, Horizon, Spider-Man Miles Morales, and Gran Turismo 7 as cross-gen while smaller stuff like Returnal gets to be exclusive? There’s your answer – the bigger games cost far too much for Sony to be able to recoup costs if they are just stuck on PS5. With smaller fare, the investment is smaller, so the returns can also afford to be smaller in the process.
Here’s the thing, if budgets were lower, you wouldn’t see many or most of these negative factors in video games show up, and certainly not to this degree – we actually have existing examples and evidence of this on the market at this exact moment. Indie games, mid-budget games, Japanese games, and Nintendo Switch all are evidence that locking yourself to lower tech and therefore lower budgets means your games can afford to get experimental or inventive, they can afford to release without raising base game prices or having abusive monetization – it’s why those areas of the industry are the ones that gave us games as great and wildly experimental as Persona 5 or Tetris Effect or Hades or Hollow Knight or Splatoon – because when they weren’t chasing the literal latest and greatest cutting edge AAA goal, they didn’t have to worry about losing obscene amounts of money, and their creativity wasn’t as constrained as a result. You will find these to be a recurring theme in the coming points as well.
GAMES TAKE MORE TIME TO MAKE
This one is fairly self evident. At this point developers need more time per content than they did before because the resource intensiveness demanded by the fidelity of modern tech mandates it. Basically, it was easier to have a gigantic world in Final Fantasy 7 than it is in Final Fantasy 7 Remake (and that’s why Final Fantasy 7 Remake is split into parts), it was easier for Monster Hunter to launch with over a hundred monsters in Monster Hunter Generations Ultimate than it was for them to even reach 50 at launch in Monster Hunter World, it was easier to have completely different and divergent quests with loads of different flavour dialog in Morrowind than it is in Skyrim, it was easier for Halo 3 to launch with campaign, co-op, multiplayer, and Forge than it is for Infinite to do so.
This is unavoidable now, because more development resources are needed to generate assets and content at the expected modern graphical fidelity level. In other words, to create a single area at the modern graphical level takes more time, effort, people, and money than several large areas may have back on the PS2 – so obviously, the amount of content available in the base game has to take a hit, because to match that insane amount of content, you’re going to need stupid amounts of time. In turn that means that it’s basically impossible to have that amount of content in your games at launch at this point if you’re following sane development cycle windows (unless you’re Rockstar and can afford to take ten years to develop one game). In other words, this is what causes the longer development cycle windows now that we see, and the numerous delays that we see – they have to happen, because there’s no other way to develop games with a reasonable amount of content (which is still a step down from the previous games in a lot of cases), at the expected fidelity levels. Remember how on PS3, Naughty Dog put out three Uncharted games and The Last of Us, while on the PS4, we only got one full Uncharted game, one The Last of Us game, and an expansion for that Uncharted game? Remember how on the Xbox 360, Bethesda put out Oblivion, Fallout 3, and Skyrim, but on the Xbox One, we only got Fallout 4 and Fallout 76 (as well as a few dozen Skyrim ports to be fair)? Remember how on the Xbox 360, we got Halo 3, ODST, Reach, and 4, and on Xbox One, we only got 5 and the Master Chief Collection? Yeah, that’s why
And this is why we see so many games launch with lower amounts of content compared to their predecessors as well – because the smart thing to do ends up being launching with a low content base and then building on it.
Tying this back to the previous point about budgets, this is also the reason that games often launch so buggy or undercooked these days, it’s why Fallout 76, Cyberpunk, Sea of Thieves, Star Wars Battlefront 2, Battlefield 2042, Destiny 2, you name it, all launched with such a dearth of content and so many problems – because the longer you develop something, the more exponentially higher the cost is going to get, which means that, combined with the increasing development times thrown into the equation, at some point the financially sound decision is actually to just release the damn game, get some immediate returns, and use those to continue development.
And here’s the thing, just like with the previous examples, we know there are existing counterpoints to these trends – in those same areas in fact. So many (not all, but many) indie games, Japanese games, and Nintendo Switch games all stand as a counterpoint to this bunch of trends – it’s why Shin Megami Tensei 5, Persona 5, NEO: The World Ends With You, Hollow Knight, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, Hades, all launched with so much content right off the bat (in most cases matching or exceeding their predecessors). It’s why so many of those (such as Smash or SMT5) had reasonably contained development cycles. It’s why they launched so polished – because again, when you are not chasing the literal latest and greatest, you end up freeing yourself creatively in a lot of ways.
MORE COMPLEXITY NEEDS TO BE MANAGED
This again is relatively easy to understand. Because of just how many moving parts there are in games now, owing to the expectations for the latest and greatest from players across the board, you open up a ridiculous amount of possibilities for errors and failure in your games. So many things working together not only means there’s a lot more things going wrong, but also that, combined with the previous two points, you’re left with far less time to address far more errors than you had before. So again, given the logistical, financial, and resource reality that developers and publishers are faced with, they just opt to accept a certain degree of jank as the necessary price for being able to deliver games on the expected AAA level in reasonable time frames and then patch them up as errors are reported by crowd sourcing them to their big player base. This in turn is what leads to the extent of buggy and broken releases we get these days. I’m not saying that it’s good to charge players for buggy products – I am saying that the fiscal and logistical reality of the situation literally leaves them with no other choice.
Here’s the thing, then – the current drive towards cutting edge AAA games, with the latest and greatest tech, and escalating budgets and development resources, is unsustainable and untenable. It is extremely harmful for the video game industry, in fact – other than the many issues I noted above, this never ending drive towards the cutting edge has caused many studio closures and bankruptcies, it’s what causes developers to look for acquisitions for financial security, it’s what causes so many franchises to be discontinued because they can’t meet the ever increasing threshold for sales necessary to justify investment, it’s what has led to such fewer games coming out on the high end than before, and with so many more problems. At some point, the insanity of pushing for and demanding newer and better tech needs to stop – games already looked great on the PS4, they already looked great on the PS3, in fact. There was no immediate need for a next gen to raise the tech baseline and development costs again just yet, when five of the top six rated games of last generation – The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Super Mario Odyssey, Grand Theft Auto V, Red Dead Redemption 2, Persona 5 Royal, The Last of Us Remastered – five of those were made for functionally Xbox 360 level tech and visual fidelity. Games can still be great without needing the absolute latest and greatest cutting edge tech. They have been great all this time. This drive for the latest tech every few years, before there is any actual need for it, has done nothing but harmed the games we get as a result. At some point this insanity needs to stop.
Hopefully the industry just realizes that before it is too late.
Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, GamingBolt as an organization.