I’d been on-again, off-again about doing a Culture Clash article for the IGDA on the Kickstarter phenomenon. I mean, would my observations add that much? And what you’ll see below isn’t exactly a Kickstarter article, but a rumination on the nature and future of AAA games in general. The idea came from a remark by Ubisoft’s Patrick Redding, with whom I tend to agree on most things.
How is it all related to Cultures and the Clashing thereof? Gamer culture is constantly in flux, and I think it’s often more nuanced than anyone – developers, publishers, gamers themselves – give it credit for. If the rise of the Kickstarted game leads to major financial success, that means that AAA production values aren’t the only way to make millions. Heck, Minecraft already proved that. The lessons of what we’re seeing in new funding models may give us insight into the way gamers think, desire, and buy.
The ABCs of AAA
By Matthew Sakey
Originally published by the International Game Developers Association
Patrick Redding, director of Ubisoft’s upcoming Splinter Cell: Blacklist, made very few waves at all when he remarked that “AAA” development is not going to be a mainstay in the future. Why so few waves?
Because he’s almost certainly right, and while not a lot of people at Redding’s level have gone on record saying it, the view isn’t exactly a dark secret either. AAA development implies big names, big budgets, top-shelf status, long cycle times, and, often, not that much return on investment. AAA games in surefire IPs like Halo or GTA tend to do quite well even when they’re not any good; look no further than Resident Evil 6 for proof of that. But not all AAA titles live in a surefire IP. And not all sell enough to make up for the enormity of risk their development entails. The bigger you are, the harder you’re likely to fall.
Technically, Redding wasn’t talking exclusively about economic models. His suggestion – that “lowercase aaa” games are about to become A Thing – is more nuanced than if he’d just suggested that budgets are shrinking. What he said was that the total dominance of graphics and production values may be undercut by what he called “systemic depth,” focus on design and the use of old-is-new-again technologies such as procedural systems to do more of what’s usually done by hand now.
This is an interesting postulation, and one fraught with risk. As Redding pointed out, adding money for graphics almost always produces measurably better graphics, but adding money for “design” is a lot more nebulous. It can go badly. Design is subjective and not readily quantifiable. An over-designed game is as bad as an under-designed one, and just because a game is very well designed doesn’t guarantee it will be a success.
The most fascinating change of the past year has been the explosive (potential) growth of games that aren’t even aaa and have different funding models entirely. I say potential because we haven’t actually seen many of these games yet: Kickstarted projects, Steam Greenlight projects, experimental projects like the delightful Proteus. That last one is in beta, while the wave of Kickstarted games for the most part are still in development, and we’re still watching to see what Greenlight games accomplish for Valve and for their developers.
If a lot of these games succeed, we may see a major change in game development. In most cases the budgets for these projects are well under a million dollars, a price point I’d arbitrarily set as the minimum for a retail endeavor in the gaming world. They won’t have the production values of the traditional AAA games, which have seen budgets as high as $150M. The question is whether that’s going to matter to the gaming public.
From the Kickstarter side, since Double Fine launched the craze, we’ve learned some lessons: basically, Kickstarter appears to be a great way to fund your game… if.
If you are Somebody. Tim Schafer and his Double Fine are a known quantity. They’re trusted. That trust drove a lot of funding because people felt their investment would be returned. That leads to…
If you have a solid pitch. Loot Drop launched a Kickstarter but abandoned it when they realized they didn’t have enough of a concept yet. Brenda Braithwaite and Tom Hall are known quantities (they’ve developed successful games and know the business), but their idea wasn’t yet mature. That leads to…
If people want your game. Hidden Path Entertainment’s Defense Grid 2 is something I think the world needs (in my view the world can never have enough Defense Grid), and supporters agreed. The Kickstarter was fully funded, which doesn’t actually mean Defense Grid 2 – their modest goal allowed for another expansion of the original. The final stretch goal, which was not reached, would’ve fully funded a sequel. Instead they’re going to use profits from the expansion and seek additional funding sources to do DG2. Hidden Path’s Kickstarter launched the same day as the Ouya Android console; I wonder if the results would’ve been different given different timing. That leads to…
If you get press. Big Robot’s Sir, You Are Being Hunted has received a lot of coverage from intrigued journalists. That the company is run by Jim Rossignol, a co-owner of Rock, Paper, Shotgun, undoubtedly helped. But RPS was hardly the only outlet to cover the game, and I don’t think Rossignol or RPS have behaved inappropriately at all. Rossignol’s relationship with RPS helped get S,YaBH attention, but it didn’t drive it. That leads to…
If you get press (part 2). Ever since Double Fine’s remarkable showing, big outlets have made an effort to both announce important Kickstarters and voice opinions on them. But press attention alone is not enough. Bare Mettle’s Sui Generis has garnered plenty, but is not yet near its goal.
(Disclosure: I have backed Defense Grid 2; Sir, You Are Being Hunted; and Sui Generis, as well as Obsidian’s Project Eternity. I use them as examples here not to promote them further but because they are among the Kickstarter projects with which I’m most familiar).
Steam Greenlight launched with its share of problems, but Valve was pretty quick fixing them, and I’m curious to experience the first few seasons of crops from this unique garden. Greenlight is not Kickstarter – there’s no funding there, it’s simply a matter of helping Valve deal with the crushing influx of games wanting to be on Steam. Letting Steam users vote is a clever solution that should take some pressure off Valve, and reduce or eliminate the company’s need to be familiar with every indie product’s value.
None of these games will feature the voice of Liam Neeson (though one day soon I dream of famous actors who are gamers just offering their talents for small projects, free of charge). None will offer anything close to the production values of Black Ops 2. And if they do well despite this, that will be a huge message to the industry as a whole: that production values aren’t everything. That more money doesn’t guarantee a better game, or a better selling game. This doesn’t invalidate the potential of (capital-letter) AAA games; it just expands the ecosystem. Where Patrick Redding’s idea for aaa games might help a commercial industry that’s beginning to lose control of budgets and innovation alike, alternative funding models may teach us unexpected things about what gamers are looking for.
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