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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I love the idea of Kickstarter. I hope the early adopters like Double Fine Adventure and Wasteland 2 work out, because it really would signal the potential for change.
Examples of things I would fund: Ueda-san wanting a new pair of socks. Ueda-san wanting a cheeseburger. Ueda-san wanting that pony he never got for his eleventh birthday. WHATDOYOUWANTI’LLGIVEITTOYOUJUSTPLEASEFINISHTHELASTGUARDIAN!!!!
I am uncertain about doing more procedural generation of content, but that might be more a matter of taste. I usually get bored of such games much more quickly than games with “hand-made” content for any number of reasons, and tend to feel like I haven’t gotten my money’s worth – and that’s even if the game itself is good. I don’t think, from a technical perspective, we’re at a point where that approach is going to offer a great deal more to us than it ever has (except, perhaps, literally more).
Frankly I’m inclined to agree with you on procedural generation, Dix. It offers a state of maximized minimum return. If it’s used heavily, it should be used to take busywork off the shoulders of artists and designers who can then focus on main content.
Spore’s procedural system worked okay but Spore was a bad game, the idea behind procedural weapons in Borderlands is clever but the guns all really come in about five or six flavors, not a million. I guess it worked in Minecraft.
Better design, now that I’m in favor of. While Redding’s correct to say that good design is a lot harder to quantify, AAA games suffer most for being very expensive-to-produce knockoffs of each other, offering little new or exciting.
I think procedural generation works in Minecraft because of the type of game (or, perhaps, ungame) that it is. It’s a sandbox in the truest possible sense that doesn’t involve actual sand. The point is to make of it what you want to make of it: in the end it would matter little whether the “it” was a world generated by designers or by an algorithm, since different players will come in with different intents.
But there’s no doubt about better design being needed – or, perhaps, more diverse design. I think there’s an argument to be made that the Call of Duty games, for instance, are well-designed in many ways, and I’m not inclined to believe that the number of them that recycle that design make that design bad; it just makes it stagnant. But really, it’s hard to blame anyone for recycling a formula that consistently blows the lid off of launch day records.
I think it’s naive to believe that major publishers are going to allow considerable gambles for the sake of diversity no matter how much the designers that work for them want to try new things. We all know how this system works. Things that sell get made. Things that don’t sell don’t get made again. (At least in the AAA sphere.) As ever, I say: vote with your dollars.
It’s tough to argue against the fact that investing in better graphics yields noticeable dividends. It is, after all, a visual medium. I for one think that the current state of the art in visual fidelity is good enough. But then a more stylized art direction has always appealed to me more than a realistic one. And I have no illusions about being in line with the masses.
I feel for developers and even publishers. It’s a fickle market. And it’s a hard fact, but those who provide what the market doesn’t want will fail. The silver lining is that from those failures will rise smarter, wiser developers.
I for one am looking forward to developers being encouraged by successes of more modest projects. There will always be those who want CoD-style, just as there will always be those who go see Michael Bay movies. The realization (hopefully) that they can co-exist is the key.
And count me in for Ueda-san’s socks or what have you too.
You could have Liam Neeson in an indie game quite easily. Top-quality voice acting is very cheap compared to other aspects of production. ‘Name’ actors often come in for a few hundred quid an hour, so you’d be hard pressed to spend more than a few thousand. Unlike movies it takes very little time and effort on the actor’s part, so even with a high hourly rate the total is quite small. The most overblown AAAA mega title would have trouble spending a million quid on voice work. So Indies! Use proper actors! They’re cheap, and you get attention!
Current games are being consumed by the monster that is graphics, and increasing often gameplay-pointless or actively distracting graphical detail and fidelity*.
Procedural generation is just one alley that could avoid this pitfall, and if used well can multiply the power of a game. I still think ‘new’ UFO would have benefited from ‘old’ UFO’s relatively simple procedural battlefields.
*Dishonored, for example, is full of little trash objects a very tiny fraction of which you can pick up or use. So much clutter does it have that you need to highlight the relevant items with some kind of gleam.
You make a great point, CdrJameson, one with which I cannot disagree. While the VERY BIGGEST stars are probably too expensive for a $400,000 game, that’s not an excuse not to use professional talent. A couple days in a booth with a professional actor not only improve the quality of the experience, but it’s a small investment compared to something like engine development or licensing. Moreover, a small indie game that spends the money on known voice talent can then use that star power in its marketing, something likely to increase awareness and sales.
Plenty of pretty famous actors are also serious gamers. I hope some of them start telling their agents to keep an eye on the indie space and let developers know they’d like to help, and will do so for a pittance. I said “free” above, but that might be disingenuous; SAG regulations may forbid members from doing commercial work for “free.” At least I hope they’d be willing to do it for scale.
I think the best example of a gamer/actor being involved is John Hamm’s performance in L.A. Noire. He is a lifelong gamer and while I don’t think he gave them a discount, he seemed to love the idea of being involved with that project simply because he really likes games. We’ve certainly seen many examples of famous actors absolutely killing in games; Alec Baldwin’s performance in World in Conflict remains one of my favorite performances from an A-list actor in a video game. Other A-listers, alas, willingly take the jobs and the money, then phone in bored, sullen performances… look no further than David Duchovny’s shamefully lazy efforts in XIII.
I’m still fond of Bruce Campbell in Tachyon: The Fringe. It wasn’t outstanding, looking back, but it was kind of novel at the time and it was Bruce Campbell.
Tom Baker? Glynis Barber? Paul Darrow? Cheers, Hostile Waters.
Worth the price of entry alone.