Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Irrational and the “Death of AAA Games”

Posted by Rampant Coyote on February 24, 2014

BioshockInfiniteBy now, most of you have heard about the closing of Irrational Games (makers of the Bioshock series and… well, perhaps more importantly for me, their less-well-remembered but awesome Freedom Force series…). Now, the official reason is that founder Ken Levine wanted to switch gears and work on smaller games with a smaller team. That’s what I got from the official PR.

Unofficially – well, that’s a matter of speculation. There’s a strong implication that the sales for Bioshock Infinite – while certainly outstanding by an outside measure – hadn’t grown in appropriate proportion to its budget. When you see returns flattening out but budgets skyrocketing, especially for something that represents a huge company investment… well, that can force some difficult decisions to be made. And there are signs and rumors that the studio had plenty of other problems…

That’s all stuff we may never know for sure. I was really intrigued by a piece at Gamasutra last week by industry writer / journalist Leigh Alexander, who questions the rule of journalism in cases like this. In her case, she could see problems and heard rumors, but would digging deeper and reported on these problems been a service to either fans or the companies? It’s an interesting journalists-eye-view of the situation. There’s a lot to discuss, and a lot of issues highlighted.

But most people in the industry are seeing this as something of the writing on the wall. A major AAA studio is closing, in spite of having the perfect recipe for success: A proven hit franchise, a critically acclaimed game that sold respectable “hit” numbers that anyone in the industry should be happy with, etc.   What this really means to a lot of people is that we’re finally hitting the wall in terms of AAA budgets.

Don’t get me wrong – I don’t want or expect “AAA” gaming to “die.” Not at all. But the entire history of the video game industry has been one of rising budgets and dependence upon major technological innovation to improve the gaming “platform” and broaden the market. The latter has arguably already come to an end… each new generation of hardware may still be better by leaps and bounds than the one previous, but from the perspective of a relative, subjective gaming experience… the increment of change has slowed substantially. The growth of budgets (usually to deal with the advances in technology) is now hitting the same wall…. you have to spend twice as much for each incremental improvement.

That is, to use the popular term, “unsustainable.” People (like me) have been saying this for years, but it looks like its finally proving itself. It’s not like anybody has really been in denial about this – nobody thought that growth would go on indefinitely, or even that much further. I think many studio and publisher heads decided that they couldn’t predict when the music would stop, so they’d keep right on going, and cross that bridge when they came to it.

And now some of them are reaching the bridge.

I dunno. I’m kinda looking forward to seeing what the games biz will look like when it’s no longer a race to see who has the deepest pockets.

Gamasutra: Irrational Games, journalism, and the airing of dirty laundry, by Leigh Alexander

Filed Under: Biz - Comments: 7 Comments to Read

  • Tesh said,

    Not exactly related, but I see little reason to buy into this next generation of consoles. To my eye, the PS4 and XBoxOne don’t offer enough over their predecessors to even justify a $100 price tag, much less what they are actually asking.

    I want better designed games, not blingier games. …and yes, that’s probably not really a word for multiple reasons.

  • Tom H. said,

    It will *always* be a deep-pockets competition, won’t it, even if we drop it back an order of magnitude. With a family, I’m not leaving my day job until there’s a very nice nest egg and a good source of insurance; the bigger that nest egg, the more polish I’ll be able to put in, or the more different games I’ll be able to prototype. Multiply by team size regardless.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Fair point, Tom. Yeah, it will be, but it won’t be quite so open-ended at the top end. You can’t just have publishers spending 2x the money to make sure their game is all but guaranteed to be in the top slot. (Not that this is exactly what happens now, either, but there’s been an element of that).

    Down here on the indie side, of course, the idea of a $50 million or $100 million game budget is so far out there that it might as well be open-ended.

  • Might be Bob said,

    I think you may have continued to talk and say important things but the last thing I remember hearing was “Freedom Force”.

    Loved the game and yet never finished it. Would love to see a reboot.

    I think I may go google mods for it to see if I can get it run on my computer.

  • Might be Bob said,

    Ok, now that I had freedom force out of head and I was actually able to finish the rest of the article…

    I wonder what business data can be gleaned from Steam Charts. Looking at the life span, you can see the November blip for the DLC Burial at Sea release, but clearly a lot of people who bought the game didn’t come back for the DLC.

    My longing for Turn based games makes me hope it says something about gamer fatigue with FPS but I doubt it.

    On the other hand, the layoff decision may have a fatigue factor involved. Consider the idea of making another “Bioshock” class game for big budget, when DLC interest was low. Seems like the business analysts would say that doesn’t seem like a good idea because while yes, Bioshock Infinite made money, if the next one bombs, you are out all the profit of the first game.

    Rest the IP for a bit, come back with something new and people’s memory of the games will spark internet viral interest and “pre-purchase”. I’m thinking of Slitherine’s Panzer General (oops, I mean Panzer Corps of course), Fallout, Diablo, Doom 4, etc…

    Looking at the numbers on Steam Chart though, I can sort of see a straight business case for something as simple as:
    “Gamer fatigue of IP, no need for large team well suited for FPS if we don’t have a project for them”. State of supply and demand labor for artists and programmers favors the large developer. Lay-off staff until we determine a new project”

    Although… if a journalist has dirty dish inside gaming secrets let’s hear ’em! I’ll cringe and deplore such practices.. but I’ll also probably click the link to read them..

  • LateWhiteRabbit said,

    I read Leigh Alexander’s article a while ago as well.

    I believe game’s journalists NEED to air the dirty laundry. They need to do, you know, more JOURNALISM. I’m all for being responsible enough not to air flimsy rumors, but in these cases where they are hearing the same thing from multiple sources, they need to publish that.

    The deplorable practices at studios, the crunch time, the out-of-control egos, or out-of-touch management – these things need to be reported on and shamed in the public eye. These things won’t stop until those practices and how common they are become well-known knowledge to the public and reduces the line of replacement grads willing to grab these job positions when the people currently working in them are let go for protesting the working conditions or voluntarily leave because they can’t take it any more.

    Game “journalists” too often treat the developers, publishers, and studios like their friends. You can’t be objective when reporting on your “friends”. You don’t need to be afraid of tanking a studio or causing them to go out of business because they have horrible working conditions. STUDIOS need to be afraid of having horrible working conditions that will cause them to get publicly shamed and lose business.

    If journalists really cared about the well-being of the people making games, they wouldn’t fear reporting something that may cost those people work today, when that type of reporting will make working in the industry going forward a more rewarding experience with a higher quality of life for everyone involved.

    IMHO, studios need to be TERRIFIED of treating their employees badly. And that isn’t going to happen until games journalists are willing to be hard-hitting, investigative, and not worried about missing out on exclusive access (I.e. propaganda tours), free games, or going out for drinks with game personalities at events as buddies.

    Other journalists don’t need to be friends with industries to get stories or access, game journalism doesn’t need it either. They just need to decide whether or not they are JOURNALISTS, or fanboy/fangirl reviewers.

  • McTeddy said,

    I agree with LWR. I’ve seen more than a few BS situations in the field… yet our “Journalists” shrug it off and focus on how great the latest big budget game is.

    My Own Experience:
    – Over 100 hours a week for 7 months
    – Giving 2 weeks notice to spend a weekend with my family who were driving up to visit… only to be told to cancel last minute because “That’s just what devs to”.
    – Our designer was passed out on the floor talking about how he “smoked some bad ****”, yet still had the nerve to make me work the weekend because he just finished a design on Friday.
    – When I complained about my wrists acting up from the stupidity… I was told “Just keep working… they’ll get better”. Years later, they haven’t.

    Within ONE degree of me
    – Company owed over 5000 to EVERY employee in unpaid wages.
    – Goverment had to shut down another studio when a former employer “Informed” them of the work practices.
    – Owner gets into a barfight and ends up paying for his bail from the company money.

    Heck… our company (Myself included) should be flayed for our poor management and general wastes of time. We made ALOT of mistakes that people could have learned from if this industry was more open. Instead, more companies will screw up and more good developers will give up on the field.

    And the companies will KEEP doing this because they have a stream of clueless college grads who have passion to exploit. They think that playing games for 40 hours a week is the key to making games.

    This black box is terrible for the industry. If the media gave a damn about their developer “Friends” they wouldn’t let these things keep happening in silence.