Talking Point: Playing it Safe in Big-Budget Console Games is Stifling Creativity
Posted by Andy Green
Developers cannot afford to take risks
The video game industry is going through a transformational period at the moment. It used to be all about console gaming — whether that be on a system hooked up to a TV in your living room or on the go in the form of a handheld such as the 3DS — but now the market is broader, with the likes of subscription-based gaming, social games and of course the ever-growing area of mobile gaming all competing for consumers' hard-earned cash.
With all these new market entrants, console gaming has found itself losing considerable market share, in fact recent analysis revealed at the Games Developers Conference in San Francisco found digital games, DLC, mobile games, subscriptions, and social network gaming made up a combined 40% of sales in 2012.
For this reason console developers are being squeezed, and one wrong move can lead to the eventual demise of a company.
Junction Point recently closed its doors for good after Epic Mickey 2: The Power of Two failed to generate sufficient interest in gamers; Disney deemed the studio unprofitable and simply shut it down. It appears harsh but in an increasingly competitive environment, it’s no surprise that studios can be ultimately closed after one disappointing set of sale figures.
In a recent interview with The Guardian, Jade Raymond of Ubisoft said there was still a market out there for big-hitting console blockbusters, however it is now much smaller and she believes there is only room for ten successful ‘triple A’ titles every year:
I think there's still room for really great triple A games that can, despite the budget, retain the classic model of expecting people to pay in one big chunk. There's still room for that. But the big publishers have to be honest with themselves – there's only room for let's say ten successful titles a year on those sorts of budgets. So you have to go all-in on those; you have to be sure you'll have a hit, and when you make it you have to invest everything to make sure it's amazing.
Making sure you have a hit is certainly not an easy task and there’s tonnes upon tonnes of market research involved. Companies have to find out what consumers are currently playing, figure out what they’d want in a couple of years’ time and then develop a game accordingly.
Failure is quite simply not an option, and this seems to be leading to major video game publishers and developers choosing against taking any risks. For this reason we quite often see titles emerge on consoles that are fairly familiar. For example Call of Duty has a system that seems to sell pretty well, therefore the developer will largely stick to the formula when releasing new iterations. New Super Mario Bros. U features tried and tested gameplay that nearly all Nintendo gamers are familiar with; many may have liked to have seen it evolve further, but changing it too much could leave consumers disappointed and the game’s sales may suffer as a result. As a business, Nintendo doesn’t really want that.
Recently, Lars Gustavsson, creative director at DICE, revealed Battlefield 4 would not be coming to the Wii U. The reason behind it was not that the system couldn’t support the game but that his company didn’t want to take the risk of releasing a Wii U edition.
Sometimes, at least for us, it's focusing on what you do well and what you know well, and ensuring that you deliver something good than trying a bit too much, stretching yourself too thin and risking it.
I'd rather play it safe, deliver something really good and then look at the future and what could possibly be done than trying a bit too hard and [failing].
Playing it safe is something a lot of developers are doing, simply because their games need to sell in order for the company to turn a profit. After spending millions of dollars on a game for several years, a failure can kill a company – and it has.
Because of developers ‘playing it safe’ we find a lot of sequels on the shelves of our games retailers. The Assassin’s Creed series is now releasing a game every year, Mario has become one of Nintendo’s biggest staples alongside The Legend of Zelda, and it’s easy to lose count of the amount of Final Fantasy games there are in existence.
Companies have to offer consumers what they want, offering something different is risky and for that reason we find very few new franchises cropping up. Some have tried, but the risk of doing so has been highlighted in recent years with the closures of several businesses.
The Darksiders series, developed by Vigil Games, was something new, but unfortunately the second game in the series, Darksiders II, reportedly failed to meet sales targets, meaning a profit could not be made.
Vigil Games is currently in limbo, with no parent company after the bankruptcy of THQ. Picking up the studio would have been seen as a risk by publishers as it is unknown if there is even a market anymore for the Darksiders franchise. Investors are clearly thinking hard when considering buying the studio, while Volition, for example, was snapped up immediately due to it holding the tried and tested Saint’s Row series.
Other forms of gaming, such as mobile games, have budgets that are much smaller in size than those given to blockbuster titles being developed by the likes of Nintendo and Ubisoft. The money might not be as big, but the fast development turnaround and the ability to be more creative is becoming an attractive option for video game developers.
Recently, five members of staff at Rare made the decision to leave the company and form their own studio. It’s called Flippin Pixels and it specialises in creating games for mobile platforms.
Now, instead of working hard for months on end on a big console title, the team turn games around much faster and is enjoying the creative freedoms brought about by the change.
In an interview with Edge, Steven Brand, studio director at Flippin Pixels, gave his reasons for leaving:
I could either stay in console-land, picking up my salary, and continue to enjoy it… or I can just make that jump and do something I could really grab hold of and make a success out of. For me it was about seizing the opportunity
Small developers such as Flippin Pixels are more adaptable to changes in the industry. New innovations can be brought in and new trends can be captured much more effectively than they ever could be by the console market. Experimentation is also something that can be done in this area, according to the five members of Flippin Pixel.
Steven Hurst, art director at the studio had this to say about what he was so used to after working at Rare for over a decade:
In the console market you just cannot take risks nowadays. If you’re making a AAA title there’s so much invested in it. So much manpower – everything. You have to give the people what they want.
Now he’s creating games on a much smaller scale, but with an increased amount of creative freedom.
Based on the way the market is changing, it’s likely that the most creative games will be found either in virtual stores - such as the Nintendo eShop, PSN and Xbox Live Arcade - or on smaller platforms such as mobiles and tablets. There is just too much at stake for big-budget console developers to experiment in the ways we're seeing in these other areas.