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Modern Gaming Business - Big Budgets, Commercial Releases Only

Monday, 19 March 2012

Anyone who started playing for example PC games before New Millenium, or even since 80's, has most likely noticed that variety of the games in terms of gametypes and personal ideas have gone way downhill even the whole past decade. Game mechanics has been simplified, while graphics and cinematic cut-scenes have been cranked to the maximum. Sounds familiar? I know that partly, just partly, we can blame it on multi-platform releases that concerns these days perhaps even majority of average to bigger game releases. But multi-platform issue is just one piece of the big picture. Let's look bit deeper.I did read some articles about game budgets getting out of hand, and realized just another problem, which keeps publishers ditching games that aren't commercial enough. If you're interested about what are some of the most expensive game development budgets ever, skip to the end of the post.
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It's well known that while PC games have more open choices to develop more complex interface for game, because keyboard has so many buttons for hotkeys and shortcut combinations, that Xbox or Ps3 controller doesn't come even close. Even more when we add mouse to on top of that - thus allowing more complex games in general. If we have to develop the game game for consoles also, it's natural that either the original interface suffers in console version, if the game's ported from PC, or we cannot make so complex interface to begin with if we create it for consoles, and then port it to PC.

That's part of the reason, especially for the fact that there's not many strategy games for consoles. But hey, why won't anyone even try? I'm sure it's not totally impossible for example to create some sort of a strategy for consoles, either that or at least stat heavy and authentic, challenging RPG that doesn't guide you by hand through the whole game? I just don't get it. Let's be just a little bit sarcastic - any game that is funded by medium to big publisher has to be either:
  • 1) Racing
  • 2) Sports
  • 3) First Person Game of some sort, or at least Third Person 3D
  • 4) And it has to be multi-platform release
  • 5) Or MMORPG
  • 6) Dialogue choices don't have to affect the gameplay, as long as the game has cinematic cut-scenery to cover up story
  • 7) Top-down view or 2D is out of the question - unless the game franchise is hugely known such as Diablo or Civilization sequels.
  • 8) Talking about sequels - the majority of games have to be sequels or they are not funded! Part II, III, IV, V...
  • 9) And it also has to have space for expensive, but small DLC's. So developer, please leave something out of the full release that people want, so we can sell that content extra price for 1st day DLC pack!

What I've read is that developing costs of games have raised hugely since 90's. Well it's no big surprise if any game has to have technically top notch 3D technology, movie like cut-scenery (waste of time if the emphasis of the game is at this), and have voice acting team etc. with huge salary, and be multi-platform release also! More technical graphics engines and such needs bigger teams to work around it. According to studies the average cost of modern console multi-platform games would be around $18 to $24 million dollars in development department! Not to mention marketing costs that can be double or triple of that about development. Sure you don't want to make a game for small PC hardcore audience of specific genre only for that price. That raises another question, are the insane game budgets one reason killing innovation?

How about cutting the costs a bit? What about giving non-commercial releases for specific audience a chance with smaller budget, since classic style games don't need so much money for development anyway. Making a PC strategy game would surely cost much less and be fresh breath to gaming community these days. How about just recently 100% fan funded Wasteland 2 by InXile Entertainment? They said that this party based cRPG will be done when the budget reaches over $900 000, which proves that classic style game doesn't need even close to multi-platform first person shooter's budget of $20 million dollars.

Several indie developers go even way below that of Wasteland 2 budget (which is sort of a crossing between high priced multi-platform release with modern niceties - and low-budget indie release), though technically their quality might not be up the par, or at least forces them to focus on cheap or freely usable development tools, and cutting off some other stuff from for example on sound department. Just look at the Skyrim, rumored to be around $100 million dollars (estimated). Of course we'vent seen Wasteland 2 yet, but the team making it contains quite big names like Brian Fargo, Michael A. Stackpole etc.

At some point big game companies, or publishers more so, just decided that first person or third person 3D is the only way to go. No more top down 2D. Why? Advantages of 2D would probably be much less developing costs, more artistic style of graphics, and more tactical view to the game at least to say. I think that 2D top down has it's advantages over first person 3D, depending of the case. Publishers just decided at some point that - "we're not funding 2D anymore, no matter how totally awesome the game looks on the paper". That's kinda sad.

I am personally totally bored for every game franchise coming out as first person shooter or something alike. Just look how new X-Com and Syndicate, well known classic strategy game franchises, are turned into first person shooters. What was the last time we saw top-down party based cRPG made that wasn't indie release? Perhaps Troika's Temple of Elemental Evil, which was released what, around 2003? While Dragon Age Origins was decently fun game nodding towards old-school at least with it's ruleset, it's different dialogue choices leading into same conclusion most often disappointed me, and I'd take Baldur's Gate's beautiful and artistic 2D graphics over lifeless and hollow 3D art of Dragon Age Origins any day now.

Not every modern game release is bad though. Once in a while we still get games that stand out of the repetitive masses. Deus Ex Human Revolution was decently fine action-adventure, Elder Scrolls Skyrim was entertaining "modern RPG", Dragon Age Origins while having it setbacks was one of the better RPG's coming out last decade, and then we have exceptions such as Crusader Kings II from Paradox Interactive with it's quite complex menu systems and strategy system - whereas you control a dynasty at times of the crusades. That game was an exception using a top-down map view only at presenting the game world. And then we have failures whereas company probably had good intentions, like with Jagged Alliance: Back In Action, but failed despite trying to stick into the roots more than above mentioned X-Com and Syndicate (2012).

I loved the era where we had both 2D and 3D games, both focusing on their strengths. Looking Glass made Thief games with an exceptional atmosphere when sneaking around, New World Computing made first person party based Might & Magic games and top-down strategy games of Heroes of Might & Magic franchise, Black Isle Studios made Fallouts, even Bioware succeeded with Baldur's Gate franchise. Not to mention tons of more varying types of games. One might also remember game houses such as Bullfrog and Troika. Publishers, please bring less commercial game genres back! We want games that require some thinking, and games which we play ourselves, instead of watching cut-scenes like in movies! Or do we?

One thing I'm hopeful about is the new way of crowdfunding games of that sort, which publishers didn't want to fund - seeing that they wouldn't be commercial enough to fill their gigantic $20 million development budget with sales. As said, not every type of game needs budget even close that big. Maybe Wasteland 2 will bring classic party based cRPG back, and show the way for companies with authentic ideas for games, to get development on and rolling. Right about now I'm looking forward for Diablo 3, Age of Decadence, Elemental Fallen Enchantress which seems to be combining Heroes Of Might And Magic with Civilization and Warlords, and of course, Wasteland 2 - and that's pretty much it. Perhaps the new GTA and Assassin's Creed will also be entertaining for a while.

(Elemental Fallen Enchantress (out soon), Crusader Kings II (just released))

Speaking of which, here are development budgets (estimates) of some games that did cost a lot. They most likely exclude "marketing costs" which may be much more than development itself. For example Halo 3 marketing costs is believed to be around $200 million dollars, while the development cost is around €55 million. Judge yourself which ones were quality enough to be justified to have budget this huge:

  • ~$200 million - Star Wars: The Old Republic MMORPG
  • $100 m - Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
  • $100 m - Grand Theft Auto IV
  • $100+ m - StarCraft II
  • $80 m - Gran Turismo 5
  • $70 m - Shenmue
  • $60-80 m - Too Human
  • $60 m - Metal Gear Solid 4
  • $55 m - Halo 3
  • $50 m - APB MMO(still in development)
  • $50 m - LA Noire
  • $48 m - Final Fantasy XII
  • $40-60 m - Killzone 2
  • $52 m - Call of Duty: Black Ops
  • $50 m - Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2
  • $40 m - Final Fantasy IX
  • $35 m - Spider Man 3
  • $30 m - Stranglehold
  • $24 m - Assassin's Creed 2
  • $24 m - Brutal Legend
  • $22 m - Crysis
  • $20 m - Assassin's Creed
  • $20 m - Lost Planet
  • $20 m - Crackdown
  • $15-20 m - Ghostbusters
  • $12 m - Psychonauts

In Comparison with:
  • $12 million - Wing Commander IV
  • $4 m - Wing Commander III
  • $3 m - Fallout 1
  • $3 m - Grim Fandango
  • $1,5-2 m (looks like it will be around that amount at the end) - Wasteland 2 - Crowdfunded with minimum of $0,9 million to be reached for the game to start development

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