Are Triple-A titles still viable for the gaming industry?

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Everyone is familiar new triple-A blockbuster games. But how many people actually know the effort that goes into them? Games such as Tomb Raider, Mass Effect 3, Hitman: Absolution, Bioshock Infinite all require enormous time and effort before they are put on shelves. But more importantly, they require money. Lots of it.

Because of the massive sum of money invested in these triple-A titles, the expected sales of these games naturally becomes inflated as well. Even if game developers managed to turn a profit, they only barely make it through. Take EA for example, Mass Effect had to sell 3.5 million copies for EA to turn a profit on their estimated $40 million investment. Or Ubisoft, who only managed a 3% profit margin. Even THQ,  being unable to meet sales expectations and largely because of the uDraw was forced to shut down it’s operations.  It is an unsettling trend that is costing many developers their jobs simply because games are becoming too expensive to make. New IPs would crumble under these ridiculous sales expectations while sequels which managed to turn a profit only managed it by the hair of the chin. 

Take Tomb Raider for instance. Developed by Crystal Dynamics, Tomb Raider put players in control of Lara Croft once again in an epic origin story, depicting the tale of how she made her bones. It was an all-round great game which I thoroughly enjoyed. It received a fairly high score as well, averaging an 8 across most game review sites. It even went on to sell 3.4 million copies worldwide. If you average the cost to purchase Tomb Raider at $60, Tomb Raider would have raked in $204 million. But it is not enough, it is not enough to cover the cost of making the game. According to Square-Enix, Tomb Raider has to sell at least 5 million copies for them to make any profit. That is a preposterous figure for a new IP, no two ways about it. 

Over the past few years, gamers’ expectations of developers have steadily been increasing. Ever since the introduction of HD graphics, developers needed a new edge for their product to rise above the rest. And the solution is a double edged sword in the form of voice actors. Gone are the days of hiring generic voice actors to do half-assed voice overs, games now have Jennifer Hale voicing female protagonist as a standard package. Or Beyond Two Souls whose use of motion capture technology and Ellen Page as the lead female protagonist all incur heavy costs even before the game is developed. Even Sleeping Dogs had Lucy Liu, James Hong, Tom Wilkinson and even Emma Stone. But for all their efforts in securing such stellar cast for voice overs, gamers don’t care about the voice overs because it is expected to be there. 

It also does not help that the amount of triple-A titles have been increasing. Too many games and too little money. Gamers are too spoiled for choice and as such, certain games are going to fly under their radar and tank as a result. This mess of triple-A titles is actually hurting the industry more than it is helping. As a direct result of these game failures, people lose their jobs, companies close down and the industry lose these talented individuals. Developers will then naturally want to play it safe for fear of losing their jobs and that is why we see iterations of the same game year after year after year. Developers can’t depend on new IPs to sell so they stick to old reliable like Assassin’s Creed, Call of Duty and Battlefield to ride out the year with. Which is also why we tend to see these games being released at the end of the year, to capitalize on the seasonal holiday spending to maximize profits. 

It is also because of this vicious cycle where we see a significant increase of developers opting for crowd funding. While crowd funding isn’t a bad thing, without the proper backing of large publishers, these games will also more often than not fly under the industry radar. Let’s be honest, before the arrival of Kickstarter, if you were an indie game developer and your game isn’t on Steam, you are dead in the water. 

So what does these all mean? It could mean that with the next generation upon us, we might see lesser triple-A titles being released and the focus turned on indie games. This is actually something that the current console cycle saw in the past few years. We could also see more game companies close down as well. Square Enix recently reported a lost of $143 million and had it’s president, Yoichi Wada, step down. It is also a real possibility that the overall quality of games drop because of these indie games. While I’m not hating on indie games in particular, it is just that these indie developers do not have access to certain game engines to compete on a larger scale. You could still have runaway titles like thatgamecompany‘s Journey but you will have to play through a lot of other less than stellar games to find another game like it. We will likely see longer console generations as no one will be willing to invest in new hardware only for it to tank like the Virtual Boy.

We could also see an industry crash like back in 1983. Although unlikely, all it takes is for a titan developer to put all their eggs into a basket of one IP only to have it tank. But because there’s a sudden massive number of developers looking for jobs, in their desperation, we might get some rather interesting games. While I’m not advocating for a crash in the industry, it could be quite interesting to see what developers can come up with under those circumstances.

Another more harrowing but more likely possibility is the general shift of gaming to mobile devices. We could see more games being developed for Android and Apple devices as these said devices get more powerful. But this would mean that lesser games would be made for bigger consoles and in turn, sales of these consoles decline and we find ourselves in yet another vicious downward spiral. 

Developers will have to draw the line with what they are going to include in their games. These might mean lousy voice acting or even poorer graphics but the industry needs to be taught to be more accepting of such compromises. We must be willing to play a game for the narrative and gameplay and not for the bells and whistles that packages the game. 

But ultimately, no one knows for sure what will happen. The best and worst thing about the gaming industry is that anything can happen. We might even live to see Half-Life 3. But one thing is for certain, larger game companies like EA, Ubisoft and Activision will continue to push the same iteration of games on gamers and closing down development houses which do not perform. But until then, do not be taken aback if things get worse before they get any better.