Originally published at: Resident Evil 4 remake gets microtransactions | Boing Boing
Originally published at: Resident Evil 4 remake gets microtransactions | Boing Boing
It’s been interesting watching AAA scramble for a way to save their business model with Freemium elements. F2P (Free to Play) games on mobile are money printing factories and are the only sustainable model in that sphere. The AAA model is dying because production costs and time rise exponentially with each hardware generation, while unit sale prices remain flat and the audience is shrinking.
The AAA business model is currently “Please pay $80 for a fifth sequel to this toxic masculinity power fantasy on a new console because it has 10% better specular highlights on eyeballs”. This is not sustainable, as the small pool of self-appointed “hardcore” gamers willing to do this is shrinking. That same pool is violently opposed to micro transactions, being the sure marker of a loss of purity in their games. Mobile gamers are not “real” gamers to them so they see micro transactions as a scarlet letter of that audience.
Like many such biases, there is sometimes a kernel of truth buried deep in them. Rent-seeking game designs are by and large pretty awful. When the game designer has to work in micro transactions, the game design inevitably becomes pay-to-win to varying degrees. It’s unavoidable. However AAA companies are stuck- they have to try it because their business model is failing. They can’t keep paying 300 developers for five years to make a game that only breaks even if it’s a huge hit.
Source: I spent 20 years in AAA and 10 years in mobile. The contrasts were very interesting in so many ways.
And in real-money terms has actually declined quite a bit. We had $60+ games 30+ years ago - prices haven’t kept up with inflation at all. (Granted, a lot more of the retail price back then was taken up with cartridge manufacturing costs, but from the consumer perspective things haven’t changed.) Worse, the game industry pricing roughly parallels book publishing, where if you want access immediately, you pay the premium price (in publishing, the hardcover price), but in gaming it’s… a price that hasn’t kept up with inflation, and which then declines over time. So most players aren’t even paying the sixty dollars for the game.
The things that might make AAA gaming even somewhat more sustainable - higher prices and games that don’t feel obliged to provide 60+ hours of “content” - are also exactly the things that generate howls of protest from those “hardcore gamers.” The game-as-service model is appealing, but good luck trying to get people to also pay monthly fees. (Like the microtransactions, they only work if the game is a hit, which just increases the disparity between successful and unsuccessful games.) I was working in online games at the time everyone in the industry was desperate for that WoW subscriber money, but about the time it was starting to dawn on it that all the WoW players weren’t going to defect for their new, “better” MMOs, and studios (and their games) started dropping like flies.
It’s been… interesting to see the industry change from a time where one pretty modest hit could fund a number of completely unsuccessful games, to a point where a AAA game has to be monstrously successful just to break even. I put a lot of hope for the future of AAA game development on better tools making development cheaper, and the tools for making AAA-level games have, and are still, improving - by orders of magnitude - but so have the expectations, so I don’t expect they’ll do much to make things more sustainable going forward.
Absolutely! Agree with all of this.
The other big problem with flat pricing that we ran into in AAA is the emphasis on open world games. The problem with them from a production standpoint is that you spend millions of dollars on content that 90% of users will never see. All the side quests, multiple endings, hidden areas, collection mechanics, etc that gamers claim to love mean an artist has to spend hours placing rocks in every dark corner and a scripter has to go around coding chests with gems in them under every staircase or whatever. All to create content that only a handful of serious completionists will see. 90% of gamers play through the main plot once in whatever way they stumble onto first, then never play the game again. That’s a pile of wasted resources to build content they never saw, all for a flat $80.
I don’t think most gamers (or any non-gamers) appreciate how big a problem this is. It’s like you have to make a thirty hour movie, but then each audience member comes in for one random hour of that movie and then leaves. But if you don’t make a mediocre thirty hour movie instead a single two hour movie that is good (and everyone watches), the fans get mad and refuse to buy tickets.
Yeah, games have tried to pad out their hours of gameplay with grind and filler, but the move to open world means necessarily building more resource-intensive content. Rule number one of game design is “don’t spend resources on content that most people won’t see,” and yet… AAA games are in this insane place where some tiny percentage of gamers will complain vociferously about a lack of content that the vast majority of players will never see, but those complaints (apparently) impact sales enough that they have to be placated.
And it’s even worse than that, as the completion rates for games are generally really, really bad - most players aren’t even making it through the two hour version, so to speak. Weirdly, it’s just accepted - if you said about a novel, “most people don’t manage to get to the end,” that would be seen as a terrible indictment of its quality.
I’ve argued games are too long for many, many years (not that this helps with the new open world problem of AAA games…), and it feels like more people are starting to agree (as the demographics of game-players increasingly shift to those who, well, have lives outside games). There was more than a bit of horror in the response to Dying Light announcing the game was potentially 500 hours long - though it still was a big hit, so apparently that not only didn’t work against them, but was still a selling point. The core game is apparently 50 hours, and I suspect the completion rates aren’t great for that, either.
And I suppose that’s the fundamental problem - AAA fundamentally being about being “bigger” than everything else, a certain (increasingly small) number of the bigger AAA games being so wildly successful that they’re worth funding for publishers, but with a big chunk of that money being spent making game content almost no one will see, because the sales won’t be as good if you don’t. (I’m suddenly reminded of some conceptual art where people made works that were immediately locked away in vaults never to be seen…) The new tools in Unreal 5 are pretty amazing for procedurally generating open world landscape content, so that will be able to be done at a fraction of the previous cost, but that’s just going to push expectations of AAA game features in new directions of greater expenses.
I don’t know where it ends - I guess it’s just more of the same, but worse. The dynamics mean an ever-shifting definition of AAA, with those games becoming increasingly expensive and economically perilous, so fewer and fewer will be made, and almost all will be remakes and sequels.
Yah it’s a real catch-22 because the whole point of video game entertainment is player agency and choice. That necessarily means creating content that not all players will choose to see.
Yes, for sure. Since, I’d say, around the late 2000s, the die was cast. Companies necessarily became extremely risk averse. Small studio after small studio went under in those days because they had to bet the farm on every release. The ones that survived figured out the only way around this is to de-risk game designs. That means every game is now Call Of Black Ops Seven. Now with 15% more Nazis!
I think the answer is the same as it was in film- go small again. I gave up on AAA and pretty much only play indie stuff these days. So much innovation! New mechanics! New art styles! Short games! It’s great.
It’s possible to offload some of that to DLC (so sure, it’s an open world game, but it starts off pretty empty), but that’s predicated on getting the audience to go along with that… though at some point the audience might not have a choice, if they still want AAA games.
They’re still having wave after wave of studio and publisher closures and consolidation, and each time I think, “Oh, they couldn’t possibly get more risk adverse” and then they do. First it’s all sequels and remakes, then the threshold of success for the game needed to do a sequel goes up and up…
Though sadly the too-long game phenomenon pre-dates the existence of AAA games and infects the industry as a whole. It really doesn’t help that Steam and others have time-based return policies that have completely screwed over short games.
I’m trying to think if I’ve even played a AAA made in the last decade or so… (Control, I guess?) Smaller games are certainly more vital than ever, especially given the state of AAA development - except it feels like there’s creeping expectations creating problems there, too. A lot of indie games are equivalent to the bigger games of the '90s, but with only a fraction of the dev budget to work with. And while it’s impressive they can get it done with so little, it’s also something of a necessity because they can’t count on getting the same kind of revenue a similar game in the '90s could have made… it feels like they’re reiterating some of the history of AAA games as well.
Yah, this is an astute observation. I had noticed this trend also but hadn’t put it into words yet. When you’ve got games like Frostpunk that are huge endeavours but still considered “Indie” you know tides have changed. That would have been a Bullfrog game in 1995 or a Blizzard game in 2002, but now it’s Indie.
I suspect the way these indies are doing so much with so little is by being young people killing themselves for a dream, just like game dev was in the 90s. Now people in that industry kill themselves for somebody else’s corporate dream, but that’s a whole other conversation.
I see various Magic Carpet “spiritual sequels” and Diablo-scale ARPGs with single developers. Then there’s Fallout (made for $3 million in 1997), and Wasteland 2 (made for… $3 million in 2014), which had comparable scales/goals.
Yeah, that’s a constant, even with conditions starting to change in studios. (Now we have new wrinkles, such as “indie publishers” whose output is associated with the publisher rather than studios, so they can structure themselves, like book publishing, such that the actual developers don’t make a living at it, but they stay in business. It doesn’t matter to them if the devs produce one game then never make another. Someone else will replace them.)
A big change, however, is that the tools and resources are so much better. It’s so much easier to make, say, Diablo now. (Friends worked on that game, and it was an absurd pain in the ass, even at the time, but especially by modern standards.) The problem is, you can’t get away with just making Diablo, now. Gamers expect more, you can’t sell it for the same amount (it’s an “indie game” after all!), nor hope to get the same number of sales. A smaller team can make a more ambitious version of Diablo, though. Asset libraries have been a huge boon. Not having to make (and then remake, every game generation) all the background assets really helps. The kind of tools that come with Unreal are so much better (and the licensing agreements so much more better for developers, too).
Which, hilariously, is full circle too. This was the original business model in computer games. Companies like Sierra Online, Brøderbund, and Sirius in the 1980s were publishers who put out games written by lone wolves in their bedrooms. Until the rise of PC and Amiga gaming when development teams necessarily got bigger (basically when programmer art was no longer good enough) this was how it worked. A publisher was needed for marketing and distribution, but they didn’t want to carry the risk of development so they farmed that out.
Everything old is new again.
It’s funny, I had forgotten just how much games were purely associated with the publisher in those days.
It really is true. I’m constantly seeing old dynamics reiterate themselves in the new industry - it’s like the industry is divided into strata largely based on development budgets, with each section recreating a different decade - micro-indies the '80s, small teams the '90s, etc. I suppose the only real new thing is the potential for successful self-distribution of games for everyone…
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