When summer winds down and a chill starts to nip the air, a beast awakens from hibernation: the triple-A game retail market. Game merchants count on big-name blockbusters to help them make a profit over the holiday season, and game developers and publishers throw everything they have into making sure their project will breed cash. After all, if a large studio spends two years paying a hundreds of men and women to make a game that will have one brief moment to shine on the shelf, said studio risks toppling into bankruptcy if that game flops
And that, according to Ninja Theory’s Tameem Antoniades, is why the triple-A retail market is killing innovation.
“We’re in this kind of AAA bracket, I guess you could call it,” said Antoniades, who is currently working on Capcom’s next Devil May Cry title. “The high budget, high stakes retail model – the barriers to entry for that are so high, so difficult, that we seem to be getting, being offered, decent work in that area. It’s hard to say no when you’ve got a team of 100 and you have to keep the payroll going. Another big project comes along, you tend to go for it.”
It’s not hard to discern why the developers behind triple-A projects want to “play it safe.” Plus, to be fair, customers likewise want to play it safe with full-priced games. A new Halo game means Microsoft already has a template it can follow, and fans of the franchise already understand what to expect, and thus are happy enough to pay $60. As long as studios can sustain themselves, and as long as the consumers are satisfied, there’s no harm in feeding lots of big budget sequels into the retail market.
That is to say, there’s no short term harm, but there’s the potential for enormous long term damage. There are already a lot of legitimate complaints about Activision’s Call of Duty games being kind of “same-y,” and the Guitar Hero franchise, which once seemed invincible, died an ignoble death at retail when people finally got tired of paying full price over and over again for the same game.
But creativity is not dead in the industry, and it’s important that people are reminded of that. As Antoniades points out, many programmers in the employ of bigger game companies take the opportunity to realize their own ideas by programming smartphone games. It’s possible that the new concepts that are introduced through these games will mature over the next few years, and eventually evolve into full ideas that are sellable through retail.
Of course, there are two problems with this point of view: by that point, competition from the digital marketplace will be fiercer than ever, and it might be more difficult to sell any kind of game at retail. Also, in the time it takes to prove that a new game concept can prove itself on an iOS device, that particular premise might be already worn out (let’s say “well tested”) by the time it becomes a retail title. Then the physical media market will continue to stagnate for want of something other than a “sure’ sequel.
What happens to the game retail market will happen, though it’s in decent shape for now. In the meantime, don’t fear for the supposed lack of innovation in game ides: game developers are hard at work in their secret underground labs, murmuring and rubbing their hands together.