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Changing the Model: Keeping AAA Afloat

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There has recently been talk of the evolving landscape of video games and the future of the triple-A model. With indie studios like thatgamecompany pushing our concepts of games and price points while OUYA is raking in cash hand-over-fist on Kickstarter, you can almost smell the urine dripping down the legs of EA big wigs fearing for their franchises.

So what's all the commotion about? Cost. Big publishers, from a business standpoint, are having trouble making the ends justify the means in the face of low-cost iPhone games and the freemium model, or that's the prevailing belief. How can these companies keep the triple-A market afloat?

First, eliminate the notion that we, as gamers, will only buy blockbusters. It's a blatantly wrong misconception. Angry Birds has made all kinds of money, and while this isn't something that's going to grab the attention of the core market, other small titles have. Small studios like thatgamecompany are setting a new precedent for what will sell and what won't. Titles like Journey, Fez and Super Meat Boy received critical acclaim and have managed to profit due to small production costs without anyone writing them off as unappealing to the mass market. I'm shooting myself in the foot here as an aspiring programmer looking to get his foot in the door, since these smaller studios require more experienced talent, but it's a shot I'm willing to take if it means jump-starting the risky and boundary-pushing titles that the small budgets of small studios allow publishers to make. Niche genres have suffered as of late with watered-down, mass-appealing versions of their former selves, and smaller investments may push a resurgence of the creativity that resulted in such games. While these will never replace the Grand Theft Autos and Elder Scrolls, paired with other changes to the business model of big publishers, it can be an effective tool for turning a profit. Sony has already taken to utilizing "incubator studios" that they help fund – small studios pushing out these innovative games.

This leads directly into longer development cycles for the big titles – Dead Space, Resident Evil and the like. While those two certainly aren't the worst offenders, the point remains. My backlog is huge, and though I'm certainly excited about every title there, I would certainly be able to wait for some while I get through others. Gamers – how many boxes have we overlooked while too busy with the latest installment of Assassin's Creed? Longer development cycles could bump sales of the titles that are releasing. Then we can stop listening to EA moan about the sales of Dead Space required to constitute a sequel, regardless of its quality, and quit wringing our hands hoping they don't ruin the franchise by turning it into Lost Planet to push said sales. Starting from scratch is expensive for studios, and perhaps a more polished game with a longer development cycle supplemented by the indie-style ventures would be more cost-effective.

Of course, not everyone is going to jump on these indie-style games. There will always be those that laugh in the face of "art" or similar gobbledygook. What of them? While I'm not particularly concerned that they will abandon their games (look at Team Fortress 2, which has had a massive following since the release of The Orange Box), it doesn't make a lot of sense to let the record sales of a new Call of Duty fall by the wayside every other year to make way for assuredly smaller profits from those downloadable goodies. How to keep players paying? I'm about to cross over to the dark side – DLC has its place. Indeed, it has many advantages both from the business and consumer standpoint. Call of Duty faithful have proven they'll pick up the same game at full price year after year without blinking, but they'll also drop the same amount of money on a few map packs with similar indifference. I imagine profit margins are higher on these map packs, so keep them coming to further supplement a longer development cycle. Gamers won't complain if they're waiting on a truly new Call of Duty experience and their friends keep playing the current one.

The same can be said for other games. Shave off cheap, cash-cow antics like Nightwing and Robin challenge maps, as these make it all-too obvious that pockets are simply being padded. I urge companies to look more to extensions of the game à la Harley Quinn's Revenge. Give me a reason to pick up Mass Effect 3, Saints Row the Third, even a Fallout game and I'll get on it. Nobody ever likes the main Fallout quests anyway. A new add-on pack would be not only warmly received by many, but would be much cheaper to produce than a full title. Rarely do we see great games properly and lovingly coddled. Red Dead Redemption got lots of love over a massive period of time, including multiplayer expansions and Undead Nightmare, which also stood alone as a full game. Saints Row the Third has received similar attention with more DLC still on the way halfway through the next year.

This is without mentioning the shift to downloadable triple-A titles. As the digital model gains ground, we'll naturally see a fall in production and dwindling associated costs like brick-and-mortar upkeep and materials. Will we eventually see it disappear? We collectors hope not, but time will tell. It certainly wouldn't hurt the feelings of any publishers, as EA is already shopping around the Origin store to PC gamers like no one's business. Steam is strong evidence for the cost-cutting possibilities of digital distribution – gamers are currently mourning their wallets as the Steam Summer Sale draws to a close.

So as a gamer, I offer this friendly advice to publishers as a sort of compromise. Will they ever be able to retain the massive profits they're used to? Perhaps not, not without taxing the consumer with higher game costs. A recent article on Gamasutra cites estimates that to keep up the current model, costs for game companies in the next generation will jump 25%. Putting all that weight on the consumer translates to $75 games, and with the freemium model making waves, it'll never fly. Cost-cutting alternatives that, in reality, are good for everyone, are the only solution.

 

http://musingsongaming.wordpress.com/2012/08/01/changing-the-model/


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