Bringing the wow factor back to triple-A

Look to the movies, and the blockbuster is dying. Check out sport, and football’s showcase Premier League isn’t what it used to be. Think about triple-A gaming, and the lustre seems to have faded somewhat. We’re living in a period of flux; people are being drawn into the bombastic and big of budget less and less. So in an industry supported in the most part by these hugely successful, hugely expensive games, what does it mean for the future?


Last year’s biggest releases had none of the pomp and ceremony around them that we’ve become accustomed to over the last five or so years. The hype was present, no doubt, but when the likes of Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, Assassin’s Creed: Unity and Destiny were actually released, the reaction was a bit of a damp squib. The same can be said for those titles we’re being told to have enthusiasm for the likes of Uncharted 4 and Halo 5 are getting more of a half-interested shrug from some in the gaming community, rather than fevered breathlessness as the next shiniest triple-A title is revealed.
  • What is this generation about? The enthusiasm for triple-A titles as they are appears on the wane will indies rise to fill a gap left by the death of mid-range publishers?
But the enthusiasm hasn’t dulled it’s moved elsewhere. No Man’s Sky has half of social media going into meltdown every time more footage is released, while the relatively low budget Bloodborne has countless gamers salivating with the mere mention of it. Below prompts more in-depth chattering than the latest Battlefield game does. We still want our games, but we seem to be bored of those we’re being told to like those we’re expected to buy. So what does this mean for gaming? What can the triple-A market do to fix it, if it indeed can be fixed? Just what is this generation even about? It certainly isn’t the high-definition thing anymore.

Ninja Theory’s Dominic Matthews puts part of the issue down to standardised somewhat archaic pricing structures for big-name releases, with each coming in at a recommended retail price of £55. “They cannot compete on price because of the fixed retail cost,” he said, “This fixed price has meant that titles have to compete on their feature lists and as a result triple-A games have got bigger and bigger. This need for bigger games has resulted in ever-increasing development costs and in turn ludicrously high sales forecasts needed to justify the cost of development. It is a vicious cycle that has resulted in only a handful of genres being able to survive in the triple-A space.”

It’s not the only problem this part of the industry faces, but cost is an issue the backlash after The Order: 1886’s playing time was revealed (whether accurate or not) shows there is a vocal audience out there looking for value for money. admittedly that’s something very much in the eye of the beholder, but it can’t be argued that gaming as a pastime is an expensive one. People want to think they’re getting enough bang for their buck and if that bang was X last year, they expect it to be X+1 next year. Otherwise it ‘isn’t worth it’.
  • This need for bigger games has resulted in ever-increasing development costs and in turn ludicrously high sales forecasts
It’s not the death cry of the main breadwinner for the industry, of course, and there will be studios and publishers thriving with triple-A products even in these changing times. Matthews explained: “It’s still viable, but only for the few game genres that can appeal to a mass-audience. We now find ourselves in a situation where triple-A games have to sell in excess of five million units in order to make their development cost back and there really aren’t many games that can do that. “Although gamers do get to play incredibly well presented blockbuster triple-A games, I do think it is a great shame that a lot of genres haven’t been able to survive under the market pressure,” Matthews comments. “There are a lot of players that want highly creative games, but many of these have been squeezed out by the current triple-A model.”

But not everyone thinks like this and we don’t just mean the Activisions, EAs and Ubisofts of the world, as Dan Teasdale, of indie developer No Goblin, pointed out: “I think triple-A is even more viable for this generation compared to last gen! This is the first generation that triple-A studios haven’t had to throw out their entire workflow and pipeline in order to ship on a new console.” Taking into consideration the cost of making games, rather than people on the other side buying them, is an interesting point to consider, as Teasdale explained how costs have been shrinking in all manner of ways. “Robust tech, universal lighting models that don’t require tons of custom shaders, bigger cuts of revenue from digital sales, near instant iteration all of this makes it easier to ship a successful game this generation compared to last generation,” he said.

But Teasdale did offer one particular criticism of the big-game model and like Matthews’ critique, it relates to rather old fashioned practices from the industry’s biggest names: “In a world where a developer can turn around a fix for a game on Steam almost instantly,” he explains, “it seems backwards to put them through a week-plus certification and release process for an identical fix on a console.”

There’s another element to consider the ever-growing influence of the indie market, with publishers getting involved with creators directly to release their games, and an audience ever-growing, getting into gaming like never before and in more ways than they’ve been able to before. With the death of mid-level publishers like THQ and the decent-budget titles it brought out, are we starting to see the indies fill that gap? Matthews told us his thoughts: “I believe that we are approaching a new dawn where studios can make triple-A quality games for smaller audiences under an independent model. Hellblade is being developed under a new model that we’re calling independent triple-A. It’s an experiment to see if we can deliver triple-A quality but under the restrictions of an independent budget.”
  • It’s a pretty great sign that full time independent development is now in a ‘stable’ environment rather than a ‘boom’ environment
This experimentation and learning is something Teasdale also spoke about, pointing out that the growth of independent channels and audiences has led to small studios having to figure out elements like marketing spend, platform fit and positioning: “It’s no longer ‘good enough’ to just ship a great independent game if you need that money to live,” he says.

“The once distinct line between developers and publishers is becoming increasingly blurred,” agrees Matthews. “With the platforms holders working hard to help independent studios to self-publish their games, many studios have to very quickly learn to become publishers. Small teams, like our Hellblade team of 12 people, now have to worry about PR, marketing, merchandising and distribution, all areas that were once handled by teams of people at publishers,” he said, “It is daunting but incredibly exciting.”

So what about this brave new world we live in? The triple-A model won’t die, but will serve an ‘engaged core’, to use some marketing-speak. Will indies continue to fill the gap left in the middle, becoming the new ‘single-A’? Matthews said yes: “Independent development will continue to do well by serving niche audiences. For many developers it is not about making millions. It is about making games that they want to make and that their fans want to play. I can only see this dream becoming a reality for more developers in the independent, digitally distributed game space.”

Teasdale was also positive about the prospects for the smaller studios out there: “I think it’s a pretty great sign that full-time indie development is now in a ‘stable’ environment rather than a ‘boom’ environment. You can’t just do a cheap cash-in and make a chunk of money; you have to spend time thinking about how to distinguish and position your games to be interesting to the people who play on each platform.”

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