- The Insomniac leak brings to light an impending problem with AAA development.
- The AAA space is getting increasingly bloated and expensive, with increased risk at every project.
- The gaming industry needs to take a step back and consider if it’s better to scale down development.
For those who play video games, 2023 has been fantastic. Incredible year that — in the future — might be remembered in the same breadth as 1998, 2007, and 2017, which I would argue are among the golden periods of gaming. Having even a single favorite in 2023 will be a challenge akin to facing a titanic monstrosity in a FromSoftware game.
Yet, I believe this year also foreshadows a darker time for the industry. Not just for game development, but for games themselves. You can’t have a year with such a huge loss in collective talent without some consequences too, consequences which probably won’t surface now, but absolutely will in the coming years.
The Insomniac leak sucks. Leaks are always awful, for both the players and the developers. It sucked when it happened to Capcom, it sucked when it happened to Nvidia, and it sucks now with Insomniac. This recent leak however is slightly different, in that it also highlights a rapidly building problem in the AAA industry. It foreshadows an industry that might be at the cusp of spiraling into an impressive downfall.
More so, it teases the implication that it is getting increasingly hard to sustain AAA development. As the scale and scope of technology advances so does the cost of making a game, and with that also increases the risk of doing so. Let’s just say I wholly understand why Insomniac’s next few games are all Marvel adaptations, but that doesn’t make me any less sad.
My favorite game on the PlayStation 5 is Ratchet and Clank: Rift Apart. It’s one of the very few games I have platinumed, and it’s the only game that made me want to play it past the Platinum. If I had the option I would do it again in a heartbeat. That just makes it all the more upsetting that Rift Apart was a commercial disappointment and the fact that the next Ratchet and Clank game is supposedly at the end of this decade.
Well That Just Happened
Forspoken was a pretty decent game and I do not believe it deserved nearly as much mockery as it got. All things considered, it was a fun romp with outdated (not bad) writing. It had a very fun combat system, a better traversal system than many other open-world games, and some truly gorgeous visuals. It was a good time, a solid 7/10 game that got treated like a 4/10 one.
I have to add that a major part of this was also because Forspoken was priced at $70, and many felt like it just wasn’t worth the price tag either in quality or length. But there’s another larger, uglier problem underneath the surface that’s more concerning. One that is more indicative of just how absurd AAA development has gotten over the years.
Considering that the average AAA dev time is 5 years, Forspoken started development during the peak of the MCU hype. Avengers Infinity War had just come out in 2018 and it was a massive success. It was a time when the infamous “Whedon dialogue” was actually part of the charm of these movies. By the time the game was revealed, however, the internet was collectively sick of this style of writing.
Fast forward to January 2023, Forspoken came out, got ruthlessly butchered for its writing, and was immediately shelved in some dusty old corner of the collective’s fickle consciousness. Typically, say, back during the olden days of the late 2000s or early 2010s, this wouldn’t be that much of a problem, but with game development taking as long as it does and being as expensive as it is, there are drastic consequences.
It is easy to justify commercial and critical failure when you’re making a game on a shoestring budget, it is another story entirely when the budget exceeds $100 million and fails miserably.
Not So Immortal
Immortals of Aveum dropped earlier this year, published by Electronic Arts and developed by Ascendant Studios, the game fared a lot better than Forspoken. Critically, it did fairly well, with many reviews praising its visuals, combat, and above-average story.
But thanks to a lack of marketing from EA and a poorly optimized PC port, Immortals of Aveum came and went away maybe even faster than Forspoken did. Currently, Immortals of Aveum is sitting on a measly 904 reviews on Steam and a “mostly positive” ranking. The developers, Ascendant Studios, have also been shut down following the game’s underwhelming reception.
When Nintendo had an underperforming year following the lukewarm launch of the Wii U, Nintendo’s then CEO, the late Satoru Iwata took a pay cut in order to pay the employees. Just this year, in a time steeped with layoffs, Nintendo gave all of their employees a pay raise. Meanwhile, renowned parasite and the CEO of Activision, Bobby Kotick granted himself a $200 million bonus amidst layoffs.
The Bottom Line
AAA development is quickly spiraling out of control. The average AAA development cycle lasts half a decade now, with budgets frequently in the 100s of millions, and that is terrible for video games as an art form. Art thrives when it’s breaking norms, but unless you’re Hideo Kojima, you are not going to find the funding to create something unique and truly risky.
There is a reason why Alan Wake 2 is my definitive game of the year. It is one of the very few games in over a decade that try to push the medium forward, to show what can be done when a game is made with a proper vision. Even then, Alan Wake 2 took 13 years to make because no one was willing to publish it! Publishers do not care about games as an art form and they never have.
With Sony rumored to be pushing for $80-$100 games to net a profit, and studios getting rapidly shut down after a single failed project, I think it is time to take a step back and consider if all of this is really worth it. Is it really worth getting these expensive AAA blockbusters if none of them can ever truly innovate or refine the medium?
This does not imply that it is objectively wrong for a game to not push boundaries. I’m just saying that all the best games, the ones that become classics, the Death Strandings, the NieRs, and the Alan Wakes, they all do. Maybe what the industry needs right now is to slow down and acknowledge the unrealistic bar that is rising with every year and maybe work towards bringing that bar back down to where it belongs.
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