Yesterday's EA conference bugged the hell out of me. Not because of the constant deluge of sports games, I'm used to that. That bit where they called both Madden and Fifa football in the span of like 20 minutes was pretty annoying, but I got over it. There was a good 5 minutes there where they were using Bruce Lee's digital corpse as a puppet to shill UFC games, but that didn't annoy me so much as make me deeply uncomfortable. No, the part that drove me insane was when they showed four games that looked to be in varying stages of pre-beta development. Criterion's new, currently untitled, action sorts game, DICE's Star Wars Battlefront 3, as well as their Mirror's Edge prequel/sequel/reboot and Bioware Montreal's Mass Effect 4. Every one of these games was prefaced with plenty of text telling us about how the footage we were seeing was nowhere near final, and, in the case of Battlefront, that this was merely a test of what the engine could potentially achieve. Meanwhile, the half second cuts of footage are surrounded by shots of the developers chatting up the game, trekking across forests and mountains, and having a pint at the local pub. Hell, Bioware announced a new game that didn't have a concept, just a fancy season changing system.
It's not that I feel like nothing would have been better than early conceptual footage, in fact, I really loved seeing some focus on the actual development teams behind these games, considering they so often get the shaft in favour of glitzy CG trailers at E3. But, we do have to talk about why EA deigned to show footage of games barely out of alpha. For the folks who don't watch E3 every year, you should know that this isn't really a common practice. Games announced at E3 are often for the upcoming holiday season or given a nebulous date within the next year. The only exceptions are next-gen games, or games delayed beyond that one year grace period (see: Watch Dogs). Basically, they have 3 months to a year of development time left, meaning they're fairly far along in the process. Games take a while to make at this point, and anything only a year out isn't likely to be cancelled. It'll be retooled at best, rushed out the door at worst. Generally speaking, if a game is art of a major publisher's E3 showing, a lot of money has already been sunk into the project, and most of the creative decisions surrounding it have been finalized. That game is for all intents and purposes ready to go.
So seeing not just one, but four whole games that aren't even close to being finalized is bananas. Not to mention the fact that three of them didn't feature any actual gameplay, and one barely had graphics. Meanwhile, at Sony's show, they announced next gen remasters of The Last of Us and Grand Theft Auto V, very popular games from 2013, which you may recognize as last goddamn year. Sony is also working on a port of Tim Schaefer's classic adventure game Grim Fandango, just as Microsoft is working on porting every single Halo game over to Xbox One so they can just sell those again. This all comes hot on the heels of dozens of holiday 2014-scheduled games being pushed back to 2015 and when you put it all together it really does make you wonder:
Are we finally ready to admit that budgets are out of control?
We've been talking up the fact that next-gen development costs have been ballooning for years. You see it in the disappearance of the "middle tier" game- the kind of stuff Raven Software used to produce that thrived on the PlayStation 2. Atlus's few console releases these days tend to fall in the camp, games like Persona that have a very specific niche, but a smaller budget to account for that. Games aren't made for a niche any more, at least not at E3. Almost every game we saw from a major publisher fit into one of a few pre-established molds Everyone showed off a first person shooter. Everyone showed off a third person fantasy action game. I'm pretty sure I saw the same car game four times. The same games appeared at multiple shows, and it wasn't even because I mixed up The Witcher and Dragon Age this time.
Not to mention the fact that plenty of the big 2015 games those publishers were showing were actually delayed 2014 games. The Witcher 3 Wild Hunt, Batman: Arkham Knight, The Order: 1886, and Tom Clancy's: The Division are just a few of the interesting looking games pushed out of 2014, presumably because next-gen development is way, way more expensive and time consuming than publishers wish it was. In fact, the most interesting game (that actually had gameplay footage) at Sony's show was No Man's Sky, a game made by four people. FOUR. PEOPLE. I obviously don't know what Hello Games' budget is on this project, but it probably isn't even a drop in the bucket compared to the kind of money Ubisoft sinks into Assassin's Creed 27.
Admittedly, there were a handful of AAA titles that looked genuinely cool. Bloodborne (nee Project Beast) looks fantastic, and my excitement about Scalebound proves that no amount of lame looking protagonists can cure me of my love for Platinum Games. I want to play Grim Fandango again. And if you put aside the beheadings, even that new Assassin's Creed game looks relatively interesting, even if I am as burned out on Assassin's Creed as a human being could possibly be at this point. But the fact of the matter is that there are less games every year at this point. EA had so few games to show for this year and next that they were forced to show off concepts for 2016 games. Everybody else just delayed what they had, out of either desperation or necessity I can't say, but it certainly doesn't look good.
Developers are shutting down almost monthly at this point. Layoffs have become a constant in the industry, and now the problems are trickling down to the consumers. Fewer and less interesting games, all because costs are just too damn high. The AAA gaming industry is failing its consumers, and while I simply turn to indie games like No Man's Sky for my fix, I know that solution isn't viable for everyone. I wish I knew the solution. At this point, publishers have trapped themselves in a high budget cycle, turning every game into a make or break prospect. Ubisoft has to release a multi-million dollar Assassin's Creed game, otherwise fans might not bite, seeing it as a downgrade. Theoretically, they could develop for previous consoles, but Microsoft and Sony will block them off eventually, as they have a vested interest in making sure people stop supporting the 360/PS3 and start supporting the Xbox One/PS4. They could just develop middle tier games alongside their enormous AAA titles, but if their budgets and workforces are already spread so thin, where will they find the resources? And let's say, for example, one publisher decides to stop making high budget AAA games? Well, that just means the publishers who don't quit the AAA business absorb all the customers who want the best looking game in town. It's mutually assured destruction. Everyone is throwing millions into their games while hoping that someone else fails. And maybe that's the solution- someone has to fail. It'll suck, but maybe if a major publisher folds, everyone else will look around, and realize that they could be next. Maybe they'll wisen up, maybe they'll scale back, and try to make more reasonable budgets for more reasonably sized audiences.
Someone has to die tonight, so that everyone else can live.