December 11, 2012
Recently, Josh Bycer over at Gamasutra put up a blog post asking if AAA gaming, here referring to major studio releases costing top dollar to produce, was "DOA", or dead. While Bycer's stance ultimately became one I agreed with--a resounding "maybe"--I figured it would be worth taking a look at myself, and all it's going to take is just one example to really drive the point home.
For those who believe that AAA gaming might be on the decline, they've got good reason to be concerned. The rise of casual gaming, the rise of the mobile game, is adding up to a lot of concern for those involved in the field of big-name console gaming. After all, why shell out several million dollars to make a big monster title when, for the same amount of cash, you can make 10 or 20 or more Angry Birds games and even do better in the market? Why, essentially, take a slice of one big pie when you can take slices of several tiny pies? But to them I say, that big pie slice can still represent a whole lot of pie, and more specifically, I look at Call of Duty: Black Ops 2.
Admittedly, sales of Black Ops 2 in the launch month were down over the sales of the last Call of Duty launch, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3. But consider that the launch month for Black Ops 2 was fully seven days shorter than that of Modern Warfare 3, and suddenly, it's a whole different picture. Sure, Black Ops 2 sold, reportedly, around 1.4 million fewer copies in its launch month than its predecessor, but it did so in just 12 days instead of 19. If we assume that sales remain constant throughout the launch period--not exactly according to Hoyle but good for estimation--that extra seven days would have made a massive difference. Breaking down the numbers, Modern Warfare 3 averaged around 463,158 copies sold per day, while Black Ops 2 averaged around 616,667 per day. Carrying on just an extra three days at that rate would have broken the old record, unless I miss my math. If the two had identical launch month lengths, we'd likely be hearing about how Black Ops 2 destroyed Modern Warfare 3's sales records. And that's one of the biggest reasons I can look and see that triple-A gaming isn't dead.
Now, of course, that's just one title. There are plenty of triple-A games out there that can't even hope to approach that kind of sales figure, possibly with good reason. Additionally, game developers are much like any other company in that they're risk-averse. No one wants to shell out big money to create a game that's going to be insulted by writers throughout the blogosphere then collectively spat on by gamers until the stores mark it down to the price of a cup of coffee just to clear shelves for the next highly-promoted huge embarrassing failure. Even Bycer spelled it out nicely: EA is already holding a metaphorical gun to its intellectual property's head, saying, in the grandest National Lampoon tradition, buy five million copies of Dead Space 3 or we kill this franchise. Darksiders 2, meanwhile, despite getting solid reviews and a million copies sold, needs to sell another million at last report just to break even.
With odds like that, it's easy to see why some might think that triple-A gaming is doomed. Not every game is Call of Duty or Skyrim or even World of Warcraft. Many simply don't make their investment back, and that means one of three things:
1. Studios get out of triple-A gaming. This seems the least likely, especially with Call of Duty level profit afoot.
2. Studios cut the costs of development. This is a bit more likely, but there's only so much that can be done here. Things cost money, and games need things to be made.
3. Studios find new sources of monetization. This is the kind of thing that can go either way; while I don't think too many of us would object to driving past a billboard advertising the next Disney / Pixar release in our driving games, or getting our powerup bonuses from drinking an actual can of Pepsi, it's the kind of thing that, if done incorrectly, can ruin gaming for just about everyone. Conversely, game studios can do what movie studios have been doing for some time; release a string of low-budget money-makers to fuel the launch of some gigantic Oscar-vehicle or the like that may be less likely to make its payday. This is one commonly accepted reason behind the rise of direct-to-video horror movies. They're dirt cheap and almost always make their shooting budgets back with a profit because someone's always watching a scary movie.
Some are even looking to digital distribution to lower costs--after all, when there's no disc, no box, and no shipping costs to get involved there's a lot more profit afoot--but this has some flaws of its own. Still, Bycer has a very clear point here: a new generation of consoles is fast approaching. That's only going to mean higher development costs, and unless game development is a profitable field, we as gamers will be all dressed up with no place to go.