Have Video Games Gotten Too Ambitious?

CD Projekt Red

The last console generation was marked by a push for ever “bigger” games. Bigger worlds, more complex systems, bigger multiplayer arenas, and of course, better and better graphics. But recent events have shown that there’s a point of diminishing returns when you widen the scope of development. Have we passed that point already?

The debacle around the launch of Cyberpunk 2077 is something of a watershed moment for those watching the AAA gaming space. Here’s a title that was anticipated for almost a decade, that came from one of the most respected developers and publishers, that still managed to have major problems at launch, even according to the people who made it.

As the release is further deconstructed and investigated, we’re seeing more and more of the same old problems: technical and quality assurance issues, profit-focused moves detrimental to the customers that buy the game, and managerial failures that create huge problems for the labor that makes the game itself.

Developers and publishers are desperate to make games that break the mold, technically if not otherwise. It would be wrong to say that gaming as a medium is stagnating, but the direction towards which it’s progressing—at least among the kind of AAA games that make up the headlines—is unsustainable. It’s something that will have to be reckoned with, both by those who make games and those who play them.

Bigger, Stronger, Faster

When hashing out this article, I remember the progress of games from my childhood into adulthood. Just to give you a rubric, the first game I remember playing with any real clarity was Sonic the Hedgehog 2, released in 1992 for the Genesis. And the last big game I played was Cyberpunk 2077.

State of the art, circa 1992. SEGA

That’s a huge stretch of both time and technology. But it’s also deceptive because the largest gains in that 28-year span were made in the first half, not the second. While the jump from 2D to 3D was something that rocked the gaming industry to its very core, we haven’t seen another one like it since—I’d say the only thing that could come close would be the introduction of online multiplayer and digital distribution.

In terms of scope and scale, I think all of the technical pieces for a grand game like Cyberpunk were there when Skyrim released a little less than 10 years ago. True, you couldn’t make Cyberpunk 2077 run on a PS3, and even if you could, it wouldn’t be as big or as graphically groundbreaking. But the open world, the combat, the storytelling, the RPG elements? Yeah, all of those essential parts of the game could have been made two generations ago.

Games haven’t advanced much in a structural sense since Skyrim. Bethesda

So, what’s changed in terms of game design in the last decade? Not much, if you’re only looking at AAA publishers. Games are bigger and prettier, and there’s a much greater reliance on DLC and microtransactions. Player tastes have influenced trends, as they always do: Dark Souls, Minecraft, and Fortnite have left indelible marks on the structure of popular games. But the basic progressive structure, the appeal to the player to buy a new game, is the same. The new games will be bigger and more complex.

This has remained true for the launch of the PS5 and Xbox Series X. Microsoft, Sony, and all their developer partners are leaning in on technical prowess, things like superfast SSD drives and ray traced lighting effects. These are cool tech, but they aren’t changing—or even progressing—the way games are made, in the way that breakthrough titles on the PS2 and Xbox were at the turn of the century. All it seems to be doing is making development longer and more expensive, chasing an audience of players that’s reaching a saturation point.

That’s a problem. And it’s a problem in a lot of different ways.

Games Are Expensive to Make

Red Dead Redemption 2, widely hailed as one of the best games of the last few years, has a visual presentation so complex that it famously features dynamically sized horse testicles. There’s no official number on how much RDR2 cost to develop, but Rockstar’s previous open-world magnum opus, Grand Theft Auto V, has an official number of $265 million. So if we were guessing, “more than that” would be a safe bet.

Red Dead Redemption 2
Rockstar

Swinging back around to Cyberpunk, it’s officially the most expensive game in history, at least among those whose budgets have been officially declared. A whopping $330 million dollars is the figure, not counting an additional $200 million or so for a marketing budget. These are enormous, calendar-defining releases, but they’re becoming more common. Square Enix’s disastrous flop Marvel’s Avengers reportedly cost over $170 million, almost as much as its 2012 namesake movie.

These are staggering figures, involving teams of hundreds of people—thousands, by the time you include everyone from the publisher to the distribution system. It’s easy to understand why the cost of AAA games keeps going up. It’s because games keep making more and more money—an estimated $180 billion (with a B) across the industry in 2020, making it far and away the most lucrative entertainment medium, bigger than movies, bigger than live sports. The adage “you have to spend money to make money” would seem to be in effect.

video game revenue chart for 2020
MarketWatch

And games, like movies, are sold on scale. From Titanic to Endgame, from Half-Life to Horizon, the easiest way to make your game stand out from the crowd isn’t by promising innovation. It’s all about making the spectacle bigger, expanding the scope of the game world, the visuals, and the online multiplayer. That means spending more money than ever before, and convincing players to spend more of their own money on newer consoles that change little aside from the numbers on the spec sheet.

Games Need More and More Time

But you can’t just throw money at a developer and expect a hit game to pop out—just ask EA, which essentially did just that to Bioware and got Anthem in return. As massive techno-industrial projects, games require an incredible amount of time and organization to achieve. Part of the harsh backlash against Cyberpunk 2077 is that it allegedly took eight years to complete, and well, clearly isn’t actually complete yet.

That figure might not be entirely fair. CD Projekt Red wasn’t able to fully focus on Cyberpunk until it finished The Witcher III. Newer investigations show that work on Cyberpunk didn’t begin in earnest until 2016. But the fact that we’ve been hearing about this amazing new game for the better part of a decade illustrates the kind of time investment these things take much more than, say, the protracted and bungled development of Duke Nukem Eternal.

Anthem was supposed to be a live service revolution, but it ended up a rather sad Destiny clone. EA

This time element is also why we’re seeing fewer new properties in AAA games, why we get a new Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed more or less every year. Engines, art assets, and basic game design almost have to be recycled for sequels to make back some of that initial investment, turn around the work into a shorter development cycle, and (not least) absorb the cost of any potential failures in a publisher’s lineup.

Part of these protracted development cycles is the push towards more visually complex games and game worlds. Cyberpunk, RDR2, and Watch Dogs: Legion are all examples of games that push complexity in both visual fidelity and the underlying world’s structure. And not for nothing, but they’re both games that took years and years to make, even building on their developers’ existing game engines and other tools.

Ubisoft

But this push for more amazing games hits a limit, and it’s the publisher. At some point, you have to pay the piper … the shareholders. Games that clearly came out to hit a schedule rather than their actual completion have been some of the most bungled, like the aforementioned Anthem, which was so poorly managed at the design phase that it released with only a skeleton of content. You can add Fallout 76 to that list. Even long-time Fallout fans will concede that it’s a cynical attempt at making a new blockbuster release with leftover bits and pieces of Fallout 4, hoping bolted-on multiplayer could make up for sparse content and technical failings.

The developers of both those titles have spent pretty much every moment since their release trying to fix them, desperate to turn flops into gold and justify the time and money that went into them. Cyberpunk 2077, for all its famous delays, clearly targeted the new generation of consoles late last year. Whether or not its release was “rushed,” it came out in such a poor state that Sony made the unprecedented move of removing it from the online store. A decision presumably made to assuage impatient shareholders ended with a lawsuit being filed by the very same.

… and More and More People

Unlike money, development time is measured on a human scale. All of the games mentioned had massive development teams, and all of these developers and publishers have been accused of overworking their developers to one degree or another.

The definition of “overworked” varies, depending on who’s using it, of course. But when CD Projekt Red had to break its own promise and schedule “crunch time” for its developers last year, it was a bad look for pretty much anyone. (CDPR’s job page is titled “meet the rebels,” a somewhat unfortunate boast in retrospect.) Stories of game developers being worked to exhaustion, to the point of leaving the industry at best and psychological break at worst, are rampant.

CD Projekt RED development office
CD Projekt RED

Crunch culture is something that’s not unique to the game industry—hell, I worked late into the evenings covering CES last week. It’s a societal issue. But it’s important to remember that we aren’t just talking about money and calendars when we talk about the ever-increasing technical scope of games. We’re talking about the sweat of real people, who can’t be expected to boost their own output by 15% year-over-year just because that’s the rate at which the industry is growing.

The strain on development and production teams, more than budgets and expectations, is the most concerning aspect of the game industry’s current escalation. Unionization, which has for so long been a healthy and limiting weight on the film industry, may be able to help there. That’s assuming that the power players in the game industry ever allow it to happen on a wide scale.

Hype Escalation

The aspect of the game industry’s escalation that’s most visible to gamers themselves is marketing hype. Now that gaming is the world’s most lucrative form of entertainment, it has an advertising budget to match. It’s even starting to snipe talent from other industries—Hollywood golden boy Keanu Reeves for Cyberpunk, and oh-so-hot villain mainstay Giancarlo Esposito for Far Cry 6.

Keanu Reeves, promoting Cyberpunk 2077 (and his starring role) at E3.
Keanu Reeves, promoting Cyberpunk 2077 (and his starring role) at E3. Microsoft

But more than that, we’re reaching the point where pretty much every new game has to promise a complete revolution, in its own genre if not for games as a medium. That’s how Cyberpunk 2077 was sold: a living, breathing world like nothing you’ve ever seen before. To be frank, that’s bupkis. It’s an extremely pretty open world game (when it’s working!) with Deus Ex-influenced combat and character progression. As an elevator pitch, that works fine … but it’s underwhelming in the context of “the game that The Witcher 3 developers spent the last eight years on.”

As a gamer, you know that new titles are unlikely to change the industry on a bone-deep level, the way that Mario 64, Final Fantasy VII, or Half-Life did decades ago. The innovation of today is all about taking existing elements and using them in new ways—basic shooter combat expanded in multiplayer arenas like Battle Royale, or focusing on intense technical challenges in souls-likes. Until VR starts being widely adopted (if it ever is), we’ll see a gentle evolution, not a new paradigm shift every year or two.

Assassin's Creed Valhalla promotional website
Assassin’s Creed Valhalla marketing material, making big promises. Ubisoft

But developers can’t come out and say that. Even as they release the thirteenth Assassin’s Creed game, they have to promise incredible innovation with each new title. The marketing is aiming for an increasing level of excitement that simply can’t be delivered upon with a bigger world or better graphics.

Don’t get me wrong, games are still good! But the idea that every big publisher can shatter expectations every year is laughable. Imagine if Ford tried to tell you that every new F-150 could go 30 miles faster and haul 10 tons more than the last model, every single year. It’s a ludicrous elevation of expectation, and yet, that’s where we’re at with AAA games. Those who buy into it can’t be blamed for listening to the hype … but that only means that they’re left disappointed when reality returns.

Bucking the Trend

What’s to be done about this Zeno’s Paradox of escalating game production? Unless you’re a publisher CEO or executive developer, not much. Managing expectations is a lesson they’re going to have to learn for themselves, hopefully without running their employees into the ground in the meantime.

As a gamer, you have the power to manage your own expectations. Understand that the hype machine is desperate to make you believe a game is going to change the industry, maybe even change the way you think about games themselves. That’s almost never going to happen in a single title.

But there’s hope in all this doom and gloom, and you don’t have to wait for a video game industry bubble to burst in order to see it. Indie developers have made brilliant new titles on a fraction of the budgets of the games you see advertised on NFL broadcasts.

SuperGiant Games

Hades, a comparatively simple title that nonetheless features great combat and inspired storytelling while playing with the basic expectation of player death, was widely considered the 2020 game of the year. Spiritfarer, a game that is at its heart a long story about talking to people about their lives, wasn’t far behind. Disco Elysium managed to shift the way we think about playing a character role, with a technical presentation that’s decades out of touch with the zeitgeist (and several novels’ worth of writing). Heck, Among Us is a shockingly simple mobile title that briefly became the biggest game in the world (at least going by technology news) during the pandemic.

This realistic expectation of scope isn’t exclusive to indie developers, either. I’d argue that among the big three console players, Nintendo is doing a fantastic job managing its resources, focusing on making complete games that are within the grasp of the Switch’s hardware. It’s basically a smartphone on steroids, but that hasn’t stopped its library from containing some of the best new games of the last several years.

Motion Twin

So if you’re tired of game publishers promising you the moon, then reading about how they had to work their employees to the bone before failing to deliver, remember that you have options. You can search for smaller and more satisfying games to play, knowing that there won’t be any great leaps forward like there were in generations past. And that’s okay. Buying these smaller-scope games from smaller teams is a great way to help the industry grow beyond the world of the mega-publishers

Incidentally, the rise of game subscription services like Xbox Game Pass might help these smaller studios out a lot. Getting a chunk of the pie from subscriptions, instead of chasing huge launch day sales, could help stem the tide of ever-increasing development scope. Some of the best games in the (current) library, like CrossCode, Dead Cells, and Subnautica, come from smaller publishers and indie developers. It’s the same broadening of the market into more interesting niches that’s happening with streaming TV services.

Eventually, possibly very soon, we’re going to hit a wall in terms of video game scope, budget, and technology. It’s pretty much the game industry’s job to inflate your expectations, up to and beyond that wall. Know that you don’t have to take in the hot air if you don’t want to.

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