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The Illusion of the Triple-A Title

by on June 14, 2013

by Terry Randolph

Business practices take over what used to be a title of creative innovation and exploration.

Before jumpstarting the article, I understand that the concept of a “Triple-A” title game continues to morph and change and we advance in gaming hardware. However, for the current trend in gaming, three major factors determine how games reach this ‘upper-echelon’ of caliber; the studio developing it, projected budget, profit and units shipped, and the weighted aggregate score on Metacritic. All of these warning signs point to a “business first, creativity second” mindset that shows how production has become more about what sells to gamers than taking creative risks with new IPs.

Each jump to a new console means upgrades in hardware, graphics and faster processing speeds capable of creating smoother gameplay. Games then have the ability to handle more complex environments and allow various forms of gameplay nearly impossible in previous generations. For example, instead of a 16-bit character sprite running across a 2-D level, gamers can control a fully realized 3-D character in a 3-D environment with several ways to approach a single obstacle. Instead of being limited to reading dialogue in boxes, characters can be brought to life with the emotional inflections to bring life to the script. New consoles bring more opportunities, avenues and challenges to explore while creating a game.

However, because of current global economic problems, video game companies instead focus on the push for realism, an overreliance on the multiplayer component to sell games and retread concepts previously explored by games very similar in their delivery. This means becoming a Triple-A title is based on a business-first approach and not on taking creative risks. Usually, developing studios ship out a new IP that gains popularity and a solid fanbase. If the IP takes off, developing studios will receive offers from publishers to help them “create new, ambitious projects” along with continuing their popular title. The problem with this step is that this brings pressure to the developer to deliver games that will consistently sell, and ultimately reduces their willingness to take risks. So, instead gamers will see another game selling under a title in order to keep sales up. The games become run-of-the-mill, stale products in an already heavily saturated market by its predecessors and clones.

There’s also the increasing push for games to be casual and accessible to newcomers. It seems perfectly rational to jump into the casual gaming market because it means pulling in a larger audience, more sales made and a surge in profit. These are more recreational, and focus on creating group activities that allow people to play together. It also means the increase in a family buying a console to share together. However, with increased focus on creating casual, light-hearted games comes the increase of “hardcore” gamers feeling alienated. Where time could be spent on creating new, ambitious projects it is instead focused on pushing for a larger market. It further epitomizes the idea that the video game industry is focused on the business aspect.

This approach also shows multiplayer is overly relied on to sell games; multiplayer is a dual-edged sword that was once innovative and is now just a component used to ship units. Because of the ever-increasing popularity and demand for multiplayer, publishers tend to push its inclusion into their games even if that detracts from the single player experience. Dead Space 2, for example, was a sequel with an exceptional single player campaign pushed to include multiplayer much to the chagrin of the series’ fans. The multiplayer component was criticized for feeling tacked on; it felt like a money-grab more than a legitimate part of the product. In contrast, games like Call of Duty, Battlefield and Halo are popular for their frenetic rush of multiplayer games and are consistently the top games played in that setting. There are plenty of multiplayer games that are highly revered and loved by both critics and people; Starcraft, Diablo, Unreal Tournament, World of Warcraft, Borderlands and League of Legends all immediately come to mind.

Some games exist on the market highly revered and sold well without a multiplayer component. BioShock was insanely enjoyable, exceptionally well-written, and a single-player only experience. Dishonored is another exceptional game packaged with only a campaign as well. Overall, there is proof multiplayer does not necessarily sell a game, but it seems the safer route is to have that component just in case.

There is also a disturbing trend of games retreaded familiar gameplay concepts that begin to feel stale. If the games sell well, other games try follow suit with the same gameplay mechanics and leads to a hyper saturation of the market. In my opinion, when a game review reads as trying to differentiate from a game it seems to mimic (like the agreement from many sources that Sleeping Dogs is your average Grand Theft Auto clone, but better) that is a disturbing problem that seems to only increase in sentiment.

The treading of familiar concepts can partially be blamed on the weighted, aggregate scoring systems from Metacritic. While it provides a place where consumers can find several opinions on a single product, and developers can read about what they did right and wrong, the site instead sheds light on the problems scoring an opinion. Because the weighted score is displayed in a way to draw attention, gamers are more likely inclined to use that to determine buying a game. The score can also be a bargaining chip used between publishers and developers. Making a game that plays it safe, sticks to formulas tried and true, and can be guaranteed to sell will keep the company afloat rather than trying something ambitious and creatively risky.

Lastly, what’s disturbing about all of this is the fact that units sold determine the success and idea of a game being in the Triple-A category. Not necessarily innovation or creative risk, but the amount a game sells. Call of Duty is one of the most highly touted Triple-A games to come out annually and is marketed very heavily. The game does not attempt to really change up the formula or innovate, but instead sells on the name of the brand and does exceptionally well. Tomb Raider, the reboot, sold 3.5 million in its first month but was a disappointment to Square Enix.

See, Triple-A games, to me, took risks creatively while creating a memorable interactive experience. The stories varied in tones and concepts like heavy-hearted, complex affairs or laissez-faire experience that were highly immersive. Developers might take creative risks with gameplay to explore a new approach to a once familiar concept. The chance may have ended in failure, but it was highly memorable and lauded as a valiant effort. Development studios were willing to push the boundaries in games and it was awe-inspiring to see that. In essence, gameplay integrated with story, not the story taking the backseat with gameplay taking the wheel.

For example, before Hironobu Sakaguchi and Nobuo Uematsu left, the Final Fantasy series was known to make tweaks in gameplay and tell emotionally evocative stories. The RPG elements were played around with in various forms for each game, some succeeding and others not. In the end, each game felt unique, presented new stories and created some well loved games. Some of my favorite games would be Final Fantasy VI-Final Fantasy X because of their individuality in both stories and gameplay. Also, the music was fantastic; each game had a unique sound to it. However, the newest releases have felt more focused on the appearance than the mechanics.

This is not to say games have to be COMPLETELY DIFFERENT than their predecessor; familiar elements and concepts are necessary to keep the identity of the franchise. However, there is a difference between innovating gameplay to be unique while retaining the familiarity of its series title versus changing it completely and losing what made the series endearing. It’s a challenge that many studios have had to take on, but usually it resulted in success. A prime example of this would be the Legend of Zelda; many of the series traits are in every iteration, but there are subtle shifts in play style that keep it fresh while at the same time familiar. There are risks still being taken, but at the same time a gamer can recognize it to be a Zelda game.

There are many games that have come out that are not only unique, but great triple-A titles from this generation. One that immediately comes to mind is BioShock because of its riveting narrative that explored heavy themes both disturbing and fascinating. Gameplay matched the style of the storytelling and fit within the context of the game. The first Dead Space game attempted to change the shooting aspect of horror games while telling a story that paid homage to many great Sci-Fi/Horror movies. Mass Effect was a great game that found a very interesting balance between being an RPG but also a Third Person Shooter. Another gem that I think was a great is LA Noire. Its facial recognition gameplay was brilliantly executed to where you could notice the little ticks in people’s attitudes. Even Portal was a fantastic game that had some great dry humor and some creative gameplay that created a fun, addicting game.

These are the type of games that stand out as a triple-A games to me; they bring innovative ideas and creative storytelling to the forefront without sacrificing what makes a video game fun. However, the most common form of Triple-A games we receive now are games like Call of Duty, Halo (with Halo 4 improving on storytelling but maintaining the same, repetitive style as its predecessors) and Battlefield. They are consistent in how well they do in Metacritic scoring, the brand sells units and continue to “push for realism” in graphics. These franchises, to me, epitomize the trend of the video game market embracing a business, “for profit” perspective than the creative outlet it used to be.

Hopefully, with the new consoles coming out, that may change.

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