Triple-A Games: Not Necessarily the Future

Okay, misleading title, I’ll give you that. But at least I’m updating! It’s not as easy as it seems!

What do I mean by “Triple-A games?” I’m glad you asked, person-who-is-not-a-gamer! They’re the games you hear about. “You mean like Mario?” No, person-who-is-not-a-gamer, not quite. Good try, though.

They’re the games that you see ads for on TV. They’re the games that have life-size cutouts of their characters plastered in front of every GameStop or video game store in existence. They’re the large franchises of the big three consoles, and they’re the games that you pay 60 bucks for (unless you live in Australia… poor aussies…). Think BioShock, GTA, Mass Effect, Call of Duty, the Zelda games, the Final Fantasy games, Dead Space, StarCraft, etc.

They’re big titles with a huge amount of support and money behind them. Their credits are longer than some flash games I’ve played on Kongregate. They have language teams, they higher game testing firms, and they have multinational branches of operations. They’re the games that you hear about in that they’re pretty much the only games you know of if you aren’t a serious gamer.

Of course they’re “the future.” They have the most well-funded operations, they have the best technology and they’re the most widely publicized.

But what most people don’t realize is this this rather strange truth: people like Pong.

“Dear Another Gamer, how is that remotely relevant to anything?” I know, gentle reader. It’s confusing. Allow me to unravel the mystery.

Pong is one of the simplest video games in existence. It employs about 50 lines of code, it can be made effectively on ANCIENT technology, and yet people still enjoy it. When I showed my friends that I made a clone of it, it was met by genuine excitement. “Play this with me,” said one of my friends to another. “#*%&,” said the other friend as she lost.

For the same reason mobile games have found an unbelievably draconian market, people like Pong. It’s simple and easy to understand. With enormous tutorials, often murky long-term implications of game decisions, myriad equipment options that require heavy research into and can severely alter the most effective playstyle that accommodates them… these triple-A titles can get tedious and unintuitive.

People dig simplicity in a big way, and that hasn’t changed with the advent of new technology. The game industry has had more option, it’s true, but consumers haven’t stopped loving the simple ones. The success of games like Super Hexagon and Bit Trip Beat have shown the industry that the depths of simplicity and austerity still appeal to people.

But the simplicity of indie games is only the tip of the iceberg. The fact of the matter is that indie games are extremely accessible as well. If we look at who has benefited most from the internet revolution, it’s easy to see the misguided, half-hearted efforts of large game companies to take advantage of its efficiency. Some tried online downloads, or online promotions… online marketplaces that could deliver their games, and others. None of these proved extremely effective, because a trip to the game store generally proved faster than these options anyway. When you have to either download tens of gigabytes or wait for shipping, a short trip on your bike doesn’t seem like that big of a price to pay for your new copy of “Whatever 2014 Deluxe Collector’s Edition Expansion Pack now with Exclusive DLC.”

Indie games, on the other hand, exploded. No production overhead, practically free distribution, instant gratification on the part of the customer, no retail middle-man? Sounds like a dream come true, and it really was: Steam, Desura, and many other more direct methods of game distribution made indie gaming the monster it is today.

Okay, so they’re simple and relevant, they’re easier to get ahold of, but so what? Are you really saying that Candy Crush is destined to a chunk of video gaming’s future? (Well, it is, btw, but that’s beside the point.)

The grounds upon which I assert that indie games and their kin have exciting prospects is twofold. (Boy, that was a bear of a sentence.) The first is the characteristic that distinguishes them from the makers of Candy Crush: that is, their business model. Triple-A studios and mobile game giants have a business model that says: “We produce a polished, expensive product every so often, as well as continuing our franchises to make the maximum amount of money, stay relevant and keep our audience. We use microtransactions to build our income into not only purchases of our game, but its playtime.” The contrast to an indie game model is sharp: “We produce a product that people want to buy.” Done. No promises of future games, no promises to use the best tech or to produced the most highly developed realization of their idea. If their game is Pong, then it’s going to be Pong, and if there are to be bells and whistles, they are there to make the game better. That’s it.

It ensures a higher-quality product because there aren’t any strings attached. Indie game design is by its nature a non-lucrative business for 90% of the game developers out there. If it’s going to be, it’s going to exist not to support a reasonable, sustainable business model, but to produce the best product possible in the hopes that it will pay for the labor it took to create it (plus a little more if there’s to be another game). Franchises are rare, expansion packs rarer still, microtransactions the rarest of all (okay, they’re only rare in GOOD indie games). So your product is pure game. It’s an example of what modern gaming is like, without the trappings or limitations provided by our technology.

I talk about video games all the time as “art.” I realize this is an arguable claim but I’m going to move on as if we’ve had the argument, I’ve won, and already bought you coffee to apologize for forcing you to accept this new truth. In every medium of art, there is stuff worth recognizing as being forward-looking, stuff worth appreciating because it’s the best in a well-established area (Madden and FIFA, anyone?), and stuff that is not worth looking at because it panders to the masses.

Indie games fall VERY often in column #1, and here’s why: studio size. It has some to do with the less-than-viable business model as well (think about Van Gogh not selling a single one of his paintings while he was alive, and Mozart dying Baroque and worthless), but the independence of the indie studios is key to their artistic vision. Why? Think about the credits of a triple-A game. How much do you have to compromise to get a workable, playable game out of so many opinions? How many opinions of artistic individuals aren’t even considered for the “too many chiefs, not enough Indians” argument? Even a large game that starts out with a strong, uncompromising artistic vision ends up being interpreted by so many different artists, writers, coders, renderers, composers, language teams, debuggers, 3D-modelers, managers, and associates that you can’t keep it and have a game. Imagine a novel written by committee.

But the loneliness of the indie game studios allows for a brutally uncompromising artistic vision that often produces innovative, beautiful results. If you don’t believe me, check out “Journey” at some point. Decisions are rarely made in favor of the option that decreases the artistry while improving commercial chances of success. Being different and taking the leap of faith for new control schemes, new art styles, new game genres and exploratory studies in game design… they all happen at the indie level because the possibility of an utter failure is accepted in that arena. With Blizzard and EA, they can’t afford to shell out millions of dollars on a game that’s a flop. Nobody really can.

To finish, I’m going to say that it is in no way impossible for triple-A’s to make a work of art, and in some senses, those extremely famous works of art (the storytelling of Mass Effect, the innovation of Guitar Hero, the expansiveness of Morrowind)  stand the test of time better than their indie counterparts because they have taken the innovativeness and artistry that stems from the indie movement and apply the technology that polishes it and maximizes its effect. Think about the art created when electronic music and digital art became possible. But the simpler games will never become irrelevant because the triple-A’s always need new ideas.

Sorry if the thoughts seem disorganized! This was more of my thoughts rolling around on the matter than a concerted opinion post. I hope you get it! See you Friday 🙂




About Isaac Smith

I write about music, technology, video games, and probably many other subjects that don't bear mentioning here. Either way, most of it's worth reading, and you may even enjoy yourself!

Posted on December 2, 2013, in Miscellaneous and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Really interesting post. I think certainly company size has something to do with the output of big studios versus indie developers, but the hierarchies at those big studios are set up so that people down the rungs do not have much creative breathing space.

    Basically I don’t think it’s a case of “too many cooks spoil the broth” (read: too many people with different visions of the game makes the game a clone with nothing original), but it has more to do with a studio’s creative elements being dictated by marketing demands.

    So for example if we ask why huge numbers of similar looking FPSes and cover shooters that have been released over the last 7 or 8 years, I seriously doubt it’s because game directors or studios have suddenly fallen in love with the genres. I think it’s far more likely that the financial side of the company and the directors are acutely aware that there are several current massively successful, record-breaking slump-defying games already in that genre. In the decision making process over the creation of a game, the directorial staff will use any justification they can to create a game that is a “safe bet”.

    Thankfully those demands aren’t the same, or at least not to the same degree for indie devs, and that’s part of why they’re so promising for the future.

    I agree with you that games are art, and games are somewhat lucky in that cinema has already contested the idea that art is only created by a single person.

    • Absolutely right! I couldn’t have said it better myself. As a matter of fact, I tried to say exactly that but it didn’t come out as clearly as I hoped. Indie games have the “luxury” of their product being able to make an audience out of innovation, but triple-A’s DO have marketing and demographics to worry about. What kind of person buys a PlayStation? It’s their job to know and to sell them what they want to buy.

      Everybody has a computer, so if you’re designing an indie game, you put it on Steam and let the public decide what they want, console or genre barriers aside.

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