AAA game developers, seemingly, have stopped caring. About originality, about plagiarism, about their place in history. Of course, we can’t look into their minds to see if this is true, but we can read the symptoms of this development style, as every year the world’s biggest games continue to play it safer and safer.
‘AAA’ roughly means a big-budget game, costing $30 million or more, expected to sell multiple millions of copies – and it’s these games which play safest. Look back at the key games that established the modern genres – Wolfenstein 3D, Dune II, Ultima Underworld, Double Dragon,Grand Theft Auto 3. Then look at the games that put flesh on those bones, fixed the modern genres – Medal of Honor, Command & Conquer, Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, Deus Ex, Street Fighter II. It’s been years since anything significant has been added to these genres. Their successors – Call of Duty: Black Ops, Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, BioShock, Grand Theft Auto IV – are recognisably the same games.
The FPS is today what the platformer was when I started playing games…
Shooters demonstrate the most egregious example of genre stagnation. The first-person shooter is today what the platformer was when I started playing computer games – an accessible format where the tropes are so firmly codified that you can start playing it, knowing which buttons to press and what the objectives are, without a moment’s thought. For a developer to succeed in this genre, they need to make a game in which no man is left behind. You’ll need a familiar UI, familiar controls, familiar enemy movement, a range of familiar weapons, a vehicle section, two- or four-player co-op, online competitive multiplayer, and you’ll probably build the lot in the Unreal Engine 3, which itself brings specific gameplay limitations.
But it’s not only the menu that’s stagnant – it’s the details too, and they’re the easiest things to vary. AAA games use the same composers, the same voice actors and the same tired old plots and settings. Skyrim’s Jeremy Soule has scored over 70 titles, reliable old Nolan North now has over 100 games listed on his IMDB page, and how many times have you machine-gunned your way through modern or post-modern warzones? How many times have you survived in a post-apocalyptic scarescape? How many zombies have you killed?
And when developers really care enough to fight for innovation, it often makes no difference. The AAA games that don’t fit, are forced to. Spec Ops: The Line walks on ground no other shooter has dared to tread, but as lead designer Cory Davis explained to The Verge, even they were forced to accept a superfluous multiplayer mode by publishers 2K. “2K was relentless in making sure that it happened,” he explained, “even at the detriment of the overall project and perception of the game… no one is playing it… it’s another (different) game rammed onto the disk like a cancerous growth.”
But maybe we shouldn’t blame the developers. It’s rare you’ll meet a game developer who doesn’t want more from his or her own titles, but games are so big,and so risky, that the ultimate responsibility for getting them made is down to marketing and publishing. If the marketing department is going to spend as much as $100 million on advertising and PR, they want something they can sell easily – something familiar and simple, something you can recognise. How about a scowling white man with a weapon? How about a Team Deathmatch mode?
Maybe we shouldn’t expect AAA to experiment. Where indie developers can laser-target niches, AAA games need everyone with a console to buy the game before they can profit. Perhaps, then, the blame lies with us – the players who never reward risks. If you want a change, it’s time to take another look at Yakuza, at Bayonetta, at Spec Ops, at Bulletstorm and at all those other games that tried something a little different, even within the tight constraints publishers impose, and for us to reward invention and innovation wherever we see it.