Hey all! Its time for another Dtoid Community Discusses! This past weekend was Pride in SF so I'm typing this up after a long, gay weekend of fun. As always, I've assembled a panel of members of the Dtoid community to talk about a topic. This week the topic is "Triple A Titles", courtesy of megaStryke. This is the topic question as posed to the panel:
"As megaStryke mentioned, there is a sort of Hollywood model in the gaming industry nowadays, with all of the big name games having HUGE production values. Games spend so much on getting celebrity voice actors, tons of time in R&D, and basically having to spend lots of money just so certain people will pay attention to them.
However, I feel like some of the greatest games (read: retro) didn't need A-list celebrities and producers...there are tons of titles that you can imagine that bring just as much fun gameplay at just the fraction of the cost. So my question to you guys is: how do you feel about the trend of the industry to these higher production value games? Do you miss the days when games were cheap and simple, yet still fun? Might we see a return to making games cheaper due to the fact that the economy sucks right now? What are your favorite high-production games, and was that production value necessary?"
This weeks panel consists of Pendelton21, megaStryke, and Zodiac Eclipse! Read on to see what they think!
To be honest, one of my favorite things in games are celebrity voice actors. Some of my favorite characters in games are voiced by big names like Terry Gilliam, John DiMaggio, and (coming up soon) Jack Black. I, for one, like this turn towards getting A-list actors to join on games, bringing them into a wider audience (i.e. people who have seen their movies). Hell, this has been going on for a while: anyone ever play Apocalypse with Bruce Willis (http://en.wikipedia.org/ wiki/Apocalypse_(video_game))? This is a trend that I'm happy the gaming industry is keeping up in so-called "A-list" titles.
On the subject of making cheaper games, I'd like to bring up indie games: some games made by a guy in a basement somewhere can get more fun out of me than an A-list title. As one Rev. Anthony can attest to, indie games have been making a huge boom recently in the gaming world, with such hot titles as Cave Story, Everyday Shooter, and World of Goo. This just gives credence to the notion that bling bling, money ain't a thang; who could honestly say that Assassin's Creed (an A-list title) is more fun than, say, N (an indie title)? No matter what gaming market we're in, there's gonna be someone who, with only a few dollars, make a more compelling game than a multi-million dollar blockbuster.
I guess I'm at the opposite end of the spectrum than Pendelton. When I'm playing a game, I like to be pretty much immersed in my experience. That means that unless there is some glitchy mechanic that hinders my gameplay, I have no concept of trivial matters such as music and who's playing the main characters voice. If anything, a recognizable voice throws me off because then I'm more focused on trying to figure out who the voice is instead of who the character is that I'm supposed to be interacting with. An example would be "Joker" in Mass Effect. Whenever he went on his rant about being the poor little sick kid all I could think was, “Hey he sounds familiar, I think that's Seth Green. That's gotta be Seth Green.” Sure I could've just looked in the manual and saw that I was indeed correct and moved on, but instead every time he had dialogue I was back to thinking of him as Seth Green instead of Jeff "Joker" Moreau. I can understand the appeal to having big name celebrities do the voices for your game, bringing in an audience of their fans, giving gamers a little extra, but if their voice is too recognizable and they aren't playing themselves then it can pull me out of the story, next thing you know I'm counting polygons, its a downhill slide.
As for a return to cheaper games, I don't see that happening anytime soon. I think we'll see more companies playing it safer, by releasing more sequels to already popular IP's, but the companies know that gamers are a fickle bunch and their expectations will not wane just because of economic slumps. In a way it's better to be an indie developer in this climate because you can take more risks whereas the bigger companies have too many shareholders to answer to if a game flops.
Before I get into the meat and potatoes, I want to clarify what you said about retro titles not needing massive production values to deliver a solid experience. If you are talking about modern games with an aged aesthetic, of course they are cheaper to produce. If you are talking about games of the retro era (whenever you consider that to be), that's another matter entirely. As time passes, the AAA productions on, say, the NES would appear less and less distinguishable from the less-costly endeavors, but that's not to say their development and marketing budgets weren't worlds apart.
In any case, this doesn't just concern retro games. This concerns any game that gets glossed over just because it doesn't have a hundred-foot poster on the side of a building. Without naming specific cases, you hear about companies firing off gargantuan sales targets for their latest masterpiece because for some reason the one million milestone is not a good enough goal anymore. Games need to sell three, four, five million copies to justify whatever investment they placed into them. On the same token, those games wouldn't need to sell that much if they were scaled back ever so slightly. It creates this false measure of success that just can't be met on a consistent basis.
I guess retro is not really a good indicator of how much was spent or produced on a game because, like you said, even games that may have a sort of old school look to them, could still have tons of money spent in other areas such as gigantic billboards. As far as games that get overlooked, I definitely think that is a large reason why companies have to spend so much on games or even just stick to making sequels of pre-existing popular titles. For example, Zack and Wiki was an excellent game, but it was (sadly) largely overlooked. If there were huge FFXIII billboards showing this game would things have been different?
Another thing I wonder is what was the thought process behind a game such as Halo:ODST. I'm sure that the gameplay/story could easily have been an original shooter game, but do you think at all that placing the Halo name on it will make it seem more of a triple A title and thus sell lots better than if it were just another shooter?
Thats a huuuuuge billboard!
Exactly. Companies don't trust original ideas on their own merits so they shoehorn some recognizable characters to help spread awareness. That's why Mario is bigger than Coca-Cola. I suppose the plan is that you capture an audience with something familiar and in the process introduce them to something fresh and creative with the hope that they'll be more receptive to new ideas in the future. I don't know how often that works out, though.
Something else I'd like to mention is handheld gaming. Ever since the original Game Boy, handhelds have always been second-rate among the media and gamers. As popular and as good as these games can be, they are seen as lesser experiences because they don't appear on big boy consoles. It's like, yeah, the DS has perhaps the most diverse library of games today but the consensus is that the heavy-hitting industry-movers are the Bioshocks and the GTAs. I mean, until this past year you never, EVER saw a handheld game win Best of Show at E3 regardless of how impressive it may be. Scribblenauts pulled it off and that makes me happy. On the same token, it took perhaps the most outrageous game mechanic in the past decade for the media to accept that a handheld game can make some real waves. As popular as it was when it came out, I don't think even Pokémon gained that level of acceptance. It's baffling.
Let's backtrack a moment to the idea that companies use recognizable characters as a way of avoiding new ideas. I think to some extent the problem does lay with the developers feeling like recycling popular ideas is a safer bet, but let's face facts, we eat it up. How many Pokemon sequels are there? What about Final Fantasy's or Halo games? Gamers know and trust these titles so of course if you slap the name on a similar product with slightly tweaked mechanics it's a guaranteed hit. The trick is finding a balance between releasing these familiar titles to pay the bills and giving us something new and exciting to keep us interested. As much as gamers complain about the lack of innovation as of late you still have a ton of games that slip right under the radar. Nobody even realizes they were great until they are declared unsuccessful, then suddenly everyone wants to come out of the woodwork and cry about how they didn't get the support they needed to be a hit.
Advertising is great for driving hype, and we'd all like to think we are smart enough not to buy into the game company's propaganda, but the numbers don't lie. Big Ad campaigns for big name titles bring in big money. Unproven games are slipped into the mix occasionally, but they aren't likely to pull the same numbers as the big boys so they are written off. The game companies can't afford to put all their eggs in a Scribblenauts basket. Yes it's an amazing concept, but that doesn't guarantee sales and I think we're all past the idea of thinking that the devs are lying awake at night worrying about pleasing fans and personal integrity over meeting sales goals. No company survives that way.
At this point its easy to throw up our hands and cry foul, but if we wanted to be more proactive we would be spreading the word ourselves about these smaller worthwhile titles. 'Word of mouth' is still one of the best and most trusted forms of advertising. All the million-dollar ad budgets have the same goal, getting us to talk about their game. There is no reason why we as consumers can't promote the games we think are more worthy of being noticed. It might not lead to any sort of equality in established -vs- original game advertising, but it will at least show companies that we're receptive to new titles and want more then just Final Halo Bros Brawl.
Let's back away from sales and advertising so that we may zero in on the consumers that WE are most familiar with: ourselves. The people that visit Destructoid, Kotaku, Joystiq, the gamers with the most varied tastes and the most disposable income. Whereas most gamers keep to a small set of games, the people reading THIS are the ones who buy games in bulk, who hunt down the most obscure titles, who try to find the diamonds in the rough. I would expect us of all people to not be swayed by flash and pizzazz, yet we are just as susceptible.
For example, when we talk of AAA games, we speak of games that not only have massive budgets but also Metacritic ratings above 80. Or 85. Or 90. Or 87.3. Or whatever cutoff we decide best serves our quality arguments. Presentation is a big part of these scores, so it's to be expected that very few small projects would hit those high scores as a result of a lack of features that we've come to expect in AAA fare. That's not to say I couldn't enjoy a low budget game that only scored a 75 more than a bombastic affair that scored a 95. Given how many people rag on Twilight Princess despite its 95 score, I think my point is clear.
Now let's say that there is some console like... ohh... the Wii. Just throwing a name. Then there is another that we will call the Xbox 360. Let's also say that the latter receives more high-budget Hollywood-style games and more highly rated games than the former. Just supposing. If one were to express favor of this Wii over the 360, you might hear a number of dissenting voices criticizing this person for "settling for a lesser experience" or for "lowering his standards" or something like that. Could it simply be that this Wii-lover has become disillusioned by the constant throat-cramming by his peers and the game industry of what he should enjoy playing? What he should expect, nay, demand out of a game? That bigger always equals better? That simple pleasures can ONLY be mild distractions until you can sink your teeth into the big slab of beef?
Wait, are we classifying games as AAA by their review scores? I see games like Daikatana, Malice, and Duke Nukem Forever as AAA games, mainly because of factors during development, such as being made by a big name, or having a huge voice actor. Think about it; if Brutal Legend is a god-awful game, it's still a AAA title. Who here still remembers the Daikatana ads, and being told we were going to be made a certain someone's bitch? AAA, to me, means a title made by a high-profile company or producer that gets a lot of hype and advertising behind it. And, as far as the question asked at the beginning ("Is high-production value necessary?"), look at what the value these games were created on gave us.
"If Brutal Legend is a god-awful game, its still a AAA title"
I personally go by budget alone, but most people take review scores into consideration. It's a combination of large investment and high quality.
I think review scores factor in for most people when they are determining if they would actually buy a game, not necessarily if the game is considered AAA or not. If it's being produced by a big company and has a large budget for advertising and production then its going to be AAA even if its a horrible game in the end. As for the high-production value requirement, I think we can all basically agree that it really comes down to feeling like you got your money's worth when you play a game. If it's a 5 hour indie game that is an amazing experience and has replay value it could be worth just as much to you as the AAA title that lasts three times as long and will spawn countless sequels. Unless the production quality is so inferior that it distracts from the gameplay (think blocky people with jerky animations) then cost to produce has little to nothing to do with the overall perceived quality of the finished game.
Mega's rant about the hypothetical Wii and Xbox360 players is less to do with inferior gaming experiences and more to do with the whole casual -vs- hardcore gamer issue, which exists solely in people's minds and is a topic for another day.
I wasn't talking about casual vs. hardcore. If there's a multiplatform game that appears on all platforms, most of us would immediately assume that the Wii version is by and large inferior. Though there may be valid reasons for that particular scenario, we tend to paint the entire library with that brush. Why? Not because the games are "casual" but because any game that may be actually be decent is disregarded for not meeting the standard AAA criteria.
There's not much you and I can personally do to get publishers and developers to come back down to earth. What we can do is to train ourselves to ease up on the infinite AAA hype parade and not to scale back our ever-increasing expectations. Glitz and glamour are fine, but don't let them cloud you judgment and prevent you from enjoying games that might have a little less polish or a little less fanfare.
I'm still happy with the overall direction the industry is taking. Yes, some of the costs associated with the bigger titles have become ridiculous, but if the end result is a more competitive market among the big developers and some well deserved recognition for the smaller teams who produce amazing titles with less, then I can't be too disappointed. In the end the true value of a title isn't judged by the budget, but by whether or not you enjoy it and I don't mind letting the game companies fight for my approval.
Well thats all for this week! Stay tuned for another Dtoid Community Discusses soon!