Saturday, July 20, 2013

The return of Mid-tier Games

Day late, sorry. I wrote this a while ago, round about when Blood Dragon came out, but I managed to get distracted by other work, so I'm posting it here instead. It's a subject I feel quite passionate about, which you'll hear if you listen to today's BeefJack podcast.

When this current gen of consoles started we saw a quick decline in a certain type of game. Not quite Triple-A, but with more budget behind them then your indie developers. These mid-sized studios were what gave the PlayStation 2 such a ridiculously large library of games.

But as development costs sky rocketed, it was no longer financially viable for publishers to try these games. Their budgets were practically triple-A, though the experience wasn't. So instead they threw the spare cash into the blockbusters and they got even more bloated... I'm getting sidetracked, where was I?

So developers were left with a choice on how to make a game, spend millions of dollars and enough time to go into an education establishment and come out with a piece of paper, or grab a couple of mates and a spare tenner and knock together an indie game. There was no room for the middle ground any more, and that is a very sad thing.

It's been argued that many of the franchises we know and love today were spawned by developers of medium size. Because of their experimentation they managed to uncover exciting new ways for us to run around virtual worlds. Core Design were unheard of before they gave the world Tomb Raider. Bullfrog spawned so many franchises EA don't know what to do with them. Of course most of those that can apply to be rebooted are unfortunately done in a 'realistic' and 'gritty' manner. Even Tomb Raider counts, though that one did a decent job.

Yet there's hope. We're not even out of the console cycle that caused the problem and the salvation has already started to appear. Xbox Live Arcade has seriously grown in the scope of the games it offered, and now the PlayStation Store is doing a damn good job rivalling it – some could say overtaking it with the likes of signing Thomas Was Alone and Hotline Miami.

It is into this landscape the middle tier games are stepping back into. It started with Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon. Far Cry 3 was a very popular game, probably the most popular of the entire series, Blood Dragon was a April Fools joke that turned out to be real. Ignoring every single rule of big budget, this new entry into the series is a throwback to games like Duke Nukem and really bad 80s movies, dipped in neon and its tongue buried so deep in its cheek it's ripped straight through it. How did Ubisoft allow this to be produced? Because 75% of the work was already done, so the cost of making Blood Dragon was likely to be infinitesimally smaller than most games of similar nature.

Then came Call of Jaurez: Gunslinger. Techland, with all their knowledge of Chrome Engine 5 from the ill-judged The Cartel iteration and two Dead Islands returned the series to the Wild West. By all accounts it's possibly the best game Techland have managed. Which if I was to guess is because they keep over-extending themselves with Triple-As and with Gunslinger have taken on a project that is suitable for their size and experience.

While not the exact approach that the mid-sized studios of yesteryear may have done, this is an approach that could really work. Let the huge triple-A dev teams crank out a big engine and multiple systems within it. Then have a smaller team to come and reskin and do something a bit more risky with the engine. Not only does it let devs stretch their creative legs a little more, but it also makes the return on all those research and investment dollars into the new tech more profitable.

We saw the rise of this thinking a little with DLC. Rockstar and their GTA and Red Dead Redemption packs, are shining examples of what you can do with DLC, they're almost the expansions of old. But Rockstar would try and do different and interesting things within their existing games. An entire pack about a biker gang, when bikes had been the most untrustworthy way of commuting around Liberty City, or a zombie survival in the old west. They had one drawback though, they needed the full game to work. The fact Rockstar then later released the two stories as a standalone proves how much was there, a process they repeated with Red Dead Redemption with a much shorter turn around from DLC to boxed product.

The middle ground is an important sector of gaming. It allows studios to hone their craft before they take on their herculean tasks of Triple-A. They also allow more experimentation then their big budget cousins because the studio isn't betting their life savings on it doing well. If that means they can only exist digitally then that's fine. The PC has practically become a digital only platform, and look at the innovation on there.
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