At his Games Developers Conference speech yesterday, Cliff Bleszinski - who I shall from now on refer to as Cliff, like he's an old friend - denied reports that big-budget, so-called 'triple A' games were coming to an end. "AAA is not dying, I am tired of hearing that", sighed Cliff, amid recent news of Tim Schafer's Double Fine resorting to smaller titles like Trenched and Sesame Street to lower overheads, John Romero supposedly abandoning the hardcore, and Microsoft seemingly realigning their focus from big-budget blockbusters to cost-effective Kinect titles.
So is the triple A game coming to an end? In the next five years, will we no longer see the likes of Uncharted, Gears of War and Killzone? Or is Cliff Bleszinski right? Does the triple A game still have some life in it yet?
Suck It Down, Romero
Remember John Romero? He helped create Wolfenstein, Doom and Quake, before Daikatana flopped like a fish on dry land and Romero made the fatal mistake of insulting gamers in adverts. He's since turned his attentions to more casual titles such as Facebook's Ravenwood Fair, which averages eleven million players each month. Speaking to Venture Beat, Romero remarked "we have satisfied hardcore gamers for decades. Now it's time for the rest of the world".
Romero doesn't wield the clout or respect he once had, but it's arguably pretty worrying when someone of his stature - you can't overlook the man who helped usher the FPS genre to where it is now - believes hardcore games are becoming far less important. Romero believes "the game industry is dropping down on top of the social", eventually culminating a mass merger of the two.
I'm not so sure such an event will happen, and Romero himself stated on Twitter - in the wake of some rather laughable (or disturbingly short-sighted) backlash over his comments - that he wasn't necessarily done with hardcore games forever. Core titles are still profitable, what with Black Ops only this week becoming the best selling game on the PS3 ever, with over seven million copies sold. Combine that with the tens of millions sold on the PC, Xbox 360 and Wii and we're talking a hell of a lot of money publishers like Activision won't simply ignore. But banking on success is dangerous. Unless you're an established brand, you have no guarantee on a profitable return, and even big names can flop. Rest in peace Guitar Hero.
Like Double Fine. Tim Schafer is an industry legend, as renowned for his wit as he is for his cracking roster of games, like Full Throttle and Psychonauts. His last game, Brutal Legend, wasn't the success story EA had hoped for, and Double Fine has since shifted its attention from financially risky ventures to games like Trenched, a mech shooter due for release on Xbox Live Arcade, and Sesame Street.
Double Fine isn't quite abandoning the core just yet, but the low-budget, low-risk Trenched shows how dire times have become. It's a game with big ideas delivered on a small scale. It will cost less, and as a result be less damaging to the company if it's not wildly successful. Sesame Street, on the other hand, is a safer venture, what with Warner Bros. backing and Sesame's brand recognition.
Double Fine, and Schafer in particular, have assured fans even a casual title like Sesame Street - which will be aimed at children - isn't a cop-out on their part. In an interview with Gamasutra, Schafer and a colleague claimed the idea grew from a three year-old prototype they then stuck the Sesame Street brand on, so it's not simply a case of Warner Bros. contracting Double Fine for a kid's game and Schafer following suit.
Death Of The Middle-Class Game
According to Cliff, what is dead is the so-called 'middle class game'. Titles that fall between big-budget blockbusters and indie productions are no longer viable options for developers, apparently. "I'm going to go on the record and say that I believe the middle class game is dead", Cliff stated indifferently, before going on to explain that "It needs to either be an event movie or it has to be an indie film. Battlefield: Los Angeles - we're there. Avatar - we're there. The Other Guys starring Will Ferrell and Marky Mark? Nah, I'll f****** rent that, I don't really care - right?".
Cliff's remarks are interesting. We're seeing more and more developers banking on success with established brands, and the less profitable houses working on maybe XBLA, PSN or Facebook titles to make ends meet. Activision relies on Call of Duty and World of Warcraft to pay their colossal bills, whereas the smaller publishers must rely on their lower scale titles to profit. If your million dollar investment doesn't succeed, you haven't got much chance of surviving. Look at Bizarre.
But then, if the 'middle class game' is dead, and we're in the midst of a balancing act with big-budget and casual games, what's next to fall? Is Romero right? Will games and social networking eventually just merge into one, never to be the same again? Or is Cliff right, will triple As continue to prosper if developers work harder and strive to avoid stagnation. Because unlike the casual market - where creativity and genre thrives - the likes of Call of Duty, Gears of War, Uncharted and Halo tread a very well-known path. And if we're not careful, that path might lead to oblivion. And I don't mean Elder Scrolls!
Do you think triple A games are dying? Are the likes of Call of Duty and Halo doomed? Or, like Cliff, do you think they'll survive and go on? As always, sign off in the comments section below!