2017 was an interesting year in gaming. We had a strong first half that tapered off into a weaker second half. Mostly though, it highlighted a growing rift in the industry that I’ve been observing for a few years now: The commercial vs the creative.
As AAA game have dived further down the path of maximum monetization we are seeing a pushback. These games are, without a doubt, still massive sellers that dominate the charts, but gamer frustration at the poor business practices, lack of consumer empathy and drought of originality is beginning to show.
Look at any top games of the year for 2017 and you will see that the ‘top dogs’ are starkly lacking. Titanic games like Call of Duty, Destiny 2, Shadow of War and Star Wars Battlefront 2 had the budgets and talent to succeed but only achieved anger from the public, Battlefront 2 potentially having inadvertently drawing the battle-lines in the microtransaction war for the year to come as governments are now stepping in.
It was games like Cuphead, Nier Automata, Nioh, Horizon Zero Dawn, Mario Odyssey and Breath of the Wild that dominated peoples’ hearts. Notice anything they have in common? They are all singleplayer, story driven games without invasive microtransactions. To be fair, Nintendo is certainly a AAA developer but they have always done their own thing in the face of current trends.
One side of the industry is trying to double down on profits at the expense of their games and audience while the other half is is making quality games that make impressive profits without needing anything beyond the initial price of sale. The AAA side keeps saying that games need to be multiplayer focused, that people don’t care about story modes, and that they need to nickel and dime consumers to stay afloat yet it is them who seem to be on the back foot at the moment. Things are working for them right now, but we are seeing the shift now.
Developer Ninja Theory decided to forgo traditional publishers and released their (singleplayer, story driven) game, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice independently, proudly presenting it as an Indie AAA. They proposed shaking up the firmly established idea that all full games are released at £40/$60 regardless of content and quality. Judging by its reception, I’d say they succeeded. Time will tell if others latch onto a similar practice.
It is kind of weird really. Gaming is at the forefront of technology yet it is behind the times. So much that the industry practices are out of date. Games journalism is, by and large, a corporate mouthpiece that is already seeing itself fade against online personalities but the very idea of publishers is changing with the rise of the indies. Be it music, books or games, independent talent has been shining through and gaining increased traction. Indie games have become a massive sub-industry and some of the more astute gaming companies have been taking note.
People are starting to realise that they can make a stand and actually make a difference. The fallout from Star Wars Battlefront 2 is a good example of this, but then so is its actual sales figures. Still massive, but falling. Physical sales of Battlefront 2 were down 60% from number 1, while Destiny 2 was down over 50%. Granted, these are only physical sales. As time goes by more people will move to digital sales, but not such a huge amount in such a short time.
We are seeing a split between creativity and business. Are games art? Entertainment? Products? They are all of the above, but to what extents. Will the big publishers win out with their giant marketing budget and teams of analysts working out the best monitization implementations, with their focus groups and one shape fits all, mass market approach win out, or will quality shine through. Imagination vs calculation. Experimental vs tried and true. Player experience vs player engagement.
I believe we will see this rift continue to grow. Only time will show us the victor.