It’s no secret that gaming is bigger now than ever. The games industry rivals the films industry, and new titles come out each and every week. Some games dominate our time and give us new experiences that we love and talk about, while some pass by unnoticed. In both cases however, these are games made by teams of people that have devoted themselves to creating something. And that human element is a part of the equation the rest of us forget all too easily.
Be it the controversial release of ARK: Scorched Earth, the even more controversial response to No Man’s Sky, or the general worries and criticisms gaming fans leverage against the industry, far too often the development side of the process, that human element, is left out of the discussion.
Over four decades in and gaming is still a relatively young medium. Even today we are still seeing growing pains. Early Access, Kickstarter, and even season passes, while all being some of the most hotly debated aspects of modern gaming, are all also part of an industry still struggling to find and stabilize itself. Add in the advent of VR, the rise of indies, and digital distribution, and the industry 20 years from now will look even more different than today looks from the 1990s.
The Cost of Gaming
A passionate hobby, a creative outlet, and a business, the games industry is a lot of things to a lot of different people. And it’s in the intersection between all three of those descriptions that the problems usually rear their ugly heads. In order to really discuss this point however, its important to realize much of modern gaming revolves around a specific fact: games are incredibly expensive to make, and yet still relatively cheap to buy.
The budgets for specific games are notoriously hard to find, publishers and developers usually remaining fairly tight-lipped. From the rough estimates we do have however, there’s a clear pattern. 2006 saw the release of one of the Xbox 360’s gems, Gears of War. While admitting that the ultimate cost was lower than it would have been had Epic not been able to use their in-house Unreal Engine 3, VP Mark Rein placed the development budget “around $10 million.” Releasing the next year, creator Ken Levine placed the development cost for the original BioShock at $15 million.
For comparison, speaking with Kotaku in the run-up to the PS4 launch in 2013, Sony’s Shuhei Yoshida placed the average late-cycle PS3 game between $20-$50 million to develop, with a guess that current gen games (PS4, Xbox One) would be “slightly larger.” Around the same time, Watch Dogs Executive Producer Stéphane Decroix simply stated the game’s budget was “beyond 50 million euros,” meaning that the game cost over $68 million.
Even with larger teams, games that are more complex, and graphics that continue to reach higher levels of fidelity than ever hoped for, the standard price tag is still $60, pegged there since the beginning of the Xbox 360 life cycle. With inflation, that $60 for Gears of War in 2006 would translate to just under $72 in 2016. Flip it around and the $60 we are paying now was worth just over $53 in 2006.
And this certainly isn’t a new issue. “$60 for a game is a little insane,” Epic Games Creative Director Adrian Chmielarz said in an interview with Games Industry back in 2014. Reflecting on the critical success and commercial failure of his 2011 game, Bulletstorm, Chmielarz explained, “The saying in the industry right now is, ‘If you want to sell a game for $60, to the player it has to feel like $200.’ Bulletstorm was a $60 game for $60.” While his ultimate argument was against games using “filler” to bolster their perceived worth, his words still strike at the root of the problem: gamers want more bang for their buck, and developers are left to figure out how to make that happen.
Early Access is for the Developers
Everywhere you look in the modern games industry you will find evidence of this exact conflict. Gamers are searching for the best games to spend their money on, with ‘best’ usually being a complicated mix of size, content, and quality. Meanwhile game developers are doing everything they can to deliver on that content and that quality, while keeping below the $60 price point. And it’s here that the less savory aspects of monetization find their place.
Game developers don’t get into making games for the money. Call of Duty and runaway indie hits are aberrations from the norm, with most studios working to make enough money to fund their next game. Sometimes it works out, and sometimes it doesn’t. It’s the point of Steam Early Access and crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter to help take some of the risk and struggle out of making that next game.
Keeping this in mind, we can then look at the recent case of ARK: Survival Evolved. With development starting in October 2014, the game first went live through Steam Early Access in June of 2015. The Xbox One version then soon followed in the Xbox Game Preview Program in December, 2015. Though scheduled to officially release this past summer, developer Studio Wildcard delayed the game’s full release to December.
Grabbing headlines recently, however, is the game’s first paid expansion, ARK: Scorched Earth. Released last week, while the main game is still technically not complete, Scorched Earth runs fans an additional $20 on top of the $40 they likely already paid for Survival Evolved. You need only look online to see the disappointment in the game’s community, one Reddit user for instance, putting it bluntly, “We did not ‘get what we paid for’. We got scammed with a bait and switch.”
It’s very easy for any discussion like this to fall into the trap of ‘entitled gamers’ versus ‘greedy game developers.’ But its exactly distinctions like that I want to avoid. Gamers are not acting entitled when they want more transparency from a developer, just as developers aren’t being greedy when they charge for the work they have done.
Reacting to the outcry, Studio Wildcard put out a statement responding to the community, emphasizing, “Everyone at Wildcard wakes up every day thinking about how we can make ARK into a better game today than it was the day before. It’s not always easy, but our intent is ever-forward progress towards a retail release.” The fact the developers even had to come out with such a statement stems from the same conflicting points of view, with fans too easily placing a maniacal motive behind admittedly poor business decisions, and losing sight of the people behind the games they love so much.
With multiple free updates and continuing work on the game throughout Early Access, there is nothing to suggest Studio Wildcard would purposefully lie or cheat their fans. And it’s much too far of a step to assume that they ever would. But thanks to the harsh reaction from the internet, we have a team of people finding themselves compelled to explain that they in fact do care about the project they have worked on for the past two years.
Mistakes do Happen
To be fair, there’s no denying some games are in fact poorly made cash-grabs. Often rushed to meet a deadline and given limited resources to work with, more than a few licensed, movie tie-in titles come to mind. One of the most famous failures in gaming history, Atari’s E.T. The Extraterrestrial, is just such a game. The excavated New Mexico landfill of abandoned cartridges is almost a monument to cash-grabs everywhere. But it’s unfair to lump such titles with games that simply didn’t turn out as well as people hoped.
Since it’s release, the discussion of No Man’s Sky as a game has faded away to be replaced with seemingly nothing but a discussion of marketing. Everything else aside, No Man’s Sky is a game that obviously suffered a lot during development. Even without the delays and long development cycle dating back to 2012, the changes seen in the game over the past three years are more than evidence enough. The game was massively ambitious, and in order to realize any of that ambition, things had to be changed.
With the release of No Man’s Sky, the hype, hope, and passion of gaming fans pushed them to pick up the game without learning all that much about it. The four trailers released in the months leading up to the title’s release show the final version of the game. Reviewers, and streamers immediately got to work showing off and critiquing the game from day one. So is No Man’s Sky at the center of a lie-filled conspiracy to disappoint sci-fi fans? No. It’s an ambitious, flawed game from a 16-person indie studio in Guildford, England and a victim of its own original ambition and a failure of communication.
Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto famously said, “A delayed game is eventually good, but a rushed game is forever bad.” Given an unlimited amount of money, that used to be true. But since few developers can afford delay after delay, eventually it just becomes a monetary necessity to release the game. And in modern gaming, patches can fix problems and add even more content.
Don’t get me wrong, I hate when a game launches with glitches as much as the next gamer, a fact that plays directly into our reviews. And I am not arguing that glitches and future patches are the way to go. But patches, Early Access games, and the occasional less-than-stellar game are all integral parts of modern gaming.
In the cases of No Man’s Sky, ARK: Scorched Earth, and the myriad of monetization techniques, be they season passes or microtransactions, the goal of game developers is never to make gamers feel cheated or hurt. Games are made to entertain us, but unfortunately they take a lot of time and money to make. And that business side of the balance act isn’t going anywhere soon.
As the industry continues to grow, developers will learn what works and what doesn’t, games getting better for it. But as gamers, we need to meet them halfway. While staying vigilant for the few that are in it for the quick buck, we can still appreciate and respect those developers that are in it to make great games, even if they do make mistakes now and then.