Gaming Gossip: Episode 15 - Should we be concerned about the future of AAA game development?

With further layoffs, studio closures, unreasonable expectations from publishers, and difficult to track consumer trends, we discuss if AAA game development is at a turning point, and what kind of impact it will have on developers like Ninja Theory ahead of their launch of Senua's Saga: Hellblade II.

Audio transcription

"Hello everyone and welcome back to another episode of Gaming Gossip. This is our 15th one and we're going to be celebrating. No doubts today. Don't you have any doubts today on which number is it?
No, I'm absolutely confident because I'll tell you why. I've been filling in a lot of our things behind the scene and I've actually prepared for this. So, you know, I'm ahead of the game here, I'm beating you to it a little bit. I did my homework for once. Yeah, today we're talking about something that is still kind of a hot topic. It's not as hot as it was last week, actually, because, you know, as things always happen, we record one of these videos and then something massive happens literally right afterwards. So, we kind of got caught out a little bit there. But essentially, the topic of conversation right now is about these sort of big publishers and the way they're sort of changing the way they're operating. It's kind of come to the fruition again because of the recent situation in regards to Microsoft and Xbox. You know, they've shut down four major studios. Well, four big studios, right? Not necessarily major, but Arkane Austin has been closed down. Tango Gameworks has been closed down, as well as a couple of sort of smaller studios in the form of Alpha Dog and... Roadhouse? The fourth one. Yes, Roadhouse. Exactly, yeah. The support studio for The Elder Scrolls. So, yeah, these studios have been shut down and it's led to a bit of a question as to what these sort of publishers expect from these studios and, you know, what the future of AAA is about. And that's come on top of a time, as well, where a lot of financial statements have gone out talking about the fact that these publishers want to scale back and maybe look at a more of a quality over quantity approach. It's sort of a cheap approach to these sort of game developments. So, the big question is, you know, what do we think the future holds for AAA? Are we happy with the direction it's going, or are we a little bit concerned with the way that AAA development is changing?
And multi-platform. So, it's fewer AAAs, smaller, perhaps, budgets and faster timing, but also they are all going more multi-platform. And I think we discussed a bunch of things related to this in the previous episodes in this very year when we were talking about how, you know, layoffs define 2023 and we're going to define 2024, sadly. And now this is just a result of, like the proof, right? A result of the financial year and reports that we got last week. So, we all get these announcements and then we wait for Summer Game Fest and the summer showcases to bring us, hopefully, the good news in the lead up to the fall, right? So, I think we shouldn't fear the end of AAA gaming at all. I think it's just going to be more multi-platform and I think it's going to be, they're going to be more careful in terms of choosing the genre, the approach, the platforms and not being led by trends so easily. At least that's my desire. I think we've seen many of them failure or fail because of the crazy moment or the crazy approach they were based on. And then fantastic, interesting games such as Immortals, Avian. I always forget the name of this. Immortals of Avian. I think that's a really interesting game that could have succeeded in previous generations. It just wasn't marketed in the right way and in the right moment and I think some publishers really don't understand some of the genres they make games for. Yeah, I think it's a very interesting thing as well because it's not... I'm also a little bit... I know it sounds strange but I kind of feel for the publishers a little bit at times because at certain times I don't quite understand what consumers want from games either. I mean, I know I'm kind of going to go off a little bit of a tangent here and I know Raf has prepared some trailers that you're seeing now. It's just something that's coming to the top of my mind. You're stepping up for the billion dollar corporations that can't defend themselves, Ben. It's a noble effort. I know it sounds like a bad take."

"I understand. Just give me a second to this. We want. Assassin's Creed Shadows is going to get unveiled in full this afternoon and I've seen a lot of people already saying I just want it to go back to the stealth roots. That's all I want. I want it to be back to the stealth sort of roots of Assassin's Creed. And then me thinking to myself, well didn't Assassin's Creed Mirage give you that back in October? And then I see people already replying it saying I don't know."

"I didn't play the game and I'm like, well, this is when I kind of get a little bit like...
a little bit sort of, again, I kind of start understanding where the confusion comes from with the AAA sort of publishers because you look at a game like Immortals of Avium and in many ways you kind of look at it and think it's got all the right things in place to succeed."

"Everything that you kind of would want out of a AAA sort of shooter action adventure sort of type game and yet it does really, really badly. Like not like, you know, the critical side of thing is one thing and it wasn't... it didn't get glowing reviews, it didn't get hammered, but it didn't get glowing reviews. But like literally nobody wanted to play it. It sold terribly and the studio has been absolutely devastated because of it. So I do start understanding a little bit where it comes from. That being said, there's been a lot of sort of live service games, a lot of sort of big things that have failed recently and a lot of things that should have failed. So I can kind of see it as well. But yeah, the consumer trend and the consumer space these days is very difficult to get tabs on. It's not as cut and dry as it once was. And I think that we can kind of attribute that to the fact that there's a lot of, you know, online is everything these days. And I'm not saying that every game needs to be online but, you know, when you look at where video games are as a whole compared to where they were a decade ago, it's a very different sort of space. But I don't know, what's your sort of take on it, Alex? I think it's, here's your title, it's over for gaming."

"It's over. Pack up your bags. We're all going to be talking about, you know, board games in the next week now. Is it over? I don't know. But I do think that's an interesting point about online being important because I think online as a gameplay function is not as important, not as big of a selling machine as it once was. But the ability to create a conversation online is something that matters more than anything now. The ability to, so, I don't know, what trailers does Mafia have? GTA 6. Let's go with that. GTA 6 was always going to be massive. But if we look at it, wow, you can look at it right here. If we look at it right now and we see how many views it got, there were people leaking that trailer ahead of time so they could get the sort of buzz of the game because it was just being talked about that much. And on a letter scale, something that's not maybe as monstrous as like GTA, but we can have GTA going in the background because it's a lovely trailer. But, you know, something like, I don't think Dark Souls gets as big as it does without people talking about it online. I don't think Helldivers 2 gets as big as it does without people posting it. And yes, the gameplay is fun for that. Yes, there's, you know, a lot of things and a lot of secrets and the game developers have done an excellent job to create the games there."

"But there are plenty of games that I've played, that you've played, that we've all seen in our jobs that do all of those things and yet they don't manage to succeed because no one's talking about them when they release. They haven't got that grassroots support of somebody marketing it by simply posting a tweet of them getting exploded while they're trying to, you know, destroy a bug nest or whatever. It's that intangible factor that no one's really quite managed to grasp, which is why I think consumers and publishers remain equally confused about what sells because they don't. It's like, you know, they say time's the fourth dimension because humans can't perceive time properly. Like, we have a clock or whatever, but we don't really understand time. We don't really understand that it passes because you can't feel it in the same way that you can feel like your desk or, you know, you can see things. I'm going a bit existential on this, I'd admit, but I feel like that's the intangible that game developers and publishers, because even you can have, like, a beloved IP. You can have a beloved franchise. Suicide Squad killed the Justice League. You can have that there and you can have all of these years of trust in Rocksteady and throw it all away because you decided to do what, on paper, could work. A beloved franchise meets one of the hottest things in gaming, which is live service, which is sort of coming to an end anyway, but ideally that works on paper, right? And yet it's an absolute plane crash, an absolute disaster, because no one wanted to talk about it in a good way. Because we are so extreme. We also discussed this very recently. We are so extreme and audiences are so extreme. I think the same happened, not to the same extent, but the same happened with Breadfall. Breadfall could have worked on paper and it's not just for me, for Rafa, to play one of the other, you know, assets we have here. But also just to mess things up with the Callisto protocol as well. I think, I mean, at least me, myself, I love that game and I think on paper both games could have worked wonders. Survival Horror, Resident Evil was very trendy. You got the guy who created Dead Space and then Breadfall, you have this talented studio and then they're trying their vampire approach and it's a multiplayer sort of live service approach to it. And they didn't work. But at the same time, I think what we are seeing is that they don't get more chances. Even if you succeed."

"Of course, it's not a AAA game, Hi-Fi Rush by Tango, but they came from creating The Evil Within and Godswire Tokyo. I think they're borderline, if not proper, AAA games.
And they succeeded with Hi-Fi Rush, which is a smaller budget. With that being said, I think it looks fantastic and production values are very interesting for that sort of AAA type of game. And we also got dubbing in Spanish, which for other Microsoft AAA games, we don't get for some reason. For Saixitra, we don't get any Spanish dubbing. And then for Hi-Fi Rush, it was like an anime to me. So what do you have to do? I don't think it's even the reflection that you made, you were reflecting on time and how we perceive things."

"And I understand what you mean, but does that save AAA? Does even save AA?
Like against games like this that I mentioned?
There's also a lot of pressure now, I feel like, on us as reviewers and critics. I often see the conversation around something getting a 7 or an 8 out of 10 nowadays, and that not being enough to please the audience that's coming. And it feels like now a lot of people need the Metacritic score to be 90 plus to even think about buying a game because there's so much saturation in the market and because games now, a lot of games from 10 years ago hold up brilliantly. And so what's the reason to play a new game? And it also puts a lot of pressure on a reviewer because you know at the end of the day that loads of people have worked really, really hard on this game. But to you, that game might not be great. For example, I was talking about, I know we don't have a trailer for it, I'm really sorry Raphael, but I was talking with our good friend and colleague Lassie about Animal Well. A game that's not for me, I can appreciate why people absolutely adore it, but I was saying it's not really for me. And yet if I put that position across as a reviewer, suddenly the onus is on me of, well, I'm sort of tanking whatever. 7 out of 10s now seen as tanking a score, 7 out of 10 seen as not good enough. And as you said Dav, it's like this extreme of like people need the 9s and the 10s to even go, okay, it's decent."

"That's publisher's fault, not yours or the audience. That's publisher's fault because in investor's calls, they talk about metascore. They talk about, we're going to release three games in the next financial year that are going to be above an 80% in metascore. That's how screwed industry is. And that makes us, as you say, that makes outlets like they want to go to either stream so that their review pops up more and it's crazy screwed for everyone involved."

"That's publisher's fault and I don't want to bring up Nintendo here because I want to bring them up when we talk about multi-platform and scaling down and what AAA means to them, which is different. But they trust their studios and their IPs and they take their time and they wouldn't shut down next level games if, I don't know, the latest Luigi's Mansion, which is not a AAA game, didn't succeed or get 80 plus Metacritic score. But Hi-Fi Rise is the worst example possible because they did succeed and they got all the awards and it's so sad."

"I'd like to just bring Final Fantasy VII Rebirth into the equation.
Do we have a trailer for this Ben? Hopefully.
But no, this is an interesting game to me because it is arguably one of the biggest AAA games of the year. And to be honest as well, considering the way that Dragon's Dogma kind of, for better phrasing, shit the bed post-launch, it could be arguably the best received game of the year so far. And yet, you know, it's a sequel to Remake, so people are already familiar with it."

"It has that going for itself. It's a well-known IP. Square Enix has given it plenty of time to develop. It's great quality, great sort of state and all that. And yet it's come out and it's underperformed. And you have to look at it and go, what was it expecting to perform at if it's underperformed for Square? That's another sort of thing that publishers do is they put these ridiculous sort of expectations on it. We don't know what exactly they were expecting, right? They just say it's not quite living up to expectations. Because the Metacritic score for this game is incredibly high, so it can't be a critical thing. It must be sales. So it's another one where you look at it and go, it's a AAA game, one of the biggest AAA games of the year. It's come out at a time where it's barely got, well, it's got limited competition really. And it's not done well enough."

"So consumers aren't interested in the way that Square Enix are hoping it. Square Enix is clearly not done up to their sort of standards. And it's this whole really confusing situation when there's an industry where everything's so twisted. Now, I mean, Final Fantasy is Final Fantasy, so I'm assuming that it will be fine. Maybe the third part, Re..."

I'm going to call it. Yeah, whatever they call it. I'm assuming that that will be fine and it'll get maybe it won't get a similar development budget as Rebirth got, but it'll come in time. But it is baffling, isn't it? And it makes you even more concerned for sort of smaller teams with massive pressure on them. And this is what I'm going to bring the conversation now to Ninja Theory and Hellblade 2. Because I think ever since Xbox shut down Arkane Austin and Tango, yeah, ever since ever since Xbox shut down Tango and Arkane and revealed that literally no one's safe from their wrath, you have to ask the question, is Ninja Theory safe as well?
Hellblade 2."

"I don't know. What do we think? Regardless of how Hellblade 2 looks, right? Because this game looks absolutely incredible. Are we fearful?
Let me ask you something before we answer you. What defines a AAA game? In the past, I would have said Hellblade 2 is a AA game. It's a smaller scale. I don't know about the exact budgets for the two games, but I think it's a smaller game, a smaller scale. I think it's a single player focused. I think it's a shorter story. I think they are sort of alternative in the type of story they want to tell, etc. They were all based on the audio and the art in a different way compared to the God of Wars and the Horizons and the open world and the Last of Us and the cinematic adventures. Would you say Hellblade 2 is a AAA game because production values got skyrocketed for the sequel and they also invested in technology and in art and in many things in the way it looks and it sounds and it plays? Or we stick to the previous sort of convention that AAA meant many more things, not just in terms of the genre being more ambitious and being more up there. How would you describe this in terms of Hellblade?
You see, the thing is that when you boil it down to what defines AAA and AA, you would tend to think that Hellblade 2 would tend more towards the AA side of things. But when you compare, when you look at the sheer amount of time that has gone into the development of this game, I think Ninja Theory is a significantly bigger studio than it once was as well. So there's a fair few developers working on this game. You have to assume that with the amount of time it's taken and with the production values of it, it's quite a costly game as well compared to the first game."

"And as well, when you look at the other AAA games that have come from Xbox, it's hard to look at Hellblade 2 as anything other than AAA as well.
And that's the thing that worries me.
Triple blade, yeah."

"That's going to be the third entry into the series.
Well, yeah.
Yes, hopefully.
But that's the thing that really worries me though is that is that if it is a AAA, if Microsoft and Xbox are looking at this game and expecting it to sort of live up to AAA values."

"That's what I mean, that's what I mean.
Then we're in, it's in trouble already. Because let's be real, right? The amount of people that are going to play Senua's Saga Hellblade 2 is going to basically be isolated to Game Pass players.
Like there will be people that buy the game, but the amount of people that play this game is going to probably come the majority from Game Pass. So something we saw as well with Hi-Fi Rush as well. And bearing in mind that game has now got a multi-platform approach."

"So I don't know what sort of metrics are going to judge this game on, but I'm already very concerned with it based on the way that Xbox have treated recent sort of titles.
It's also a sequel.
And if I'm correct, they forced a red fall on Ninja Theory right before this project."

"Am I right?
I can't recall the name of that game.
It was a fast combat third-person thing by Ninja Theory.
And it didn't succeed. It wasn't as popular as Redfall, but they pulled that on Ninja Theory."

"Yeah, I know the exact game.
I'm pretty sure Rafa has no trailer for this game.
Bleeding Edge.
Bleeding Edge.
Bleeding Edge, which by the way, artistically looked really interesting to me."

"But that's what I mean.
They will always say it was something that Ninja Theory wanted to create, that they wanted to try their hand at a multiplayer project, right?
But it didn't end Ninja Theory. It was other different times."

"And now they're doing their thing that they did with the previous game.
It's a similar case scenario compared to Alan Wake.
First, Alan Wake could have been defined as even an indie game, or a double-A, between indie and double-A."

"And now Alan Wake 2 looks very similar to me in terms of a scale compared to Hellblade 2.
Remedy will tell you it's triple-A, of course.
Yeah, they will.
Do we have to ask this question now, whether or not it's better for a developer to have the backing of a triple-A, a massive publisher, or whether it's better for them to take their own stock?
Define what they can do, like what Remedy has, right?
Remedy has made this game with publishing agreements and whatnot."

"They know what's going to make the success of Alan Wake 2.
And it's not selling 10 million copies at launch.
It's this slow burn.
And they've stated that multiple times."

"It's the slow burn that it'll eventually generate profit.
And that's the way they're going to do things.
So do we have to look at it now and say, maybe the acquisition spree and everything, people coming into these big publishers to get that so-for, you know, financial security."

"Is that not the way forward now for triple-A?
I guess game development as a whole.
The guy at Moon Studios, Thomas Maller, I think that's how you pronounce it, with an H, so I'm not sure."

"But he went into a bit of detail on this on Twitter or X, depending on how you refer to it.
And he's said that he'd been, you know, sort of approached for acquisitions after Ori and decided not to.
And, you know, obviously following the studio closures, that looks like the right move."

"But again, you never know what's going through, sort of, a developer's life cycle as they're about to be acquired.
And the same thing is, Xbox is really, sort of, this greed that it showed with wanting Activision Blizzard."

"This pushing through all the legal trials, all the people saying maybe you shouldn't do that, all these things to get this golden goose of the Call of Duty and Candy Crush and World of Warcraft creator."

"We're not going to see for a bit, I think, whether that's actually going to have paid off.
But already it is feeling like you've put all your eggs in this basket, because now Microsoft is looking a lot more closely at what Xbox is up to, whether it's generating profit."

"Whereas before, compared to sort of Windows and how else Microsoft makes money, Xbox had sort of been left to do its own thing for a little bit.
Whereas this $70 billion bet is something that has got everyone's eyes on Xbox.
Yeah, it's a very valid point."

"And I'm a little bit concerned.
I think that Senua's Saga Hellblade 2 will perform brilliantly and critically, I would assume.
I think that what we've seen so far is a good example of what the game will be."

"I mean, granted, there's obviously things that could happen that could sway that, but I would assume that this game is going to do well enough in a critical sense.
But I don't know.
Its sales is everything, right?
The consumer market is everything."

"So we'll see.
And we'll have to see what the future holds as well.
Again, it's going to be a busy summer.
There's going to be lots of things coming out and lots of announcements made."

"So maybe in a couple of months time, we'll be able to paint a more positive picture of the games industry.
But so far, 2024 has been a pretty miserable one.
So here's to hoping something will change in the near future."

"But otherwise, any final words, chaps?
Or should we conclude this episode of Gaming Gossip?
Gaming's over.
To you guys, I hope that it doesn't happen, but do you think Hellblade could get any type of ignorant backlash just because it's Microsoft, which would terribly impact the studio and not the Xbox brand, just because of what we saw last week?
Do you know what I mean?
Yeah, you mean like people not buying it because there's a boycott on it?
Not being careful with how they hit back in terms of what Microsoft did?
I would say that we're not going to see that for the simple reason I think we've already seen it go the other way, where people, consumers, outlets, everyone, they're all kind of already looking at it and going, Microsoft don't care about this game."

"They're not marketing it.
We've seen that.
There's very little marketing push for Hellblade.
So I think we're already seeing it the way where there's going to be sort of a consumer push to support Hellblade, which is good, right?
But I don't know whether it'll be enough to appease the trillion dollar monster that's Microsoft."

"Yeah, maybe.
Maybe it could be.
It's an interesting conversation.
Perhaps it gets a little bit unfairly overhyped."

"Do you know what I mean?
As in heavily promoted and overhyped for what it is, which is a win-win for Microsoft.
I mean, I'm perfectly fine for the studio, but they know what they do then."

"It's like Shogun.
Behind the scenes, they really wanted this to happen so that the marketing for the game is free.
You have to be a very, very bad person to do that."

"But it's going to happen, I think.
Perhaps next week we have to discuss Summer Game Fest and upcoming shows.
I don't know if you have any other plan."

"But I think it's going to be pretty tight, and it's going to be around the corner.
Backlog is not going to happen.
And Rafa can't gather so many trailers for the backlog discussion."

"Yeah, well, we'll get to that anyway, because we'll talk about Gaming Gossip episode 16, what it will be next week.
So stay tuned for that."

"It'll probably be something where we preview the shows ahead, because it's about time we do that.
Things keep happening, so we keep having to pivot away.
And yes, the backlog episode, don't expect it next week."

"It will come soon, maybe October.
Who knows?
Stay tuned for that.
Yeah, we'll do a spooky backlog episode on Halloween."

"But anyway, this is Gaming Gossip episode 15.
We've been the bad boys, Ben, Alex, and Dav.
And yeah, we'll see you on the next one.
Thanks for watching."





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