Polygon has commissioned and published a debate between Amy Hennig (recently at Visceral Games of course) and Sean Vanaman (from Firewatch developer Santo Campo) as part of its 2017 Year in Review series. It’s a lengthy piece with lots to take from it but Hennig’s view of modern games development, with its increasing costs and challenges, are particularly intriguing; taking a swing at game streamers, saying that they are partly responsible for the downturn in the fortunes of narrative-driven games.
Hennig starts by discussing how hard the triple-A space has become and the difficulty of making the numbers add up in big budget games – referencing her project at Visceral as an example.
"Obviously what happened with our Star Wars project didn’t come out of the blue … there is a real problem: this line we’ve been running up to for a lot of years, which is the rising cost of development, and the desires, or the demands even, of players in terms of hours of gameplay, fidelity, production values, additional modes, all these things. Those pressures end up very real internally. If it costs you, say, $100 million or more to make a game, how are you making that money back, and making a profit?" Adding: "And the $60 price point can’t change, right?"
She goes on to discuss more recent innovations in monetisation: "There’s a lot of negative press around monetization, loot boxes, games as a service, etc. but these things are trending now in the industry, especially for larger publishers, as an answer to the problem of rising development costs. Budgets keep going up, the bar keeps getting raised, and it starts making less and less sense to make these games.
And she wonders whether the audience for single-player games is as strong as it was: "There is also this trend now that, as much as people protest and say, ‘Why are you canceling a linear, story-based game? This is the kind of game we want,’ people aren’t necessarily buying them. They’re watching somebody else play them online."
"If it costs you, say, $100 million or more to make a game, how are you making that money back, and making a profit?"
On that theme she continues: When you’re spending millions on a story-based game that may not be perceived to have long-term value beyond that one playthrough, the question is, ‘Well, why would anybody buy this if they can just watch somebody play it?’
Despite being somewhat negative about streaming of actual games, she’s very interested in how the likes of Netflix and Amazon may enter the interactive entertainment space: "…you’ve got other giants entering the fray like Netflix and Amazon, who want to get into this business and have money to spend. So I think it’s going to be interesting to see where this collision — we’ve talked about it for years and years — between traditional linear media and interactive media, but without the intimidating obstacle of a 15-plus-button game controller, takes us."
And looking at the future she wonders just how many more games she’ll get to make – given the lengthy development times involved with the biggest titles.
“Well, if a game takes three, four, five years to make, and I’m 53, how many at-bats do I have left?” And you don’t want to waste those. I haven’t had something published since 2011, and it’s killing me. I worked on Uncharted 4 for two and a half years, and then I worked on the Star Wars game for three and a half years. A lot of the work, thankfully, lived on in U4, and we’ll see what happens with the Star Wars thing. But you think, “OK, wait a second. It was that easy to burn six years and not publish anything.”
This is only one part of what is a great article and Vanaman’s input provides a great triple-A to indie counterpoint, so go and check out the whole thing if you have time.