Technology and the market will set the cost of triple-A productions – it’s not an inevitable and negative escalation

There’s been a lot of news stories today based a comment by ex-PlayStation boss Shawn Layden concerning the rising cost of triple-A games and how that would force publishers into more conservative creative decisions. 

For those who haven’t seen the Bloomberg piece let’s quickly recap on how it was framed.

‘Game development “seems to double in cost every platform,” Layden said, noting that his budgets for recent big PlayStation 4 titles each hit $100 million. “If we can’t stop the cost curve from going up, all we can do is try to de-risk it. That puts you in a place where you’re incentivized toward sequels.” He predicted that PS5 games will cost $200 million to make and that prices will continue to grow exponentially from there… The result of these higher budgets is an endless cavalcade of stale annual releases in ubiquitous series like Call of Duty and Madden.’

The comment plays into a long held narrative that the cost of games has been escalating with each generation. That’s basically true at the cutting edge, such games have become more complex and graphically lush. The cost of production has been heading steadily upwards, although it should be noted that it doesn’t really step up discretely from generation to generation. 

Games for the new crop of consoles will, on average, undoubtedly cost more than those for the last generation. Or at least they would if we could divide out say the cost of the PS4 version of Horizon Forbidden West from the PS5 version of the same game. 

That’s not just a neat conceit though to obfuscate rising costs. The sheer fact that the dual-format release is possible comes thanks to huge engineering improvements in the technology behind games over the last decade specifically. Cross platform releases come alongside other advancements that will help hold the cost of games down from the kind of escalation that Layden is describing. 

We’ve already seen with Unreal Engine 5 that the latest tech is capable of sourcing textures directly from high-resolution libraries created initially for filmmaking. While improved lighting features will ease the workload elsewhere. The same goes for scripting and level design, and a myriad of other asset creation workloads.

These things take time to bed in, but developers are better equipped to make top-tier titles than they ever have been. And that’s without looking at the trends for user-generated content or machine learning-made assets. And that’s not to mention the savings made by increasingly sophisticated outsourcing and co-development techniques. 

Secondly, cost never stands alone. The games market is still growing and looks set to continue to grow for the foreseeable future. If we have more users buying more games then the industry can afford to spend more on them. If those top-tier games remain profitable, both in and of themselves and in respect to the earnings of the wider ecosystem, then why not continue to create them – whatever the budget may be.

Further to that, the era of the monster blockbuster might be numbered. It looks likely that Game Pass and Microsoft’s associated development strategy has changed the landscape from ‘massive and occasionally’ to ‘good but often’. The biggest hits are supported beyond release rather than piling on endless content at launch. Think Netflix and the way it greenlights continuing series. 

Finally let’s tackle the idea that bigger costs mean reduced risks. If the doubling of triple-A game budgets every generation has brought stagnation and a lack of creativity then I’ve not noticed it. Sure there are big franchises that people love and want to return to. But the PS4/Xbox One cycle also included incredible new and exciting experiences, such as the aforementioned Horizon Zero Dawn. 

Arguably if you’re looking for the most innovative experiences in any other form of media you don’t look at the most sumptuous of productions. The improvement in development tools has brought a huge raft of indies into the console ecosystem. They may not be triple-A fodder but much like arthouse movies they do provide fresh ideas for bigger outfits to take on later. That’s simply how mature artforms function.

$200m makes a good headline, something that Layden is surely aware of after decades at Sony without having barely put a foot wrong when it comes to a quote. However I’m far from convinced that the price of producing triple-A titles will double again over the next six or seven years and even if it does I’m not that concerned about it. 

About Seth Barton

Seth Barton is the editor of MCV – which covers every aspect of the industry: development, publishing, marketing and much more. Before that Seth toiled in games retail at Electronics Boutique, studied film at university, published console and PC games for the BBC, and spent many years working in tech journalism. Living in South East London, he divides his little free time between board games, video games, beer and family. You can find him tweeting @sethbarton1.

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