The dying throes of AAA

Bungie last week announced their new expansion for Destiny, The Taken King, and in the process alienated another big chunk of their fanbase. The motivation for their behavior is obvious: to extract as much money as possible from paying customers in a desperate attempt to postpone the inevitable. But it’s getting to the point where even the most indoctrinated players are starting to feel exploited.

At this point, aside from the cost of entry, there is no difference between the business models of AAA and free-to-play. Assassin’s Creed or Evolve, Candy Crush or Crossy Road, they all exist in order to create the perception of value for the digital wares they peddle. Of course that is just one way to look at it, and probably not the perspective of most if not all of their creators, but in a very real way this is the state of the industry.

There are reasons. Price-inflated skins and weapon packs pay for development of bug fixes and larger improvements and additions that players like. Considering the current size of AAA teams, they also pay retroactively for initial development of the game, and for the overhead of an enormous publisher. Deus Ex: Human Revolution was well received with critics (with the exception of the boss fights), but from the accountants’ perspective it was a flop. Despite Tomb Raider being the most successful Lara Croft game of all time, it took between nine and ten months to recoup development costs. Both have sequels in development, and players should probably not be surprised if they offer decidedly more purchasable extras than their predecessors. For the Tomb Raider sequel, Square Enix even struck an exclusivity deal with Microsoft’s to guarantee some amount of revenue.

What other options do developers have? Well, not a lot other than to reduce development costs. The model of creating a game and selling it for a price is continued now only by a few small developers, but all developers are fighting an uphill battle against commoditization in a saturated market. With the world population at an all-time high and the internet giving every studio access to a worldwide marketplace, even the extremely high skill level required to create good games is doing little to reduce the flood of new titles. And that leaves out the fact that games compete for players’ time against other forms of entertainment, all of which have an equally endless supply of quality content.

Entertainment today is a lot more about deciding what to skip than finding something to do.

And the problem is compounded when each game’s goal is to capture as much time and energy (and money) from each player as possible. As more and more of the game experience moves from the initial purchase to follow-on monetization, and the time investment required to generate value for those extras increases, the number of games a player can afford to play drops precipitously.

What do players get in return? How many of these games truly improve the lives of the majority of their players? Does downloadable content reduce that number? More developers and publishers thinking about questions like these could help the situation.

But capitalism naturally incentivizes consolidation of business entities until only the exploitative power of a monopoly can keep them from collapsing under their own weight. None of the big publishers has a monopoly.

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