Those that listen to the podcast could tell I have a certain love for single player and co-op games. I grew up playing the Double Dragon 2’s and Contra’s of the NES days, the Streets of Rage and ESWAT’s of the Genesis days and the Final Fantasy III’s of the SNES days. Suffice to say that with the release of God of War, being a single player experience, my interest is piqued. However, I am still split as a developer as to whether single player experiences could still remain a viable solution to game developers given the escalating need to continuously push content out to an ever consuming and growing group of players.
Without a doubt the number of titles we hear about today is much more (at least number wise) than those that we would hear about 20 years ago. Of course, a lot has changed, games are no longer just “for kids”, the revenue of game development (although volatile) is in the billions.
Obviously the business market has had to adapt to these changes. However, one other aspect of game development still looms over the heads of developers in the industry, job security. Games are a creative market, meaning that something that may seem cool or awesome to a team may end up not being as awesome as they thought by the public. People have different opinions of games and that affects judgement of them. Although I applaud companies like SONY, Bethesda and Bandai Namco for making amazing single player experiences, the cyclic game development process seems to leave many developers high and dry when the game is complete and the studio winds down their production cycle.
A typical example would be for a studio releasing a title, DLC that follows and then moving on to the next project. It may be a unknown to some folks, but there is a serious ramp from when a game following this development process goes into production. A team working on a AAA level title would usually start with about 45-75 folks depending on the scope of the game. This is basically the core team, these folks are full time, are the foundation of the studio and pretty much may never leave unless something crazy happens (which tends to happen at times) regarding a title failure. However this number is not nearly enough to roll out a title like Call of Duty or Assassin’s Creed. The team can ramp up to almost 300 people over the course of a year. 75 to 300 is quite the jump, and the majority of these people brought on board are not full time, they are contracted. Some of them will be extended contract, meaning brought on and kept for a few years, but the majority of staff is just there for the duration of the project. It means that when the project is winding down, so does their job at that studio and they are now off trying to find another job. Rinse and repeat.
This is so common in game development now that its taken for granted that developers should be prepared to move. It was something my friend Evan Salas from NetherRealm and I spoke about on our podcast recently. Moving is part of development. Personally I have moved over 8 times over the last 10 years (3 countries) pursuing my career in games. It takes a toll on someone after a while. Anyone who has moved can vouch for the pain (and cost) to move to a new place and settle down. But as I mentioned this is nothing new. So, that is the issue what solutions are there to this?
Enter the games as a service model. I know, even I am twisting my mouth at this terminology. The use of mtx (micro-transaction) models were first met with disdain in the West after doing exceptionally well in the Asian market. However, games like Fortnite and Warframe are showing players that such a model, when portrayed to the player in a certain way, are received well. What I am driving at here is that a version of this model can used moving forward with single player games.
Here is an example. God of War comes out and people love it. But do we need to make a second God of War in a few years or do we keep adding content to God of War. Can we have DLC or additional content similar to an expansion for another 5 years (to start)? We maintain the fun that is God of War, folks who purchase the game will get what they paid for, and we keep adding content to the game for years to come that we may otherwise add to the second version of the game that may come out in a few years. I think it has the opportunity to win both the player and the developer in terms of satisfaction and job security. God of War comes out, the team is already working on the expansion to the title, we maintain momentum with our staff size (and can even rotate team members out) as we move forward, the content keeps coming out, everyone is happy.
We are seeing this at the moment in a different light for games like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Since 2011 this game has been ported to several platforms and continues to get support and updates via both the developers and the community. Staff stays on board to do the ports (and keep their jobs) and folks are once again happy. Another scenario; let’s suppose that Valenwood (fan made name for Elder Scrolls 6) is in development.
Lets roll back a bit to Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. Sure the game has changed tremendously from the fourth to fifth iteration; the visuals have been improved, mechanics and gameplay have been changed. However we have seen such rampant changes in games like World of Warcraft via their expansions. Although WoW is a paid business model it is not to say that we could use these elements to build an expansion for a game like Skyrim without releasing and abandoning all of what Skyrim or Oblivion was. Case in point, the next Borderlands game.
I have always believed that the next Borderlands game (Borderlands 4, Borderlands Online or whatever the name may be) has the potential to be what Destiny is. Suppose the new Borderlands is announced at E3 (I hope it is) and shows multiple planets with multiple vaults (as shown at the end of Borderlands 2 – spoilers, sorry). For $40.00 you get this Borderlands upgrade and for $60.00 you get the Handsome Jack Collection with the new Borderlands as it is required to play the game. Pandora and the Moon (from the previous Borderlands games) are part of the new Borderlands. That way we are not just adding awesome content to a title people are anticipating but we are also letting developers continue to make awesome content to said awesome game.
Like any job, a happy (and secure) staff member can work a lot better than one that has no attachment to a project because in 6 months to a year they will no longer be part of this project. This is from personal experience, seeing team members jump onto projects mostly because “its work” rather than its something they want to do. I think giving developers the opportunity to stay at a studio to keep making content is something that can benefit both the player and the developer.
We are seeing inklings of this in current titles coming out today. Destiny 2 and Division 2 immediately come to mind. I don’t think it is necessary to call the game Destiny 2 or Division 2, when it could be a revamp, but I do understand the marketing implications. The “we know what we did wrongly, we learned from it, here is fresh slate lets drum up some attention” routine comes out here. I would think that as players we would know when a game goes through iterative upgrades and changes. Warframe and ARK have been going through changes for years. Neither of these games feels the same as they felt when they first launched. Warframe has improved by leaps and bounds and remains one of the most played games on Steam today with a community that has come back (including some like myself who are new to the game) because of constant changes and upgrades. Why can’t this model be incorporated into some of the mainstream games today? I am looking at you Call of Duty, Assassins Creed and Battlefield.