AAA Trouble

Chase Gamwell 2019-01-31

Art by Redline XIII

It’s easy to look at games like God of War, Red Dead Redemption 2, or anything on the Switch and say 2018 was another fantastic year for gaming. And for the most part, that sentiment is correct. At the same time, it casts an uneven spin on the realm of AAA titles, burying the reality of a worrisome trend that’s cropped up in recent years.

AAA developers – like EA, Ubisoft, and Bethesda – have always created new worlds for gamers to enjoy. Yet, these offerings have become bland, stale, stunted, and even disappointing. Worlds that used to excite us, now fill us with nostalgic longing for what used to be (spurring projects like Beyond Skyrim or Fallout: Miami).

And while good games can make us forget lackluster titles, they’re slowly starting to become the rule, rather than the exception.

Too Underwhelming?

Whenever the discussion about underwhelming games comes up, EA is at the top of every list. Their skill at making middling AAA titles is hard to rebut, with titles like Mass Effect: Andromeda and Battlefield V on the market.

EA, with Origin, has taken to granting 10 hour demos for their AAA titles. With each, players get full access to the game until the time limit is up. I think this is a great idea and decided to take advantage of the demo for Andromeda, but even with full access to everything the game has to offer I only managed to get about three hours in before moving on to something else. Even though the story was intriguing and the combat was mostly fun, it just wasn’t engaging. So, I uninstalled it and never looked back.

Battlefield V, on the other hand, is a different beast entirely. I was invited to take part in the closed, and open, Beta for the game, and I genuinely enjoyed my time with it, but couldn’t justify paying a full $59.99 (US) for the title (especially considering free alternatives like Planetside 2). Then, there was the media storm surrounding the way DICE decided to market the game. The backlash from social media, and journalists alike, created a whirlwind of negative publicity that overshadowed the game’s release. And, if anything, made it less palatable to everyone.

Then, there’s Anthem. I’m happy that Casey Hudson has returned to Bioware to work on the game, but I’m worried what it will be when it finally releases (we’ll find out in February).

(not) Reinventing the Wheel (enough)

Ubisoft, like EA, has a long history of beating its series like a dead horse. Most have hit a comfortable, familiar stride, making it easy to know what to expect when the next offering drops. To Ubisoft’s credit, they’ve tried over the past year to put a new coat of polish on some of their titles, but in my opinion, the attempt has proven only marginally successful.

The Crew was a fantastic game when it released back in 2014, and Ivory Tower made more than a few improvements over its lifetime. Needless to say, I was excited when the sequel was announced, but it lacked all of the first game’s charm. The campy story was replaced with a strange, poorly implemented, social media system that awarded “followers” (read: XP) for winning races. These acted as a barrier for entry to higher level challenges and events. But the way it was all implemented felt like busy work, and the races felt uneven. In the end, it couldn’t hold my attention for more than a few hours.

Far Cry 5 is another example of Ubisoft’s tried and true formula. I bought the game around the end of November (on deep sale) hoping it would be an interesting title to play with a friend, but found it far less enjoyable than previous titles in the series. It looks pretty good, and there’s plenty to do in the wilds of Montana, but after putting a significant amount of time into Ghost Recon Wildlands, Far Cry 5 feels like a lazy copy and paste job.

Which brings me to Assassin’s Creed…

This has been one of my favorite game series since it first arrived on PC way back in 2007. I really appreciated the change in direction with Assassin’s Creed: Origins, and the focus they put back on the “real world” narrative that’s been missing from the last few titles in the series, but I’m still disappointed by how much of a letdown it was. Last year, I wrote about Ubisoft’s open world formula and their heavy-handed guidance of players from one objective to the next. This, more than anything, colors my feeling towards the present, and probably future, of the AC series. And I think that this, more than anything, is going to be the long-term stumbling block the series will have to overcome to be a AAA powerhouse again.

All of this makes me worry about Division 2. The first game was just okay, and the developers have said that the second title in the series fixes a lot of gripes player’s had, but I’m worried about Ubisoft’s ability to pull off a passable rework that’s going to feel fresh enough to justify the AAA price (because the first game definitely wasn’t there).

Laziness?

With Fallout 76, the developer that can do no wrong, is finally getting flack for some of their shoddy development practices. I defended 76 at the end of last year, and still maintain that it’s good, but I can see where people are coming from when they complain about the game. I understand. And I’d have no right to criticize EA or Ubisoft if I didn’t acknowledge that some of the same laziness I’ve accused those developers of has rubbed off on Bethesda.

There’s been a lot of “doom and gloom” in the media regarding Bethesda’s future after the Fallout 76 debacle. I still believe in Bethesda and the worlds they’re capable of creating, but I do agree that 76 has painted a large question mark over the developer’s future. Especially when companies like CD Projekt RED, and now Obsidian (with their recent acquisition by Microsoft and the announcement of their new game in 2019), are starting to elbow in on Bethesda’s previously uncontested territory.

Starfield is going to be a make or break title for Bethesda. Besides gameplay, story, and graphics, delivery is going to be paramount. Will it be something polished, or will it house many of the familiar bugs Bethesda games are known for? In the case of the latter, I think a similar backlash to what was seen with 76 can be expected. We’ll just have to wait and see…

Mobile Mania

Finally, there’s the AAA push towards mobile. I’m not going to belabor the point, but more than a few developers are looking to move into the mobile space, gamer preferences be damned. Everyone saw the infamous Blizzcon moment where developers responded to booing fans by asking, “Do you guys not have phones?” Then, there’s EA taking Command & Conquer mobile. Not to mention Fallout Shelter and, later this year, The Elder Scrolls: Blades, from Bethesda.

There’s nothing wrong with mobile, but when there isn’t really much of a hardcore market for it (in the US, anyway), I don’t see the reason to push so hard in that particular direction.

Show Me the Money

The slow, inexorable decline of AAA titles has been happening for years. By saying that, it isn’t my intention to bring down all the men and women who work tirelessly to create every game I’ve mentioned. On the contrary, kudos to the people who make such sweeping entertainment possible.

But, honestly, the fault doesn’t lie with them.

As the realm of video games has grown and matured, so has the end goal of game development. For the people making the games, passion for the project is still the driving force, but for the corporations overseeing the developers, money takes center stage. It’s the reason why larger companies gobble up smaller developers for blockbuster franchises. It’s the reason why companies push unrealistic expectations on developers (like the rush EA pushed on Mass Effect: Andromeda and Activision’s road map for the Destiny games). It’s the reason why so many companies have eschewed expansions for DLC (ironically, started by Bethesda’s infamous Horse Armor). And it’s why so many modern games feature micro transactions, loot boxes, unique currency, seasonal expansions, and the “games as service” model.

Underdogs to the Rescue

In 2019, I think smaller studios have a unique opportunity to succeed where some of the bigger ones are falling short. Sony has already shown that, if given ample creative space, developers can go the distance. Santa Monica Studios exemplified this in 2018 with a fantastic offering in the God of War series. And Microsoft seems poised to follow in Sony’s footsteps with the acquisition of Obsidian. Their pending game, The Outer Worlds, seems to be the RPG everyone was hoping for in Fallout 76. And if everything works out just right, we’ll get a chance to see for ourselves in 2019.

That’s where most of this year’s excitement seems to originate – smaller studios, developing exciting ideas from the heart. And I can’t wait to see what we get!

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Comments

  • Lrrp

    So is there any games worth the price of admission. Seems like all of your comments are negative about the games you list.

    January 31, 2019 at 12:46 pm
    • Carvj94 Lrrp

      Fallout 76 is good. People shit on it for Bethesda day one bugs but most of its been patched out leaving it where it is now as the buggy yet fun mess that Skyrim and Fallout 4 before it. Plus lack of NPCs doesn’t matter when your playing multi-player. If your playing it solo it won’t be quite as fun but multi-player absolutely makes it more fun.

      January 31, 2019 at 3:24 pm
    • elaqure Lrrp

      I guess the real question is, what are you willing to put up with? Most AAA titles seem to have SOME issue these days, and those can sway what you might be willing to spend money on. Like Carvj94, I think Fallout 76 is great despite all of the issues at launch. And I’ll still spend money on Ubisoft games because I like how they play even though the game loop can get repetitive after a while.

      February 1, 2019 at 3:25 pm
      • Carvj94 elaqure

        I think for so long games have been getting better that what people perceive as them getting worse is in reality just stagnation. Like Fallout 76 which gets unending shit even though it’s very clear that it’s just as buggy as its predecessors and only really suffers from lack of NPCs. Then you get the Assassins Creed series which up until Origins was practically the same game repackaged several times. A great game but generally the same. I know in the last several years it’s happened a lot where I stop playing a game and never beat it even though it’s good and I liked it. Only played Red Dead 2 up til chapter 4 and I’d still give it game of the year.

        February 2, 2019 at 11:38 am
  • Guilford Australis

    I can sympathize with the writer’s sense of ennui. Partially due to increasing demands related to work and family as I get older, but also for some of the reasons given in the article (especially the derivative nature of many triple-A games), I only play about one new game a year. Virtually all of the time I set aside for gaming goes into EVE.

    The last game I pre-ordered was Horizon Zero Dawn (February 2017), and most of the games I buy on Steam are ones I’ve already played on older consoles but end up buying again when they drop to about 85% off. Realistically, my backlog on Steam and other systems is so long that even if I stopped buying games today, quit/won EVE, and lived to be 95 I wouldn’t be able to finish all of it. That’s usually what’s going through my head when I debate whether to buy a new game.

    January 31, 2019 at 3:53 pm
  • Zaand

    “There’s nothing wrong with mobile, but when there isn’t really much of a hardcore market for it (in the US, anyway), I don’t see the reason to push so hard in that particular direction.”

    If you really can’t see the reason to push into mobile then you are pretty myopic. Game developers – and game publishers to a much larger extent – don’t give two flying fucks whether you are a “hardcore” gamer (whatever the fuck that even means anymore) or are an octogenarian who bought their first console yesterday. The fact of the matter is that mobile IS the future. Everyone owns a phone. That’s where the money is because that is such a huge percentage of market share that not only is PC gaming completely irrelevant at that point, but console gaming pretty much is as well. There’s a reason why Zynga was for a time the most successful gaming company on the planet.

    Using terms like hardcore gamer reels of the same sad, contrived elitism that sparked gamer gate. We are not owed anything from game developers, and “gamer” is not a social identity, it’s a hobby. I don’t know where so many of my gaming peers evolved this sense of entitlement, but I really wish people would chill with this shit. If a game sucks, don’t buy it. If a developer takes an IP that you love and shits all over it, then, again, don’t buy it, enjoy the fond memories and realize that eventually every IP is going to be beaten up and whored out until it’s a shell of its former self.

    January 31, 2019 at 8:48 pm
    • elaqure Zaand

      I get where you’re coming from, but I don’t see terms like “gamer” or “hardcore gamer” as dripping with elitism or entitlement (maybe hardcore gamer a little bit). Being a gamer is a hobby, but winds up being so much more for some. I mean…I play games, then spend time on top of that *writing about games*. And I build computers to play games. And build computers so others can play games. I’d like to think this is the rule, rather than the exception…

      As far as developers and publishers go, I understand their goal is to make money, but it’s also important to recognize that the consumer is not a piggy bank. Monetizing ever aspect of a game makes the company money, but it also drives consumers away. I will play games on my phone, but I prefer the ones that offer a one-time purchase over ads, and premium currency, and loot boxes, and, and, and…

      Also if Cyberpunk does suck…T_T

      February 1, 2019 at 3:42 pm
    • Carvj94 Zaand

      I think your way wrong by saying mobile is the future. That implies that it’ll one day replace consoles or pc when in reality it’ll always just be an alternative. Just like VR.

      February 2, 2019 at 11:28 am