Is Money Killing the Creativity of Video Games?

Last week a friend and I were lamenting the fact that a company like Square Enix had fallen so far from grace. This was a company that we once revered and thought could do no wrong (or at least Square Soft couldn’t). The company that brought us Chrono Trigger, Xenogears and Secret of Mana now only relied on one franchise, Final Fantasy, and many fans feel that even that franchise is on the decline.

But why was that? Obviously, one problem is that the talent which made Square so successful has been leaving the company. But I think it goes deeper than that. My own personal theory is that Final Fantasy VII and VIII had been too successful. Final Fantasy VIII shipped 8.15 million copies while Final Fantasy IX only shipped 5.3 million. While still commercially successful and critically successful, it was clear that in terms of sales, there was a clear drop off between Final Fantasy VIII and IX. So Square went back to using the formula laid out in Final Fantasy VII and VIII, with pretty graphics and similar characters.

But it’s not just that the graphics or stories are becoming formulaic. A couple of weeks ago, Lydia wrote a wonderful piece on Neoseeker about the state of horror. Why games like Dark Souls and Tomb Raider were scarier than games like Dead Space and Resident Evil which were supposed to be based around horror. But what she doesn’t mention is that, this is a conscious effort on the part of the developers to go make these more action-oriented. In an interview with Gamasutra, Resident Evil: Revelations producer, Masachika Kawata mentions that the market for survival-horror genre is too small for Capcom to revert back to that game style, stating:

“Looking at the marketing data [for survival horror games] … the market is small, compared to the number of units Call of Duty and all those action games sell,” he said. “A ‘survival horror’ Resident Evil doesn’t seem like it’d be able to sell those kind of numbers.”

In fact, according the NPD data from 2011, survival-horror doesn’t even register as a genre in their sales breakdown. Combine that with the fact that action and shooting games made up 37.4% of the total game sales in the US and it’s easy to see why developers are making a conscious effort to take their franchises in that direction.

However, considering how much money goes into the development of video games now, it’s hard to blame developers for “playing it safe.” On average, the development costs of a typical current gen title is around $20 million. For AAA game the costs rise to somewhere between 3 to 5 times that amount. That means that if we assume that a game costs $60 to purchase from the retailers, the developers need to sell at least 1 million units just to break even on a AAA title. And that’s before we even consider the fact that retailers need to make money as well and probably only buys them from the publisher at about half the retail price.

But therein lies the problem. In an industry that thrives on creativity, developers and publishers are now too risk averse to try anything truly different. Wolfenstein, Resident Evil/Bio Shock and even Grand Theft Auto came to be a part of our everyday lives because companies dared to take those risks. Now, those games get repeated over and over again. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that there aren’t some great games out there. Like I said in in my previous post, my favorite games are Mass Effect and Uncharted. But the fact of the matter is that most games have become somewhat formulaic, using the same gimmicks over and over again. That’s why we have new Call of Duty and Battlefield games every year now.

So does this mean doom and gloom for the gaming industry? Well, not exactly. With the rise of indie games, crowd-funding and increasingly more sophisticated software, we’re still able to get new and innovative games. Yes, these games won’t be AAA quality and will obviously have significantly less funding that your average mainstream game. But in a sense, isn’t that a part of what we love about video games? The fact that these are a labor of love and not because it’s “safe?” Besides, who knows? Maybe we’ll get that one breakout hit that causes everyone else to reconsider how their development process works.