Last week, EA officially closed Visceral, the developer behind Battlefield Hardline, Army of Two, Dante’s inferno, and Dead Space while they were in the middle of developing a single-player Star Wars game that was angling to be a more traditional action-adventure style game… something EA has obviously been gravitating away from. In recent years, EA has been the forerunner of the “games as a service” model that seems to be the inevitable future of our industry, and to spearhead this particular notion, they’ve been doubling down on games that have compatible models. Which is to say, multiplayer games with high replayability and lots of avenues to include microtransactions and paid, expanded content.
Which makes the closing of Vicreal an unsurprising move. Their specialty was in the single-player experience and while there’s certainly a place for single-player games in the “games as a service” model, the industry’s not quite ready for it yet. That’s for the not-so-distant future when games steal the Netflix approach entirely, paying a monthly fee for access to a library of games. Love it or hate it, that’s just the direction I see games taking, for all the good and bad implied therein.
Regardless. One of Viceral’s old employees, a man named Zach Wilson who worked as a Designer for Hardline, went on twitter last week and confirmed some suspicions people had surrounding the closing… and giving us all a hard slap in the face regarding the reality of modern game development.
“Dead Space 2 cost 60 Million dollars to make and they were merciless with their budget. they only sold 4 mil and that wasn't enough. Cause you gotta spend 60 million dollars marketing it and you take a huge hit from MS and retailers taking their cut.”
While specific numbers are hard to come by for Dead Space 2, as EA never bragged about how much money they made, they did announce that they sold 2 million copies in in the first week of release. In theory, that would mean that in the first week, EA made something like $120 million… except EA doesn’t get all 60 dollars of that initial purchase: even if bought over Origin they only get 90% of final sales. For retailers, it’s closer to 50%, so if we assumed that most of these 2 million copies were bought in a store, that means EA only actually got 60 million from those first two million purchases. Enough to cover the marketing of the game.
Not every sale happened in store, so that number should be higher. Which means that by the time they hit that 4 million sales mark, EA should have made their money back and then some… but then it wasn’t sold for a full 60 dollars the whole duration. Which means it’s very possible that by the end of the day, EA either barely made any money on their single-player horror game or they actually lost money on it, despite all the praise and acclaim the game inspired.
That, obviously, isn’t a good way to make money. And worse still, Dead Space 2 was released in 2011: that was six years ago (god, I feel old). In the years since, the games industry has gotten far bigger, the technology powering it has gotten way stronger, and the cost of developing a game has gone way up. Again, exact estimations are hard to find, but from what I could dig up it costs on average 80-100 million dollars to make a triple-A game these days... and while the audience has certainly grown larger, it hasn’t grown large enough for those prices to be equitable to the old 10 million mark that PS2 and Xbox games could be developed on.
And of course, there are always the super-expensive mega-games. The most expensive game on record to develop is still GTA 5, which cost 285 million bucks.
It’s almost enough to make someone sympathize with game developers and excuse their insane schemes for draining your wallet of funds, but you have to remember before you start using these statistics to defend game developers, that his is all of their own doing. In fact, I’d argue that more than the increasing cost of technology, it’s the unrealistic expectations and demands of triple-A developers on themselves that’s causing the real problems in the industry right now.
Case in point: Capcom expected to sell 10 million copies of Resident Evil 7 in the game’s lifetime, and they budgeted the game around those expectations. Square Enix had similar goals for Final Fantasy XV, saying that over the lifetime of the game they planned on the game selling 10 million dollars. Now, it’s not to say that these games can’t make their money back, and even turn a tidy profit, before that 10 million mark. But it’s not just about making money back on that investment: during the time one game is being sold, any number of other projects are being developed, and they need to have a budget as well. And a company that expects to sell 10 million of a game will want to use the profit made from those 10 million in sales to fund those other games. A company’s whole budget, in some respect, hinges on hitting those numbers… and failing to hit those numbers, as Capcom and Square Enix routinely do, means that the company perceives itself to be failing, and the belt has to be ‘tightened’.
That’s sad, of course, but it’s also entirely avoidable. It’s a case of game companies looking at Call of Duty: Modern Warfare and Minecraft, thinking “there’s no reason we can’t do that too!” and worse, actually betting on the fact that they can. Yearly budgets are built around that presumed level of success, and when you fail to hit those numbers, a company is forced to ask itself how it plans on improving the situation: does it accept the loss and learn from its mistakes when it’s time to budget the next year? Or… do you try to wring as much money out of the people who do buy your game as possible so even sup-satisfactory sales can still support your crazy financial goals?
Most big companies and publishers these days opt for the latter. But I think it’s pretty obvious they’ve been resisting the idea for a while now, in their own strange way. I we’ve known for a while now that game companies have pushed pre-orders so often because they want to pocket your money ASAP. But thinking about it pragmatically, if I was a game developer and I wanted to sell X number of copies in the first week of a game’s release, that would be a fair more attainable goal if I stared selling it as soon as possible, in “negative weeks” if you want, which should hopefully help the game achieve it’s ultimate lifetime goals.
But again, sympathy isn’t the same as excusing. If we can take one thing away from Hellblade, it’s that the misconception that games need to have a triple-A budget and pour millions into marketing and PR in order to be a massive success is one that desperately needs to be abolished. Consider, I suppose, The Order: 1886. Despite the fact it was “fine”, by most standards, the reason it was rated so low was because it wasn’t really a triple-A game: the short length and lack of any real replay ability meant that it was what you could arguably call the first double-A game of the generation. But it was still asking a full sixty bucks for that experience, which is something Hellblade was able to avoid by pricing itself at a solid thirty bucks.
On pair, the games are about the same quality (Hellblade had better gameplay, but hot damn if The Order didn’t look pretty) but they were judged on two very different scales due to the price difference. And what game developers will need to learn, if they want to avoid the inevitable backlash that will come as they continue to aggressively sell microtransactions, is that they either need to budget themselves better, or learn that sometimes it’s okay to release smaller, shorter experiences and not sell them for the industry-standard 60 bucks.
Something that most game companies find repellent, save Nintendo, who has a pretty comfortable market in the 30-40 dollar game market thanks to the 3DS, and Ubisoft, oddly enough, who is still doing some good things with their “Indie” branch.
Oh, and I guess every other company that’s managed to successfully launch free-to-play games with fair microtransactions. I mean, it’s not really that rare for companies to get it “right”, it’s that the major players so often get it so wrong, so badly, that we can’t help but think the whole gaming world is going to hell in a handbasket.
See what I did there?
But still, they’re big players for a reason. The gaming world is changing slowly and surely, and “gaming as a service” is undoubtedly here to stay. I can only hope that developers take what they’re learning now and use it to make that service as pleasant for the user as possible… but… I’m not really holding my breath on that one.