The Fall of AAA Developers: Bigger Isn't Always Better.

The Fall of AAA Developers: Bigger Isn't Always Better.

Can downsizing game development lead to more creative titles?

Ryan Kerns by Ryan Kerns on Feb 26, 2014 @ 10:55 PM
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Last week's announcement that Bioshock developer, Irrational Games, would be laying off most of their staff in favor of a small 15 person studio sent a shockwave across the games industry. Bioshock Infinite was one of the top rated games of 2013 and really cemented the reputation of Ken Levine for making incredible games. It seems almost inconceivable that anyone would close down a studio that's riding a wave of success.

This definitely isn't the first time a well known game designer has done this, Levine is simply following in the footsteps of Cliff Bleszinski, David Jaffe, Peter Molyneux, Sid Meier, Will Wright, Vince Zampella, Keiji Inafune, Fumito Ueda, and even Shigeru Miyamoto.

It is not uncommon for studios to be closed after releasing a flop, but why on earth would someone quit while they are on top?

Over seven years and two console generations ago David Jaffe did the unthinkable. Jaffe was already known for his successful Twisted Metal series, but it was God of War that raised the bar on what was possible in AAA game development. After creating what would become Sony's flagship franchise, Jaffe packed up and left Sony Santa Monica to form a small studio named Eat Sleep Play. At the time Jaffe had said the industry would be leaning more towards mobile and downloadable titles... which have certainly seen explosive growth since 2007.

However since leaving Sony Santa Monica he has only worked on the PSN title Calling All Cars! and a PS3 reboot of Twisted Metal. Neither title was close to the success of God of War, but they also cost significantly less to produce with a dev team under 20 people. Jaffe is poised to release a PS4 title under his new studio The Bartlet Jones Supernatural Detective Agency.

Sony Japan also lost a star developer in 2011 when Fumito Ueda left to form his own studio. Ueda had created Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, which are widely considered as two of the greatest PS2 games. Team Ico was supposed to release The Last Guardian on PS3, but Ueda left the studio before the game was completed and it is unknown if the game will ever see the light of day.

So what about Microsoft's key franchises and those creators?

2007 was also the year Bungie announced that they would not be continuing with the Halo series, and are now currently working on the highly ambitious Destiny. While not quite as successful as Halo, very few people would doubt that Gears of War is an equally important franchise for Microsoft. Gears of War also happened to have a very visible and outspoken creator... so when Cliff Bleszinski left Epic Games in 2012, it felt like a part of that franchise died.

Bleszinski worked at Epic Games for 20 years, so what would cause him to leave? Since he left a year and a half ago, he has not announced any games or formed a studio, but he has made it very clear he is not retiring from the industry. In his typical manner, he has stated the next game made by him will not be released in physical copies, and it won't be debuted on the cover of Game Informer.

It was pretty clear that as long as Bleszinski stayed at Epic, he would be expected to pump out endless Gears of War sequels. It is also pretty clear that these high budget franchises leave very little room for actual creativity. That was what really set Ken Levine and Irrational Games apart from practically every other AAA developer. Bioshock Infinite had a 5 year development cycle, and the game changed significantly from year to year as it was demoed at E3. It is very conceivable that 2K expected the next Bioshock to have a shorter dev cycle, but up the already very highly quality to take advantage of the new console generation.

It is hard to blame a publisher or console developer for prioritizing profits over creativity... becoming the next THQ or Sega Dreamcast is a very real threat. Unfortunately that is why God of War: Ascension and Gears of War: Judgment were failures. Halo 4 underperformed as well in the hands of 343 Industries.

2K has already announced that Bioshock will live on... but the question is by who. Rod Fergusson's 2K studio in San Francisco would seem the logical choice since he had left Epic Games (he was the producer of the Gears of War series) to work on the tail end of Bioshock: Infinite's development. This new studio also consists of many 2K Marin staff, who had worked on Bioshock 2. Tragically, last month Microsoft hired Fergusson to overlook development of the next Gears of War title at Black Tusk Studio after they bought the IP from Epic.

Remember when you heard your parents say Too many cooks in the kitchen spoil the pot?

Highly creative indie games have been coming from small studios that don't have to meet milestones set by their publishers or listen to input from stock holders or focus groups. In a recent interview, Cliff Bleszinski stated the hyper buff look of the Gears of War cast was nothing like his original vision:

"It didn't wind up what I'd hoped; I'd pitched it as 'Band of Brothers with monsters' -- you know Band of Brothers is well-done and emotional, telling the story of the Greatest Generation and what they did in the war. Yet somehow we landed on 'Predator'... the characters being all 'buff and manly', I'd never planned on that."

In 2010 Vince Zampella and Jason West were very publicly fired from Activision. Zampella and West were the founders of Infinity Ward... the studio that made a little game called Call of Duty. After 7 years and 5 highly successful Call of Duty titles, Infinity Ward had a contract that would have allowed them to create a new IP. Activision insisted that the studio make Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3... so the founders dared Activision to fire them.

The latest Call of Duty: Ghosts, that was developed by the remnants of Infinity Ward, underperformed and the series overall seems to be in a downturn. Meanwhile Zampella and West formed Respawn Entertainment along with other key talent from Infinity Ward. They are set to launch Titanfall in less than a month, and many expect the game to surpass Call of Duty. EA will be publishing the title, but Respawn owns the Titanfall IP and have full creative control. The size of Respawn Entertainment is also significantly smaller than any other AAA studio.

respawn.jpg

If Titanfall is a runaway hit, it could really shake up the existing large publisher and bloated dev team system. Ken Levine seems to be very aware of this, as in the wake of Irrational's closure, he is heading up a 15 person studio to work on highly creative and experimental games. Big things can come in small packages, something that Nintendo has been aware of since the Gameboy days. Shigeru Miyamoto has left that latest Mario and Zelda games in the hands of his proteges Koizumi, Motokura, and Aonuma. This year it has been hinted that Miyamoto will be showing a new IP, and he's gone on record several times that he wants to work on smaller games.

The landscape of game development has already changed. Steam, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4 all allow developers to self-publish games. Keiji Inafune couldn't get another MegaMan title developed at Capcom, so he raised close to 4 million dollars on Kickstarter to fund a spiritual successor at his new studio. There has been a shift of power away from board room erespawnxecutives to the game creators themselves... and I don't know about you... but that's definitely who I want making my games.

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