The Daily Grind: Are we watching the AAA video game market burst?

    
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About four years ago, I wrote one of the pieces I’m still most proud of: It essentially argued that the MMO industry was suffering from “multiplex monotony,” that the market’s desperate attempt to one-up itself to be the next blockbuster WoW was not only unsustainable but failing, at the expense of both the AAAs and the mid-budget types of games that actually built and maintained the MMO genre. It’s weird to look back at it – Fortnite didn’t even exist at the time! – but it’s only gotten truer as it’s aged, both for MMOs and for other titles.

In fact, the idea that the broader industry is coming to a “breaking point” is the subject of a lengthy editorial on PC Gamer this week that I thought was worth discussion because it mirrors those thoughts we had about the MMO market way back then. Author Jody Macgregor touches on everything from crunch and streaming stresses to artificially always-online titles and the demand for constant updates from players. There’s a poignant bit about how every game must strive to be “the biggest thing in its genre” else it’s perceived as a failure. And she specifically points out that there are fewer AAA mainstream titles coming along now – and those that do come along cost three times as much as they used to. Sound familiar?

I’m curious what our readers think, especially since MMO players have been on the vanguard of this bubble, feeling its effects long before now. Are we watching the AAA video game market burst? And if so… does it need to burst to reclaim stability and normalcy for the people working on it?

With thanks to Ethan for dropping this in my Twitter feed!

Every morning, the Massively Overpowered writers team up with mascot Mo to ask MMORPG players pointed questions about the massively multiplayer online roleplaying genre. Grab a mug of your preferred beverage and take a stab at answering the question posed in today’s Daily Grind!

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Melissa McDonald

I would say yes, but not in Asia. They’re cranking out the games that we claim to love. Unfortunately people tend to home in on one nitpick to declare the entire game a no-go. I do it too with PvP. Others do it with cash shops, or loot boxes, or not liking the colour of its hat, or something. Black Desert worked for me because it didn’t force me into PvP until endgame. It’s also a gorgeous game with lots to like and deep systems. But LOTRO still commands most of my game time, 12 years and running. Because it’s Tolkien, mostly, but also because it doesn’t have nonconsensual PvP.

Here in the west, there’s mostly Star Citizen, sucking all the funding and air out of the space. Which is unfortunate because I think it’s going to be a lot more like EVE than SWTOR/Galaxies, and I believe the latter is what the majority actually wanted. Basically all the others seem to be the aging “PvP sandbox” paradigm that I pray nightly will die off and a new age of PvE and actual content will arise. And it has, just in Asia, not the West.

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Fenrir Wolf

I called this a little while back because it’s incredibly obvious. I mean, of course it is. You can only push so far with genericism before even the most vacuous, desultory, superficial of people become tired of it.

It’s for the best, though, for everyone. A video games industry which is comprised of smaller studios who create games targeted at specific demographics is one that’ll serve more gamers in the long run, just as video games did back in the ’90s. It means that (oh horror of horrors) not every title released will be meant for those who’ve enjoyed the lion’s share of games thus far, but when a video game really is designed for them it’ll be more precisely and exquisitely so than they’ve experienced in years.

We need less fidelity and genericism, coupled with a focus on understanding every demographic out there. That way, smaller studios can pick their niche depending on their available resources, with much less of a tolerance for risk required. If a niche has gone a while without a certain kind of game, they’ll probably be sure to reward those who lavish them with something worthwhile handsomely.

Going forward, this is the only way it can be. It’s the only way that works.

Large-scale multiplayer games, mainstream single- and multi-player titles, and the entire mobile ecosystem are almost dead at this point.

It was inevitable.

That’s because, at the end of the day, those games don’t really serve anyone as much as you’d think. In many regards, it’s more of a confidence plot laden with social engineering than it is entertainment. Do you really enjoy playing the latest video game that has a map with capture points? The latest battle royale? Do you really relish it?

Do you revel with glee at the thought of the next big fad? The next bubble to burst?

Do you need proof?

I’ve pointed this out before, too, but you need only look at the films industry to understand why I’m so certain about my conclusions. Everything that’s now happening here has already happened there prior, in such excess, resulting in so much catastrophe, that most studios know not to repeat such folly.

There’ll still be mainstream games, of course. It’s only natural, but they’ll be the equivalent of summer blockbusters. The rest of the video gaming industry will simply follow after the rest of the film industry. This was just very greedy suit-encrusted corporate figures riding a wave of greed for as long as it would last. It’s like the Dot Com bubble, but video games.

And all of the bubbles are popping now.

It can only get better.

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Joe Seabreeze

We’ve been watching it happen for a few years. It’s just getting more difficult to hide from the investors.

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Ragemaster9999

We are witnessing the demise of the theme park level questing aaa mmo template…. and I couldn’t be happier.

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Fenrir Wolf

That’s not even remotely what’s being talked about here, though. The key factor isn’t theme park, PvP, PvE, or even MMO. It’s AAA. It’s the notion of overly generic video games meant to cast a wide-net by trying to target as many players as possible. In a different reality to ours, PvP became large instead and there’s a double of you there rubbing their hands with glee over the death of the open-world PvP MMO.

The point is is that no matter what the mainstream AAA industry focuses on to the point of making it so giant and hopelessly generic it can only fail, it’ll end up so giant and generic it can only fail. That could be anything. That’s precisely why the focus is on AAA in particular.

Besides, theme park MMOs died a long, long time ago. The new hotness is small-scale multiplayer RPGs. Which I’m rather happy about.

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Jack Pipsam

I’m just really hoping that Microsoft didn’t allow Xbox to buy eight (and seeming more) studios because they hope their streaming platform will truly be the smash-break-out-hit “Netflix for games” as CEO Satya Nadella put it.
It could fall apart very quickly if that’s the reason behind the intense mass growth the Xbox division saw over the last two years.

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Melissa McDonald

Nadella doesn’t play, and he’s done a fantastic job of keeping MS a leader in tech. I don’t really think they’ve ever had a “media store” that’s succeeded or dominated, though. Their real strength lies in code and the cloud (see their purchase of Github, the dominance of Azure, and the fact that they’re building a linux kernel into Win10 for dev work). They also make some pretty kickass hardware with Xbox and Surface, but app stores, game stores, music stores, not really their forte.

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Chris Ochs

The core paradigm going on here IMO is the impact of being a creative field. You see some of the same patterns in movies also. We don’t know how to replicate success outside of taking the same thing and making a better version of it, one that doesn’t really change the core gameplay much.

So something really different that works, we don’t have a formula for that. In the context of a single company even the largest studios can go out of business trying to innovate on every game. In fact I think it’s almost a guarantee that they would.

My theory on this is that it’s not really up to the big studios. Sure they are hitting diminishing returns on just making prettier games that are mostly the same, but they are unable to really innovate. It’s the smaller studios that collectively can try and fail a lot that drive innovation and change. Even if the larger studios then capitalize on it better.

Making bigger and more expensive games is absolutely sustainable when you compare it to the cost of innovation. Players will keep paying as long as it’s incrementally better.

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Fenrir Wolf

I don’t see that as being even remotely true.

I mean, with movies, you have plenty of examples of new IPs every year. There are films which have a more safe premise, and others which are far riskier. It’s hardly relegated to just arthouse films, either, as you’ll find experimentation across the gamut of genres and demographics.

I feel that even trying to make films that are so bad they’re good is a form of ingenuity. I can’t imagine that, say, the new Sonic the Hedgehog film is going to be popular with many, yet I do suspect at the same time that it’s going to become a cult classic and it’ll have a small following and fanbase all of its own.

That’s the way the film industry has been for quite some time, now. Yes, you have the Avengers: The Adjective Noun or what have you, but you’ll also have oddities like The Shape of Water or What We Do in the Shadows. The same is true for television as well. It’s only really the video games industry that has been stuck in this terrible cycle, one that TV and film left behind so long ago, as was wise to do.

And frankly? Just look at video games in the ’90s across consoles and computers. What do we have today that’s even remotely like Albion, Vangers, Thief, or Giants: Citizen Kabuto? This cycle started sometime around the early ’00s coinciding with the respective releases of the 360 and the PS3. It was in full swing by 2008, so when something like, say, Spore arrived on the scene being the uniquely wonderful mess that it was? No one really knew what to do with it.

And it’s passing. We’re now returning to how it was in the ’90s where small studios rule the roost, just as it is with film and television. As I said, yes, there are still going to be infrequent big budget game releases but I feel they’ll be more like summer blockbusters, leaving the rest of the year for experimentation by small studios.

I think you’re blinded by having been stuck in this cycle for so long. Fortunately, thanks to my niche interests, I was never really sucked in to begin with.

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mysecretid

I don’t think video/computer games are going away anytime soon. The fact that we’re all here, posting on this website, is one indicator that demand for games continues.

That said, I’m of the opinion that change is coming to the gaming industry (i.e. the production of games) sooner or later, largely because the continuing bad practices in this age of very corporate game-making has been building backlash for a while now.

Simply put, the bad practices will eventually become unsustainable, and the stopgap tactics typically used to work around the contentious bits will fail spectacularly at some point, if only through overuse.

It may take ten more years for change to come; it may take twenty, but I am convinced that some change will come.

My opinions, anyway,

smuggler-in-a-yt
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smuggler-in-a-yt

One part art, one part business, I always tend to look at the gaming industry writ-large as a bit of a bellweather. It’s the first to try new tech, it’s the first to try and make the most money off mainstream commercialized products, it’s the first to try and do mash-ups. Probably moreso than any other industry, gaming is where humanity and technology meet in a visceral way.

When skynet is born, it will be in someone’s crazy project as a way to make mobs smarter, I nearly guarantee it.

The industry is straining moreso than in the past because there are more “knowledge workers” than in the past. More people sit behind keyboards than ever before. More people are connected than ever before. More people are looking for escape than ever before. So gaming is more popular than ever before – and if mobile is marijuana, then most MMOs are your favorite brand of whatever the hard stuff is.

What I see is a pivot coming. Either the industry will correct, with hopefully some help from groups of people working in the industry banding together, or the government will come in and over-regulate. But because I love analogies, I’ll just end with another: whether it is the government, the industry, or the consumer who calls the table first remains to be seen.

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Tandor

I think it’s increasingly difficult to finance the traditional AAA MMO but the success of ESO and FFXIV demonstrates that there’s still a high level of demand for such games, and the successful companies behind that level of commercial success can be expected to continue developing new titles. If need be, they’ll find other ways to supplement any revenue lost from the demise of lootboxes – which may never happen anyway – and although players who dislike other people buying lootboxes will very likely not want to stump up the alternative ways of funding games themselves, they’ll put up with it because the quality of the game is what rules the market in the end. If a game is good enough, enough people will play it.

I’d be more concerned about the continuing viability of crowd-funding as the means of financing MMOs. Assuming that CU eventually sees commercial release and enjoys a sustainable success as a forced subscription/PvP only niche title then it may well be the last such game. The garden shed-made indie titles that cater for a few thousand players at most may survive alongside the AAA titles made by the global developers catering for a few million players, but I’m not convinced that in the long term there will be much in the way of MMOs inbetween those two extremes.

As for WoW, the long-term future of that game rests almost entirely on the success of the classic servers. I think that most MMO players and developers have put that game behind them, and people want to play or develop fresh games now rather than the WoW clones that were mass-produced a few years ago. The world has moved on, and so have MMOs.

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Melissa McDonald

If you divided Star Citizens’ funding into 3 chunks, you could have 3 pretty incredible 100 million dollar games. But unfortunately that’s a sand pit and sucking up all the air and money from the scene

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Chosenxeno .

It needs to burst to save itself. Devs/Pubs need to get back “Make a game. Sell a Game”. Instead of releasing “services”.