Remember when you bought a $60 game and you got a (hopefully) finished product? These days, big-budget developers are having trouble making ends meet as they continue to create massive experiences and visual feasts for players. So they've turned to alternate models: premium subscriptions, microtransactions, and early access. They're just searching for any port in a storm, which is also why they're taking less risks in what they make.
AAA development is in a precarious position right now, according to Avalanche Studios founder and creative director Christofer Sundberg.
"It's really not healthy at the moment," Sundberg told Gamespot when asked about AAA development. "Games have evolved, technology has evolved but as businesses we're still stuck where we were 15 years ago. As budgets grow, risks increase. The publishers are nervous because they have to project a game being a massive hit three years into the future and the developers are frustrated because they need to be flexible to every move the publishers make. It's impossible to make everyone happy in the current equation."
Avalanche Studios is in a unique position because it isn't currently owned by a larger parent company. The studio is developing games for larger publishers like Square Enix and Warner Bros Interactive Entertainment, while continuing to dabble in mobile development through its Expansive Worlds offshoot studio. That keeps Avalanche moving in different directions and preparing for market shifts if its titles happen to fail.
Avalanche's next game will be Mad Max, a game which Sundberg says has "fantastic" pre-order sales numbers. Still, profitability is a concern for Avalanche.
"It's a bit early for me to feel comfortable though," Sundberg said. "The investments in a AAA game these days are huge and even if everyone of those two million people bought a copy each, most big games would not break even if they were next-gen exclusives. Very few traditional $60 games make any money, and what used to make sense doesn't any more. Publishers and developers very rarely see a return of investment from a 5-8 hour long game."
That's why we've been seeing more additional multi-player modes in games that would otherwise be single-player. Sundberg's statements also make sense of the crazy sales expectations that major publishers have for solid titles that aren't super blockbusters. High sales expectations lead to risk-averse behavior in publishers, which "kills innovation" according to Sundberg. Despite that, he's not all doom and gloom.
"I hope and think we will see improvements over time," Sundberg said.