Bleszinski's Attack on Used Games is Flawed Logic

Bleszinski's Attack on Used Games is Flawed Logic

Cliff Bleszinski claims that triple-A can't function with used and rental games around. Does he have a point?

Earlier this week, outspoken former Epic Games lead designer Cliff Bleszinski made his feelings abundantly clear on used and rental games in a series of tweets.

"The visual fidelity and feature sets we expect from games now come with sky high costs," he said. "Assasins [sic] Creed games are made by thousands of devs. Newsflash. This is why you're seeing free to play and microtransactions everywhere. The disc based day one $60 model is crumbling."

He's not wrong that triple-A development now has budgets that rival or even exceed those of blockbuster movies, and he's also not wrong that many high-profile franchises such as Assassin's Creed not only have thousands of developers working on them, but also multiple studios scattered across the entire world -- studios that aren't cheap to keep running. However, what he said next causes his argument to fall down somewhat.

"I'd bet Sony has some similar stuff up their sleeves. [They're] just playing on the internet outrage for free PR. You're all being played!" he added. "You cannot have game and marketing budgets this high while also having used and rental games existing. The numbers do NOT work people."

Bleszinski's argument here is perhaps understandable, since he's an ex-triple A developer, but it's based on flawed logic.

Assassin's Creed is symptomatic of the excesses of triple-A development.

The main issue with Bleszinski's rant is the assumption that gamers will be dissatisfied with anything less than the astronomical budgets of triple-A titles, when in fact this isn't true at all. True, big-budget games like Battlefield and Assassin's Creed sell millions of copies, but this is as much to do with their marketing budget as it is to do with the budget actually spent on the game. Over time, these brands have built up such a strong identity that the amount of marketing they receive is arguably nowhere near as necessary as it once was, but still their respective publishers bombard the media and public with new assets, screenshots, flashy presentations and "world exclusive reveals" during high-profile sporting events. These brands are kept constantly visible and in the public eye -- to the point of fatigue in some cases.

However, here's the thing: the amount of money that these publishers are spending on marketing in particular is not the responsibility of gamers. The general public has no obligation to help publishers recoup their enormous marketing spend in particular; they have no obligations at all, in fact. If we "vote with our wallets" and purchase the things that we want to see more of when we have the opportunity, that should send a clear signal to the publishers that, well, we want to see more of them. If it's necessary for a game to sell five million copies to be considered a success, that's the publisher's problem, not the public's. It is unrealistic and somewhat arrogant to assume that everyone is always going to buy the latest Gunshoot Bangstab: Violence Rising simply because it's an established brand; publishers and developers, if anything, have an obligation to their public to make their product worth buying new on release. If the game doesn't break even, something needs to be looked at. If the game sells several million copies and still doesn't break even, something seriously needs to be looked at.

Used and rental games do indeed cut into the profits of publishers -- though it's worth remembering that in order to become used or rental copies they've been sold as new at least once in their lifetime -- but they also provide a valuable service: they help to broaden the overall audience of gamers to those who perhaps don't have quite as much disposable income to splurge on the latest and greatest. These low-income gamers won't necessarily always be short of cash, either; in a year or two, they might have more money on hand to spend on new games, and be willing to support their favorite developers, publishers and franchises by buying new rather than used. This is particularly true in the case of multiplayer-centric titles such as Call of Duty: once a player becomes an active part of that game's online community, there's a degree of pressure put on them to always stay up to date in order to have people to play with. Today's gamer who buys a used copy of Black Ops II to see what all the fuss is about is tomorrow's gamer who buys a brand-new copy of Call of Duty: Ghosts because they want to continue playing with their new friends and rivals.

Minecraft looks like this but still managed to sell approximately eleventy bajillion copies (provisional figure).

Let's also consider the matter of low-budget games that have proven to be enormously profitable too; Minecraft is the most outstanding example of this, but there are plenty of others on a smaller scale, too. In the case of Minecraft, we have a game with visuals that look deliberately dated (and which, consequently, presumably cost relatively little to produce), but which has still sold millions of copies worldwide over the years, making its creators an absolute fortune without even thinking about riddling the experience with obnoxious microtransactions. It's baffling why more self-professed "triple-A" publishers are so dead-set on big-budget titles when all they need is one low-budget Minecraft to potentially fund their next large-scale project. Of course, making the next Minecraft is easier said than done, but the fact remains that it's neither obligatory nor expected for publishers known for big-budget triple-A titles to churn out nothing but big-budget triple-A titles. Look at the movie industry; we have our expensive "summer blockbusters," but then the rest of the year is filled with low-budget romantic comedies and slice of life dramas. Why shouldn't games be the same?

Publishers such as EA attempt to earn a bit of money "on the side" of their triple-A development with mobile and social games, but this isn't an ideal solution; these games are usually "freemium" in nature, sacrificing good game design in favor of mechanics that encourage players to spend money to minimize the amount of inconvenience they have to deal with. I'd happily pay a few dollars for a low-budget, $10-20 spinoff of a popular series I'm a fan of, but when something like the now thankfully defunct SimCity Social tells me that because I've clicked on 20 things today I can't play any more until I get out my credit card, I start to resent the experience rather than feel happy about investing money in it. This, in turn, makes me feel worse about EA as a brand in general, and less likely to support their big titles in the long term -- surely counter-productive.

Activision actually has its head screwed on pretty well in this regard with Call of Duty, as it happens. Although Call of Duty is perceived as a big-budget franchise and likely still costs a hefty amount to produce, it is based on old technology and old engines that receive only incremental updates each year. Activision saves money on the production of new CoD games by its developers efficiently reusing old code and assets to produce new content -- and the public still laps it up, despite the fact that, in many cases, CoD games look noticeably inferior to games that have been developed from the ground up. The company then supports the initial sale of the game by peppering the rest of the year with good value DLC packs that don't feel as if they're nickel-and-diming consumers; those who are thoroughly invested in CoD's multiplayer community will pick these packs up without hesitation in order for their experience to remain as relevant as possible, allowing Activision to continue to make money from copies of the game even if they were sold used in the first place.

You rarely -- if ever -- hear Activision complain about Call of Duty's sales, despite the games being based on noticeably dated technology.

Ultimately, the existence of the used and rental games markets has very little to do with the fact that triple-A budgets are spiralling out of control with every new iteration in the annualized franchises many of us are getting extremely tired of. If smaller, niche publishers like, say, NIS America and Xseed (both of whom specialize in JRPGs, among other things) or JAST USA (who specialize in Japanese visual novels) can continue to not only exist but thrive by selling mere thousands rather than millions of their low-budget games, the triple-A sector needs to take a good, long, hard look at itself and start asking, seriously, "do we really need to spend this much on our new game?"

It's not the responsibility of consumers to shoulder the burden of a budget that has got out of control. It's the responsibility of the publishers to work out how they can curtail their spending while continuing to provide a good experience to their customers.

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