Just Cause Dev: AAA Development Is "Not Healthy"

Avalanche Studios' Christofer Sundberg predicts a rough generation for AAA development.

News by Mike Williams, .

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.

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Comments 11

  • Avatar for docexe #1 docexe 4 years ago
    I have said it before but I repeat it: If AAA games “die”, that will not have anything to do with the raise of mobile or F2P, and everything to do with the unhealthy tendencies at the core of this sector that are mentioned in this article. The worrying thing is that it doesn’t look right now like the eight generation of consoles will change or improve on this situation.
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  • Avatar for Funny_Colour_Blue #2 Funny_Colour_Blue 4 years ago
    With such incredibly high expectations, AAA games are inevitably going to burn out this generation. There is absolutely no way anyone is going to continue to invest in these types games when the costs and the risks are so incredibly high.

    It's what happened to the arcades and it's what happening right now to consoles. With such high expectations and so much pressure. it's no wonder developers are now turning to kickstarter and the mobile market to release their games.

    This is so frustrating...Edited February 2014 by Funny_Colour_Blue
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  • Avatar for #3 4 years ago
    Of course, this is coming from the Just Cause people. While those games are fun, they are incredibly rough.
    Terrible stories, main missions and acting. While the core gameplay and going off to create havoc on your own is outstanding, every main part could be improved.

    If you put the money into a well made game, it will be successful. Show me a truly outstanding game that failed to sell.
    No, those that fail at retail, I will show you areas where the game had inexcusable problems.
    The pressure on developers is they can't afford to half ass it anymore.

    I've known a few developers and the amount of goofing off they do before crunch time is appalling.
    One person who will remain nameless (believe me or not, it's true) worked at EA and laughed how they'd goof off and take it easy for a year, then cram to finish a title in the second year, all the while whining in that second year about the sudden long hours they have to pull to beat the deadline, behaving like a kid who puts off his book report to the night before it's due and blames the teacher for the assignment.
    For the money they make creating something they love, I cry no tears for the fact they need to keep the quality high and not mess around.

    Too much pressure, get another job.
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  • Avatar for SatelliteOfLove #4 SatelliteOfLove 4 years ago
    This generation for NA/W.EU development will look alot like JP development last generation. There are fewer and fewer that can handle it, same as yesteryear JP. The money is too risky, same as yesteryear JP.

    Mark my words.
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  • Avatar for brionfoulke91 #5 brionfoulke91 4 years ago
    It's ironic, playing it safe leads to a sea of homogenized games that all feel the same, and that undoubtedly hurts the profits of all games. So publishers are only hurting themselves.
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  • Avatar for docexe #6 docexe 4 years ago You know, it might be easy to blame developers for being lazy or incompetent but that might not necessarily be the root cause of the problem (and really, just because developers at EA behave like that doesn’t mean it’s a generalized case of everyone in the industry… if anything that kind of corporate culture actually explains A LOT of things about EA).

    The problem is that the sentiment expressed in this article is not an isolated case of a midlevel developer complaining because they have had it rough. It’s a sentiment that has been shared by many developers, studios and publishers, some of them responsible for some of the best-selling games of the past generation: Costs have increased so much, budgets have become so bloated and sales expectations so high that the entire AAA sector is becoming unsustainable. While in the past a big game could sell a million units and be considered successful, nowadays those numbers are not enough anymore.

    Just for a simple example, let’s remember that the Tomb Raider reboot was considered a failure when it launched (despite selling around 3 million of units!), it only managed to become profitable many months later primarily thanks to the sales of DLC, a practice that we gamers abhor but that is increasingly becoming the most effective method for some games to break even.

    And let’s not forget there is a reason why platform exclusives have pretty much disappeared outside of 1st party studios or direct negotiations with platform holders, why so many studios (and even entire publishers) have died in the past generation, and why most big publishers (both Western and Japanese) have invested so much on next-gen engines in order to ameliorate costs.

    Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not trying to be a doom monger here. I don’t want the AAA market to disappear or implode. If anything, the peril of that happening is what has me anxious, as truth of the matter I still enjoy many of these kind of games, not to mention that my preferred platforms to play (home consoles) are inextricably linked to them. But it can’t be denied that the AAA sector is becoming increasingly stagnant, with fewer games released every year, and many annualized franchises that have very similar gameplay and themes. That’s not right.

    A healthy entertainment industry needs variety and creativity in order to thrive, but that can’t happen in an environment where risk taking is punished because the development costs are so high that a single failure can bring down the entire studio. Something really needs to change in the coming years, but hell if I know what can be done to solve this issue. The entire situation is very complex and without a simple solution.Edited February 2014 by docexe
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  • Avatar for hiptanaka #7 hiptanaka 4 years ago
    This is why I thought Wii U would turn out to be a smart move by Nintendo.
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  • Avatar for DiscordInc #8 DiscordInc 4 years ago
    It's nice to see a developer talk about the challenges of AAA development without screaming how used games and/or piracy is killing the industry. Which isn't to say that don't have an effect, but they're not really the core of the problem.

    As games get more expensive to develop, it's going to get harder and harder for them to make a return. It baffles me that there seems to be this arms race mentality that they have to keep shooting higher and higher, instead of scaling things back to a more sustainable amount.
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  • Avatar for Critical_Hit #9 Critical_Hit 4 years ago
    I'm glad to hear devs comment on this more & more.

    With more high profile blowups like Battlefield 4 or the absurd number of XBone launch titles with microtransactions coming along, at the same time when some indie games are approaching parity with big budget titles in terms of presentation*, it's healthy to question exactly what the advantage is - IF ANY - to continuing down this path?

    * -
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  • Avatar for Blackcompany #10 Blackcompany 4 years ago
    And to think: The biggest challenge to so-called AAA gaming hasn't even arisen, yet. But it will. And it might do so in this generation.


    Once you hit photorealism, or so close so as not to matter, what do you market? What's left? You're already set in this wrong headed course of making interactive games more like non-interaction movies (hint: wrong direction) so you market mostly the 'cinematic presentation' in games.

    So what happens when everyone in the AAA market achieves the same level of near-realistic quality? Then what do you market? Cause based on recent history, it sure as heck won't be innovative game play mechanics.
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  • Avatar for peacefuloutrage #11 peacefuloutrage 4 years ago
    I may not be a game developer, but I have been confused by the industry I grew up with.

    People tend to think AAA equates to quality, but I've found it just means the game had a large budget. Some of the games I've enjoyed the most recently are made by small studios made by a very small group of people. Xbox live indie game studio Radian Games, James Silva's Ska Studios, Dean Dodrill with Humble Hearts, the famed developers at Treasure, etc.

    I think that while big budget games can be great, it's more important for studios to focus on gameplay, fun factor, playability (the buggy messes that are released now at premium prices are ridiculous), and a realistic profitability timeline (like 1 year from release).
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