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Ballooning AAA budgets give indie games a chance to shine

"You can't tell a story like [BioShock Infinite] on a budget of $2 million dollars." - Irrational Games co-founder and creative director Ken Levine, in our interview you can catch on RadioRadar.

The cost of making a triple-A game is perpetually rising. It will only worsen when Sony and Microsoft's next generation consoles hit, making even higher-fidelity assets essential to compete. It's becoming impossible for triple-A creators to remain relevant without a major corporation's bankroll.

So what can you do with $2 million dollars in games, these days? Well, you can get yourself a license for a game creation tool like GameMaker, Unity, or the Unreal Development Kit and have about, oh, $2 million left over. You can use open-source software to put together the assets of your game and still have around $2 million in the bank. You can list your game on Kickstarter or Steam Greenlight and have about $2 million left to get pizza for everybody (heaven help you in actually grabbing enough pledges or Thumbs Up, though--maybe save some of that pizza).

So does Ken Levine just have his head in the clouds when he says you can't make a game like BioShock Infinite for $2 million? Good God, no. He's absolutely right. The mind-blowing volume of assets required to craft an experience of its nature takes a force of sustained, highly specialized labor which would be remarkable for any modern feat of human ingenuity--being a fun game is just gravy.

Levine readily admits he can't make this world he wants to make with anything less than a massive capital investment, and that answers a very pertinent question in the modern games industry: Where have all the Midways gone?

"The ability for mid-range, mid-budget sort of double-A titles to be successful has become a real challenging path, and you're seeing those games not get greenlit anymore, because people don't believe they're going to get their money back," Levine said.

Psi-Ops: The Mindgate Conspiracy was a 2004 Midway game about a near-future soldier with psychic powers taking down a terrorist organization all by his badass-furniture-flinging self. Its hook--physics which let players wreak havoc in an otherwise mundane one-man-army campaign (before Half-Life 2 made it cool)--exemplified the double-A dynamic of companies like Midway.

Psi-Ops took risks, but not tremendous leaps. It was a new franchise with freaky psychic powers, but they were wielded by a gun-toting, crew-cut, amnesiac protagonist. It likely had a moderate budget, and its retail figures were far from record breaking. As triple-A projects cost millions upon millions of dollars to make and force smaller games out of retail, there's just no room for that sort of mid-level operation any more. That's one of the reasons why Midway and Acclaim are out of business, and part of why THQ has one foot in the grave.

"If you looked at the number of big titles being launched this year you'll see the numbers dwindling, and I think you'll continue to see that--where people end up making the bets on the big games," Levine said. "The same thing happened in the film industry."

How does this get fixed? Are we on our way to a single omega-series taking up most of our nation's gross domestic product in production, reaping it all back through perpetual record-breaking sales from consumers with nothing else to buy?

"So then you have this space in the opposite end of the spectrum, which is these games, whether they're cool indie games … or iPad games and things like that which are less risky to develop from a financial perspective, you'll see more of those," Levine said.

Mid-sized efforts may be all but gone from games, but smaller teams are flourishing in their absence. The proof is coalescing at this very moment. Games like The Walking Dead, Journey, and Mark of the Ninja are occupying mainstream Game of the Year nominations, headlines, and conversations which in years past never would have touched on anything with a (relatively) modest budget.

These "single-A" games (whether you call them "indie" or not) are succeeding because they can take risks triple-A's huge capital investments preclude. They can try different things, from recapturing the simple charm of retro gaming to making us cry and question our own judgment, because they don't need to sell like gangbusters to avoid bankrupting a gigantic corporation.

Smaller creators can do these brave things incredibly well because you can do so much with $2 million these days--even if you can't tell a story like BioShock Infinite. The tools are all there, and they are only getting cheaper, better, and more comprehensive. Triple-A development will become an ever more expensive and exclusive club to join, but that doesn't mean the last nail in the coffin for daring, different games.

As the triple-A industry grows taller, thinner, and more precarious for all but the heaviest hitters, independent efforts from interesting new places will fill in the margins. And--I think Mr. Levine would agree--that sounds pretty good.

7 comments

  • Dingleberrypiez - December 13, 2012 12:04 p.m.

    This article fails to clearly differentiate an "A" title game from an "AA" title game. Where do we draw the line? I see great games across the spectrum from simple downloadable xbox indies games, to AAA titles, and everything between. Where does a game like Shadow Complex fall, or Lara Croft Guardian of the Light (as another person mentioned)? These are clearly bigger efforts than something like Fez (an awesome indie game), but less than Halo 4.... So what is an "AA" game? Is this a disc only release that only has a modest budget? I'm not convinced that so called "AA" games are in the decline. Where's the supporting evidence for this conclusion? A one game example and comment from one game developer? I fail to see how Activisions failure is evidence of this theory. Companies are formed, grow, and fail for a wide variety of reasons. A good game is a good game, and like I said, I've enjoyed games that vary from very simple (cheap to make) to extravagant (expensive). In my opinion, there's just so much variety and excellent games out there, that people flat out don't have the time to invest in mediocre games, regardless of their development cost. There are plenty of "AAA" games that suck, no one wants to play, and don't sell. The only thing I away from this article is that there is increased viability and profitability to smaller-investment games, and a lower barrier of entry which breeds innovation (kind of a "no-duh").
  • Dingleberrypiez - December 13, 2012 12:06 p.m.

    Edit: meant Acclaim's failure, not activision.
  • FoxdenRacing - December 14, 2012 8:33 a.m.

    I don't know if it's so much the quality of them in decline...but rather, the quantity. Gaming suffers very, very badly from 'blockbuster' syndrome, the same thing that's consumed Hollywood: throw so much money at it there's no way it can be bad [or at least, that's how the thinking goes]. No publisher wants to spend more than a 'normal' game and not get a 'blockbuster', so getting a green light for a AA game is getting harder and harder. In that respect, they're in decline. And if things keep going the way they have for the past few, AAA's not going to live much longer. Between exponentially ballooning dev costs, linear sales growth, and the economy still sucking from the "main street" point of view, I really don't see how next generation's AAA games are financially viable.
  • fitter89 - December 13, 2012 10:41 a.m.

    I think the recent boom in gaming YouTube channels have greatly helped indie titles. All of the indie games that I own are ones i've seen being played on youtube and were in the alpha/beta stages. I would spend that $2 million pizza fund on "persuading" big YouTube channels to play your game.
  • ObliqueZombie - December 12, 2012 6:29 p.m.

    It's probably just me, but I prefer the feeling of a AAA title. Don't get me wrong, that doesn't mean I ignore indie games in the slightest. The Binding of Isaac was one of the most addictive, fulfilling titles I've played in a long time--with one of the best soundtracks I've heard from a game in a good while. If more indie games start aspiring to the quality of games like Amnesia instead of overusing 16- and 32-bit graphics (again, don't get me wrong, can look great), I'll hop on board more about these kind of games. And from the looks of it, I won't have to wait long.
  • Lurkero - December 12, 2012 3:21 p.m.

    I think the industry could benefit from a few more AA games instead of AAA. I tend to enjoy games focused more on interesting mechanics rather than impressive visuals and graphics. One of my best examples is the Lara Croft Guardian of Light downloadable game. You get the Lara Croft brand but a smaller focus.

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