What's killing AAA gaming? Goddamn turtles

Never in gaming's history have there been 34 more pointless words than "The Caribbean basin provides an excellent climate for both land and sea turtles. Turtles are reptiles with a hard, protective upper shell called a carapace. All turtles breathe air and lay eggs on land." That paragraph shows up in Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag, a game where you surf through the digitized DNA of 16th Century pirate assassin Edward Kenway. To access it, you need to hit the Start button, scroll down to the Database, then go to the Animus Database, then scroll down all the way to Fauna, and then go to the Turtle entry.

It's buried under about seven layers of menus and options, nestled between an equally inane entries for ocelots and wild pigs, and it's a description of a goddamn turtle.

The game industry is in a strange place in 2013, and it's leading to a problem where AAA games with AAA budgets aren't able to sustain themselves with AAA sales. Crystal Dynamic's Tomb Raider (which was incidentally one of the best titles of 2013) sold over four million copies in its first few months on the shelves, but that just wasn't enough for publisher Square-Enix. The Final Fantasy publisher failed to hit its projections for the first half of 2013, and blamed Tomb Raider, Sleeping Dogs, and Hitman: Absolution (all of which sold a few million copies). Four million copies was "far weaker than we ever imagined," according to Square Enix president Yoichi Wada.

Thing is, games have gotten so big that making $160 million in the first few months (Source: me multiplying $40 and four million in an attempt to figure out how much Tomb Raider made because that kind of information isn't actually available) simply isn't enough. We've stumbled into a strange territory, where expectations for sales are so colossal that every game needs to make all of the money in order for anyone to be happy--but all of the games can't make all of the money. A great game doing extremely well isn't enough, and the reason is starting to become clear: games are too full of descriptions of goddamn turtles.

Let's think of it from a budgeting point-of-view. Ubisoft already needs to pay a concept artist to sketch the goddamn turtle, a 3D artist to model the goddamn turtle, a texture artist to paint colors onto the goddamn turtle, a texture mapper to put that texture on the goddamn turtle, an animator to make the goddamn turtle move, a sound engineer to record audio of a real goddamn turtle, and a coder to implement the goddamn behavior of the goddamn turtle. And then, after all is said and done, someone was paid to write "The Caribbean basin provides an excellent climate for both land and sea turtles. Turtles are reptiles with a hard, protective upper shell called a carapace. All turtles breathe air and lay eggs on land." Ubisoft's enjoying a yearly ride with Assassin's Creed, and each is apparently doing well enough to justify sliding wrist-mounted knives into the necks of conspiring Europeans on an annual basis, but still, is this really necessary?

Don't get me wrong, I'm genuinely delighted there are turtles in the game. Scrambling onto a Caribbean beach and seeing a sea turtle--with its hard, protective upper shell--provides me with a definite sense of immersion. And it's a really good turtle as far as turtles go, totally top-notch; AAA work from a developer known for it's AAA products. But, seriously, does anyone need to know about how land and sea turtles thrive in the Caribbean climate? The fact that all turtles breathe air and lay eggs on the land isn't going to enhance my experience in the least, and yet, it added to the budget. Someone had to research this, write this, edit this, and put it in the game. And then QA testers had to make sure it didn't run off the page or anything. This turtle's description was serious business.

It's one thing to have attention to detail; I don't think anyone is going to complain about that. Finding out that someone researched the exact color of smoke that should come off of that specific torch is a commitment to realism that will help games become more respected as an art form.

But there's a difference between attention to detail and a culture of excess, and this sort of thing is as good an example of excess as any. Gamers want good games, and they want big games, and they want big, good games, but there are definitely some areas that could have the fat trimmed off. I'm thinking I know where to start: goddamn turtles.

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Hollander Cooper

Hollander Cooper was the Lead Features Editor of GamesRadar+ between 2011 and 2014. After that lengthy stint managing GR's editorial calendar he moved behind the curtain and into the video game industry itself, working as social media manager for EA and as a communications lead at Riot Games. Hollander is currently stationed at Apple as an organic social lead for the App Store and Apple Arcade.