Thursday Throwdown: Are AAA Studios Dying?

February 20, 2014 | By | No Comments


It’s been a little while, but welcome back to the Thursday Throwdown, where Stealthy Box editors gather to give their take on the crazy happenings in the breakneck industry of video games!

This week has been especially nutty as Irrational Games, one of the most storied and accomplished developers in the industry, is no more. While no one outside of Take-Two Interactive and Irrational will ever know the whole truth, chances are high that this was a financial decision. That makes us wonder: If a high-profile studio that releases a multi-million selling critically-acclaimed title can still be shut down, does this mean that AAA studios as we know them are going the way of the dodo?

Travis Tucker: I think it’s highly premature to say AAA development studios are going extinct. We are just seeing the next evolution of the gaming industry. Publishers are learning that they just can’t pump out massive blockbuster titles and always make loads of money.

I liken it to the film industry. Sure, people are going to line up for the next entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and it will make tons of cash, but Hollywood can’t bank on those big budget action movies alone. Movie goers want variety; they crave something different from time to time. People want the small, indie dramas. They want to enjoy that low budget romance that focuses on character development instead of huge names. In fact, many stars are made from these humble origins.

The same is becoming true for the game industry. As much as I love games like Assassin’s Creed, Tomb Raider, and Uncharted, I would hate if every game released was just like them. I want to play some small indie titles here and there. Currently, my favorite game on the Vita is the indie platformer Thomas Was Alone. The game is as simple as it can get, but Mike Bithell and his team created a title that focused on gameplay first and managed to create one of the most refreshing titles in recent memory. Bithell and his crew poured their heart and soul into the project and it shines through. Now, just like those budding stars in that indie romance, Bithell is being shown off as a true talent in game design.

Publishers and developers are learning that putting out the same games every year, no matter how exciting and pretty they look, will drain the life out of the industry. This is going to lead to smaller, more heartfelt projects as well as better AAA titles at the end of the day. AAA studios aren’t dying, they’re just changing.

David Wales: I don’t think AAA studios will ever die out, but I think we’re going to get to the unfortunate point where these studios are willing to take fewer and fewer risks in order to minimize potential losses. This, of course, will hurt gamers the most but will be the result of gamers being afraid to move out of their comfort zones and trying something new.

Who predicted Irrational Games would close its doors and lay off the majority of its team in favor of starting a smaller, less costly studio to move forward with? This was especially surprising considered BioShock Infinite sold millions of copies and its following DLC was incredibly solid as well. I’d be interested in learning why and how Square Enix was not only capable of keeping its doors open last year, but also funding a definitive version of Tomb Raider despite the publisher reporting that it had not made much of a profit on Hitman and Tomb Raider in 2013.

Perhaps Square’s mobile market and in-app purchases are aiding the company in staying open and if so, does this mean we’ll see an abundance of developers creating lame iOS games instead of putting its full focus on console and PC titles? That would definitely be another disappointing end result for the gamer as well.

Regardless, it’s unfortunate that this industry just lost a great studio full of talented designers, developers, engineers, producers, etc. Hopefully the entire team finds work elsewhere quickly and can get back to providing the industry with awesome, unique experiences.

Joe Garcia: This is a subject that has crossed my mind once before, and it’s something that I’d rather be wrong about. But as budgets inflate, eventually a point of no return is reached where even selling millions of copies doesn’t justify keeping a studio open, a cold reality that even Irrational Games couldn’t escape.

If AAA studios are going away, it won’t happen overnight. However, the pieces aren’t exactly falling in their favor. The cinematic experiences that we love from games like Uncharted and God of War won’t be getting any cheaper now that the PS4 and Xbox One are in full swing. Independent developers are eagerly making smaller, more focused games that are just as highly regarded at a fraction of the price.

Blockbuster experiences can still be a profitable and worthwhile endeavor, but only if publishers can get themselves out of control. It’s difference between Dark Souls II releasing next month and the Medal of Honor franchise disappearing after its last release.

The closing of Irrational doesn’t mark the end of big budget development, but it’s indicative of what can happen when things get out of hand. Hopefully we won’t need more landmark studios to close before publishers realize it.