In September of this year, Alex Hutchinson, creative director of Assassin’s Creed 3, made the rather bold claim that games such as the aforementioned were the last of the triple-A ‘dinosaurs’. He talked about how blockbuster games were beginning to lose prominence in the market and that the ever increasing production costs were killing off the middle tier games, leaving only the titans of the video gaming world. At the time, this sound bite gained much publicity with almost every major gaming outlet having something to say on the topic. The dominant opinion seemed to be that Hutchinson was erring on the side of hyperbole, but nonetheless provided interesting food for thought. Now we are in the throes of the Holiday period and quickly approach the end of the year, and it appears Hutchinson’s nihilism may have been well placed.
2012 was not a good year for video games. It got off to a bad start with the release of Mass Effect 3 inciting massive fan outcry in relation to its divisive ending, and allegations of ‘on-disc DLC’. Despite slightly underperforming in sales when compared to its predecessor, Mass Effect 3 still seemed to be a success. This, however, now seems prophetic for the year that was about to follow. A few months later, a similar uproar was heard with the release of Max Payne 3. Again sales fell short of expectations as fans complained that it was overshadowed by its predecessors. These events repeated again as Darksiders II was met with lacklustre response, having a detrimental effect upon THQ’s (Darksiders‘ publisher) stock.
These financial failures could be accounted for by the oft cited ‘summer lull’ that the video game world experiences. It was not until October that the real cracks began to show. At the beginning of the month, Resident Evil 6, the latest in the incredibly popular horror series, was released to polarised critical opinions and abysmal sales. The end of the month saw the release of the original last ‘dinosaur’ Assassin’s Creed 3, which, although a runaway commercial success, was met with equally polarising reaction. Finally, even the largest of the video game titans, Call of Duty, showed somewhere around a 14% decrease in sales over its forerunner.
To play devil’s advocate, this mass underperformance could be rationalised in terms of the economic climate or indeed the fact that this console generation is drawing to a close, but that would be a little too neat an explanation for a fluke financial drought which resulted in a multitude of layoffs and full scale studio closures. With the likes of Angry Birds becoming multi-million dollar intellectual properties while costing a fraction of the price of a title such as Assassin’s Creed to produce, and games such as Assassin’s Creed not gaining the success they once so easily did, it is becoming easier to see how developers may be lured away by more positive risk-reward ratios.
There is, however, one hope for the big home console title. While Hutchinson’s assessment of the ‘dinosaurs’ becoming extinct seeming more and more likely, there may just be a chance for the mid-tier to rise again. In this year alone it was the smaller riskier games such as Dishonoured and X-Com which seemed to garner the attention of the gamers fatigued with the larger titles. Perhaps in the wake of blockbusters like Call of Duty a new generation of smaller budget games can arise with more opportunity to take a chance and harbour experimentation – perhaps, to extend Hutchinson’s metaphor, the rise of the ‘proto-mammals’ of gaming.