'The Order: 1886' shows how AAA games are crumbling under their huge budgets.
After a two year delay, PlayStation 4-exclusive The Order: 1886 unfortunately wasn't worth the wait. Bad reviews poured in upon its release, all criticizing its boring gameplay, uninteresting narrative, and short length. Kotaku said it was, "a brief, drab adventure starring a group of characters who all seem to dislike their lives." With the harsh criticism came a resurgence of familiar questions: How long should a game be to warrant a $60 price tag? Are games just too expensive?
Those questions lead to the starker problems with the state of games, particularly AAA titles. AAA (pronounced triple-A) games are those with the highest budgets and largest production teams. Video game publisher Activision, for example, invested $500 million on Destiny's development, marketing, and other costs associated with making a huge game. These games earn by far the most revenue and are always expected to be the best the industry has to offer.
Of course, big budgets don't guarantee good games.
Last year's Halo: The Master Chief Collection's multiplayer had a bug that prevented players from joining parties with friends. Assassin's Creed: Unity saw massive glitches that caused faces to disappear. Even new titles like Destiny and Titanfall, despite the hype around them, earned relatively low review scores. Their budgets were astronomical, the marketing relentless, but the games fell short. They either failed to deliver on their promises, or were simply broken.
The Order: 1886 works as advertised. It's a big, expensive, flagship game for the PlayStation 4, but it's still not enough.
As many developers have noted, including Metal Gear creator Hideo Kojima and former Battlefield developer David Goldfarb, more money does not encourage creativity; it smothers it. So much money on the line makes creativity risky, so publishers push for stability. They want last year's hit with just enough new paint to justify buying it again at full price.
And as budgets increase, the ability to make a profit decreases. The $60 price tag is not enough, so publishers sell more content for the game separately after release to make it last longer and keep the money coming in. Even then, it's not enough. Celebrated developers like Irrational Games (known for the acclaimed Bioshock series) have closed down because they couldn't justify their headcount. Publisher Square Enix said that 2013's Tomb Raider reboot failed to meet expectations even after it sold 3.4 million copies.
AAA development is simply crumbling under its own weight.
Conversely, independent developers have the freedom to explore new, exciting ideas usually avoided by AAA games. But without the aura of AAA, they can't ask for as much money.
They want last year's hit with just enough new paint to justify buying it again at full price
Indie games usually cost something between $20 and "pay what you want" and to many players even that's not cheap enough. Monument Valley, an indie mobile game that shot up the charts recently because it was featured on House of Cards, received a slew of 1-star reviews on the app stores because it dared to charge for new levels. The new levels cost developer ustwogames $549,000 to develop. The price it asked for in return for its work, which offended players so much: $2.
Gamers want something new, but aren't willing to pay for it unless it looks as expensive as the latest Call of Duty. Call of Duty's developers, meanwhile, can barely get the game out the door in working order and with enough hours of content to justify its $60 price tag, and so can't afford to take any risks.
Games are at a standstill, controlled by the oblivious gamer that wants games with the highest of quality at the lowest price in their hands as soon as possible. The industry attempts to concede to the gamer's whim for bigger and better in a short timeframe, but what we get in return are broken, or boring, games.
That's how we get The Order: 1886, an expensive, beautiful, fully functioning, and hugely advertised game that nobody likes. It was too short, but it's too expensive to make it any longer. It had ambitions about its new world, story, and cinematography, but in the end felt the constraint of budget's grip.
The good news, perhaps, is that The Order also confirms that change is coming. Ready or not, gamers will see an incoming sea change in gaming, if for no other reason that the AAA model can no longer sustain itself.
Lead image: The miserable heroes of The Order: 1886. Credit: Sony Computer Entertainment