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Antoniades: AAA retail model is "crushing innovation"

Tue 06 Sep 2011 8:00am GMT / 4:00am EDT / 1:00am PDT
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Ninja Theory creative chief says that current model is punishing risk

Ninja Theory Ltd.

Ninja Theory Ltd. are a video game developer based in Cambridge, UK and are creators of the visually...

ninjatheory.com

Ninja Theory's Creative chief, Tameem Antoniades has told GamesIndustry.biz that the dominant AAA retail model is stifling creativity in the industry, identifying smaller-scale development as a hotbed of creative opportunity.

High price points for boxed console titles mean that customers are less likely to take chances on unknown quantities, says Antoniades, resulting in a cycle of proven formulae which gamers feel comfortable with.

And, despite his studio's proven track record and continuing success in that very market, Antoniades believes that a switch to lower-risk digitally distributed titles is essential to cultivating variety.

"We're in this kind of AAA bracket, I guess you could call it," Antoniades explains in a larger interview.

"The high budget, high stakes retail model - the barriers to entry for that are so high, so difficult, that we seem to be getting, being offered, decent work in that area. It's hard to say no when you've got a team of 100 and you have to keep the payroll going. Another big project comes along, you tend to go for it.

"There's always an opportunity between projects to explore things, a lot of team members are hobbyists, they create their own iPhone games and things like that so I can see us kind of taking a punt with that. It can't come soon enough. The whole digital revolution is happening now and it can't come soon enough. The model we're under, the big retail model, is creaking.

"It's such an opportunity for fun creative games to reach a target audience, there's this stranglehold that the AAA retail model has which I think is just crushing innovation and access to creative content. If you're paying that much for a game, you don't want to take chances. You want everything to be there, all the feature sets. You want it to be a known experience, guaranteed fun. That's not healthy."

Ninja Theory is currently producing a reboot of Capcom's Devil May Cry series for the Japanese publisher, following on from two high-profile new IP releases in Heavenly Sword and Enslaved.

24 Comments

James Ingrams
Writer

215 84 0.4
European developer's/publisher's are showing the way, at least on PC. They are closer to the coalface and know what gamers want. PC gamers don't need Crysis graphics, Witcher 1 will do very well - thank-you. The U.S. media don't know how to handle these European titles, with the famous Gamespot video review for STALKER where the reviewer says that "while the graphics are not up to much, it's easy to just stop and look at the great vista's" Which is it Gamespot? So beautiful you want to stop, or sub par?

European PC titles are brought to market for under $15 million, half of the large publisher AAA titles. They are not cutting edge, and so, on the larger gaming sites games like STALKER 1, 2 and 3 have never got into the 90%'s, and yet in the European media, they have barely fallen below 90%! These titles, between them, have sold nearly 8 million units!

The PC market has been lost to these European companies, while PC gamers wait 5 years for the next Elder Scrolls, Starcraft or Half Life and then see them dumbed down for the console market, we get old-school PC games with oodles of great gameplay 3-4 times or more a year!

For example, the general media consensus is that Bethesda keep the cRPG market alive with it's Fallout's and Elder Scroll's games. But in reality, it is the four Gothic's, two Two World's, two Sacred's, two Drakensang and Arx fatalis that have actually kept the PC cRPG market alive over the last 5-6 years!

Edited 1 times. Last edit by James Ingrams on 6th September 2011 11:21am

Posted:2 years ago

#1

Zan Toplisek

44 16 0.4
@ James: That's very subjective, I'd say. Maybe you feel like the console games you mentioned are getting too dumbed down, but some of us welcome those changes with open arms. You call it dumbing down, I call it streamlining the experience (in a good way). I'm one of those people who thought Mass Effect 2 was a whole lot more enjoyable than Mass Effect (and no, I'm not 14; I've been gaming since the mid-1990s, so I've also had my fair share of classic PC games (both US and EU titles, I'm from Slovenia), done the "old way").

As for the article, I agree with Antoniades. I wouldn't say it's "crushing" innovation, but it's definitely limiting it - but that's to be expected with those astronomical budgets.

Posted:2 years ago

#2
Yeah well, being absolutely beautiful never stopped Crysis being actually crap no matter how much people want to say it isn't.

This is a trend that's been coming for a long time. I also feel that one of the reasons for this is that genres have become too well-established, to the point of staleness. FPS is probably a good example. From the time when they were all doom-clones and you had all sorts of crazy things happening, now every game has two-weapon system, shields that recharge when you're in cover and/or the CoD-health-thingie (which is KINDA the same) etc...etc...etc...

Whilst the people that go out there and experiment with crazy stuff or try to reach back into the nostalgia factor are there, they feel way too few now and, in a way, too small, too "cult" even. Costs and risks are too big, most publishers don't want to know about it and we're stuck with more and more of the same.

Since the public that sells is 7-15 asking their mums games they've been bombarded with in adverts because it has more exclamation marks than the previous one.... yeah... /rant

Posted:2 years ago

#3

Andreas Gschwari
Senior Games Designer

555 607 1.1
I actuall disagree with that view. It will only crush innovation if a developer lets that happen.

If what Tameem says is true, and his studio is approached to do AAA development based on their proven track-record, surely there must be some kind of leverage possible to further innovation. Sure if a studio just takes a pay-cheque and says yes to everything the publisher demands, then that will crush innovation. But if a studio asks to be given some innovative leeway, and they have the track-record to deliver outstanding product, i doubt many publisher will crush that.

If a developer decides to go the safe route and deliver something similar to whats already out there, i think they crush their own innovation in return for easy money.

Posted:2 years ago

#4

Terence Gage
Freelance writer

1,288 120 0.1
Maybe every big developer needs to hold their own annual Amnesia Fortnight-style event?

Posted:2 years ago

#5

Taylan Kay
Game Desginer

59 93 1.6
@Andreas: I'm sorry to tell you that yes, indeed the publisher will deny leeway, as long as they are bankrolling the whole affair. It is an established attitude towards risk in the AAA sector; they want to reduce the risk of rejection as much as possible when they're spending many millions of dollars on a project. They also want to maximize the usage of previously developed assets to bring the development cost further down. So every new idea has two costs associated with it: the cost to implement something new, and the cost of potential consumer rejection after it has been implemented (which can be massive). In the corporate world these are very important in calculating the ROIs (Return on Investment) of possible projects, and deciding which project to greenlight; the highest ROI wins of course.

Indies have the upper hand there mostly because they are working with smaller budgets, which means less risk. They also are responsible for their own business decisions and they don't have to convince any men in suits about their artistic/creative instincts.

Posted:2 years ago

#6

James Ingrams
Writer

215 84 0.4
@Taylan,Tthis is what I am saying. It's not just Indies with their $1-3 million budgets, it's the European publishers that bring out AAA titles for under half of what the big American companies can. Skyrim will be $40 million to bring to market and probably sell 4 million on PC. The Witcher 2 has already sold 2 million just in Poland, and by the time their 360 version comes out will have sold the same 4 million, and yet Witcher 2 was brought to market for well under $20 million!

Posted:2 years ago

#7

Andreas Gschwari
Senior Games Designer

555 607 1.1
Well the developer can simply decline the offer from a publisher then no? Wait for something bette or go indie.

In every negotation there is a bit of give and take i would think.

Obviously a publisher has it's own ROI in mind. But at the same time there are plenty of examples out there where a publisher has allowed a development team to innovate and experiment, with new IP and/or new mechanics. Its a matter of trust in that studio i think.

EA/DICE with Mirrors Edge would be an example. Sure DICE is making anther (very successfull) shooter to fit the current need for the market, but in between sequels they were allowed to get innovative.

I know indies have the upper hand, but what i am saying is that there are options to go big and be innovative as well.

Posted:2 years ago

#8

Mihai Cozma
Indie Games Developer

123 34 0.3
I agree AAA is doing what it is claimed, on the other hand 99c games are doing even worse. Customers will take all chances with such a price, so there is no sense of value in those products. The price doesn't tell anything about their quality, purchase stats say nothing as people would buy them just to try them and so on. Even worse, it is no longer feasible for an indie to invest a lot in a game in order to sell it for 10-15$ because 99c games created a mentality that 10$ are way too much to pay for a game. even 2$ sometimes it is too much!!

Posted:2 years ago

#9
Most publishers are simply idiots with money looking to fund development....They maintain relationships with retailers and fret at the thought of digital console distribution.

Creativity and innovation come from the developers and the development teams should not be held back, let the consumers decide what they want when they give a game a thumbs up (purchase) or a thumbs down (pass)

I'm a publisher... (and a reformed idiot) - the only area we get involved in is timelines and schedules, the creativity is left to the developers.

Posted:2 years ago

#10

Dave Morris
designer

4 0 0.0
Wait - this is news? Is there anybody out there working at a mid- to large-sized company who doesn't have this exact conversation roughly once a week?

Posted:2 years ago

#11

Terence Gage
Freelance writer

1,288 120 0.1
James Ingrams - "The Witcher 2 has already sold 2 million just in Poland"

Really?! Because on Eurogamer probably a week ago they posted a story saying it was on track to sell 1 million copies soon, including 200,000 digital copies (is it a GOG exclusive, or on Steam as well?) -- do you have a link to back this claim up?!

Posted:2 years ago

#12

Marcel Pace
Sound Designer

1 0 0.0
Oh really?
Maybe that's why the biggest innovation come from indie companies?

That happened in hollywodd, and in the music industry.
Games are no exception.

Posted:2 years ago

#13

Guy Costantini
Managing Partner

12 0 0.0
In my opinion the FPS-RPG merge is already well underway. I see a future where the shooter part is free-to-play and the story content is pay per episode / gear / experience / multiplayer content chunk. The audience has already grown up, we are bored of linear and superficial titles, but we want the option of that mindless experience if we so choose. Take it as you want, this is my prediction for the future.

I don't agree that the model is what crushes innovation, I think innovation is crushed by peoples' natural aversion to change and sticking to safety, but eventually someone comes out with groundbreaking material, and then our equally important adaptability kicks in.

Posted:2 years ago

#14

Max Priddy

64 12 0.2
Just a thought but I think Ninja Theory would actually fare better if they did releases of their games for PC too, or at least I'd buy them on PC if it meant not having to play at sub-30fps framerates and aliasing aplenty.

Posted:2 years ago

#15

Tameem Antoniades
Creative Director & Co-founder

196 164 0.8
Max, we don't decide the sku's. The publisher does.

Posted:2 years ago

#16

Tim Carter
Designer - Writer - Producer

550 268 0.5
The idea that big is bad and small is good is nonsense.

It isn't that the games are big. It's that there is no system which places creative control into the hands of the creators. And no system that finances prototypes for new kinds of games without the creators having to take on the burden of all the risk.

All of this can be achieved. The film industry has figured out how to do this. In a film, it's common to give creative control over a $10 million budget to the core creator, without the core creator forking out all the risk.

Posted:2 years ago

#17

Corey Williams
Podcaster/blogger

8 0 0.0
Unless I am misunderstanding the quote, it seems as though Mr. Antoniades is stating that keeping his people paid requires accepting any offer the publisher throws at him; including rehashes of older AAA titles.

I guess my question is why can't the studio develop a new, innovative idea and pitch that? I know publishers are less likely to pay for the development of a game if it isn't a well established franchise, but I think part of the problem, specifically with AAA titles, is that nobody is willing to take that leap and invest in a new, innovative approach to the standard way of doing things.

Isn't that the crux of the "indie games are where innovation comes from" argument? At some point shouldn't a studio or developer (ala Ryan Payton) give up and do their own thing in the indie scene? A scene where they're free to be as creative as possible and the cost of development is much lower?

It feels like he is saying it doesn't pay to be creative in the AAA space. Am I reading more into this than I should be? Are we to assume the AAA space is only for established franchises? There are some studios that are able to innovate, a little, but on the whole of it there isn't much innovation going on in AAA game development.

Posted:2 years ago

#18

J S
Artist

7 2 0.3
While I agree that price point is a problem, I think that developers need to take responsibility for their part in the problems with the AAA games model.

The simple fact is that today the industry is dominated by corporate businesses, and corporations, being legal fictions and not people, really only have one motive: return for investment. This means that they will nearly always choose to take less risk, and thus avoid innovation.

Innovation tends to happen with independent developers, people who aren't risking anything, because they aren't looking for a monetary return. It turns out that, perhaps, it is passion and not incentive that fuels progress.

Posted:2 years ago

#19

Sean Warren
Inspector

34 0 0.0
There seemed to me to be one point conspicuously undressed here...

Dev's don't have the leverage to tell the publishers what they will do.
That is not going to happen. They may hold all the cards, but without the money, the allure of poker remains purely academic.
(Still not to my point though. Hang in there, I believe in you!)
That said, the publisher is not some parasite but rather one piece of the love triangle.
(Almost there, just over that ridge... I promise.)
It is simple and we all know what will follow.

Demand guides what is the acceptable rate of innovation in the publishers world. As long as the end consumer is willing to pay AAA prices for rehashed, re-skinned content, that practice will continue to be a viable market.
The other point of interest, is the "indie" market... It is its self a misnomer. It is in no true way independent of this great market. As such it is rather a separete, lower risk pool in which we allow trends to develop and push innovation. It is where publishers turn to for proof of concept, and after that they will allow the big boys to polish such concepts, and incorporate into the AAA definition. There may be minor exceptions here and there, and this is what makes corporate officers.

So, we see, that while they they do crush innovation, it is only in one direction and to not crush it, may leave AAA titles less dense.
What better duty for us devs, than to provide such a cushion for our fans.
I'll tell you what, as a consumer, I can feel the radiant glow of that love.

As for the differential of cost based upon separately localized markets, well there are a lot of facets to cover there, culture being the largest one that rightly rests at the top of the stone.
That said I'll save that for another comment so as to not risk the complete derailing of this thread in its entirety.

Cut those gem's ladies and gentlemen, and I'll keep trying to squeeze out a diamond to offer up.

Posted:2 years ago

#20

Tim Carter
Designer - Writer - Producer

550 268 0.5
@Sean Warren: You do not understand the legal underpinnings of creative control.

Devs could have all the power in the world - even without the money or the ownership control... If they wanted.

Posted:2 years ago

#21

Andrew Ihegbu
Studying Bsc Commercial Music

436 146 0.3
@ Zan Toplisek

I bet you played that on a console right? Mass Effect 2 was a successor to what was already a dumbed down game technically. It just had Bioware's Midas touch in the sense that they designed it from square one to be both a console and PC game. It still lacks polish on the PC, and it irritates me how many blatant prots exist for the PC where you cant even use the keyboard to type a name and have to resort to using directional buttons on an onscreen keypad. I mean, come on!

It also seems like every time the console/PC divide is mentioned, Mass Effect is mentioned. It's an enigma, a great one that I wish there was more of, but still an enigma.



On the developer - publisher relationship front, we must remember that this is a corporate entities businesses relationship with a artistic entity. In all industries where that relationship exists its the same, the corporates allow creative freedom until they find something that works, then they force the artistic entity to produce successive iterations of the same thing until demand is satisfied.

Now we've aimed ours sights on casual gamers, we have lots of gamers playing console games online or on facebook when they have nothing else to do, much in the same way they used to watch TV when they had nothing else to do. Unlike your average gamer this is not something they take an active interest in, so they will not be able to differentiate between game mechanics changing in a new iteration of a game and just new skins being added and 2 new guns. These gamers will not get tired of cookie cutter crap and there's more of them than the real gamers out there, and our industry will suffer until they get tired of CoD:MW63 and Angry Birds 18 and start to realise its the same game reskinned with a few bells and whistles.

Posted:2 years ago

#22

Tyler Moore
Game Designer & Unity Developer

51 14 0.3
My first instinct reading this is "welcome to 5 years ago" when casual and online gaming really started taking off, now we see social and mobile doing the same thing (built on the roots of casual/online conveniently enough).

No doubt the AAA model is losing steam in favour of digital-based platforms. But I still have yet to see something I'd call really innovation. Angry Birds is a really just a perfectly timed & polished physics game, Farmville/Mafia wars are innovative in a marketing sense (using psychological tricks on a relatively untapped market).

The most innovation I've seen is Minecraft, which is, at best, an online game, and at worst, a *traditional PC Game*, not AAA at all, but my point is 9/10, innovation will always fall into the hands of indies and their talent to swallow risk and develop with passion, not marketing data.

Posted:2 years ago

#23

Sean Warren
Inspector

34 0 0.0
@Tim Carter

Well, I am curious as to what evidence you base your assessment upon... To be honest, my understanding is quite complete, so your statement is rather stupefying. If that's what you glean from my post, then I suggest you take a class or two on how to properly form a hypothesis, because the topic of was conspicuously absent in my comment. Anyhow, you may have meant well, so I will just reassure you that law is in no way my weakest subject of understanding, and would point out that no matter my understanding, it would change as I travel anyhow...
/shrug
I don't know what to tell you other than that, have a nice day?
Moving back on topic...

Posted:2 years ago

#24

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