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Innovation threatened by rising cost of AAA, says Raymond

Innovation threatened by rising cost of AAA, says Raymond

Mon 05 Aug 2013 2:01pm GMT / 10:01am EDT / 7:01am PDT
PeopleDevelopment

Ubisoft Toronto head says big-budget devs should investigate new business models, improve efficiency, invest in tools

Ubisoft Toronto studio head Jade Raymond thinks there's still innovation in the AAA space, but sees it threatened in the future by the continually rising costs of development. In the lead up to this month's launch of Ubisoft Toronto's debut Splinter Cell: Blacklist, Raymond shared her concerns with Digital Spy.

"I think the big question to me, as the expectations of these big triple-As keep on growing and the consoles become more powerful and teams get bigger, is how do we keep the costs in line," Raymond said. "That's for sure one of the things that is going to stifle innovation eventually. Anytime you want to make a big triple-A, you're spending, let's say $100 million, you're not going to want to take a chance. It's got to be, I'm making the next Call of Duty or the Assassin's Creed and I know it's going to make 'X' amount, so we'll make money. I think that's the tougher thing."

Her solution for maintaining innovation in the AAA space is a two-pronged approach. First, bring development costs down.

"I think it depends on what type of game you're making, but all games I think we have to invest in tools to make people more efficient, to perhaps make 10 times the amount of content that we were making before with the same amount of effort," Raymond said. "That's the only way we're going to keep up. So there has to be a big investment there."

Next, investigate some alternative business models.

"The reality is the industry is changing, the way people are consuming games is changing, the expectations are changing," Raymond said. "More stuff is online. What does that mean? There are some games like The Walking Dead which are starting to have interesting episodic [content], but that doesn't apply to all games. What's the business model that makes sense to you? What's going on with free-to-play, what does that mean for the console market?"

Raymond name-checked Team Fortress 2 as one particularly effective treatment of the free-to-play business model. The game's microtransaction hats don't impact competitive balance, and Valve's decision to let players create and sell their own hats has made it so people in the community are making money off the game as well.

"I think that's a great business model to investigate for some games," Raymond said.

25 Comments

Tim Carter
Designer - Writer - Producer

555 292 0.5
Use the film model. Project-based.

That gets rid of tons of overhead between projects.

It's not rocket science.

Problem is, the film-model works on greenlight-worthy talent. That is: key individual creators who can greenlight a project by signing on to it. So you have to promote key talent to get there.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Tim Carter on 5th August 2013 4:35pm

Posted:A year ago

#1

James Ingrams
Writer

215 85 0.4
Innovation threatened? Innovation has already disappeared, you can see this from the predominance of corridor shooters as games releases for the new consoles!

How come, for under $20 million in development costs, you can get great games like the Witcher series, that sell for $40 rather than $60, come with maps, art books and soundtrack CD and finally have NO DRM!!

CD Projekt RED are going from strength to strength working on four titles now, and having opened a new 20 man development team!

This is the model for the major developers, original products, most aimed at adults rather than children (their the one's who play AAA games!) get rid of the onerous DRM, make sure the games have great gameplay with plenty of content and with lower development costs and produce more original titles! For example, why haven't we had an Elder Scrolls style RPG based on the Wild West. Play as sheriff, bandit, rancher, etc, points in the charisma skill means as sheriff you get bigger/better posse's and so on! And that's off the top of my head!

Posted:A year ago

#2

Adam Campbell
Associate Producer

1,148 928 0.8
Innovation threatened? Innovation has already disappeared, you can see this from the predominance of corridor shooters as games releases for the new consoles!
Squeezed yes but I wouldn't agree with disappeared.

I would consider the games coming out of CD Projeckt to be AAA but they are very impressive and strive for innovation. I've seen example of innovative games design from studios such as Ubisoft and Quantic Dream too clearly targeting AAA.

The way AAA is at the moment, the reliance on extreme development/marketing budgets and shorter time-scales is squeezing the innovation out, so only a select few are able to recreate the ideal conditions for this to happen.

It would be quite interesting and refreshing to see the biggest studios consider cutting back spend and working on more titles in parallel with unique concepts over a longer period.

Sure, they'll still have superior budgets to most games out there but perhaps it will lead to a lower reliance on record-breaking sales (on a yearly installment) to break even and promote a culture of focusing on a game that's great and can be delivered by a reasonably sized team in a reasonable time scale. The current model isn't working as well as some want it to.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Adam Campbell on 5th August 2013 5:22pm

Posted:A year ago

#3

Tyler Moore
Game Designer & Unity Developer

51 14 0.3
I'm curious as to how much pre-production and prototyping happen at Ubisoft Toronto before the full production team is set loose on it. What requirements are there for a game to move from pre-production to costly full production? How does team communication affect costs and how can that be improved? By which I mean, how and how long does a unique idea from a QA make it's way to implementation?

Posted:A year ago

#4

Paul Johnson
Managing Director / Lead code monkey

808 1,009 1.2
In my experience, most good ideas happen during production. We've changed our current game twice in epic "throw the doc away" directions. And it's the better for it. Big firms can't have that, so I think they're always going to struggle tbh.

Posted:A year ago

#5

Bryan Robertson
Gameplay Programmer

86 210 2.4
Popular Comment
@Tim Carter

Knowledge of a company's tools, source code, engines and pipelines is actually very valuable, and takes time to build up. Programmers are at their most efficient when they have a strong understanding of a code-base, which is something that takes time to build. Artists too, have to learn the pipeline, and the best way to get results with the particular engine they're working with.

If you let all those people go at the end of the project, as in the project-based model used in film, then you're wasting all that time you've spent building expertise with your tech and tools. This is why, when a games company goes into bankruptcy, the administrators will generally try to sell the team as a going concern, before they'll give up and just try to sell the source-code/IP on its own.

What works well for film, doesn't necessarily work well for games, because creating films is a very different process to creating games.

Posted:A year ago

#6

Tobias Sjögren
EVP Business Development

10 2 0.2
I been in this industry for some decent amount of time now and I like to remember I heard the same things over and over again, "budgets are getting too big" and "innovation will disappear".
I think it is more proper to say that the high AAA-budgets have increased the risks so much so we seen the capital (investors) going to fewer and fewer publishers (THQ was the last one to go). But if you remember in the end of the 90's there was a lot of publishers of "AAA"-games in UK and now there are fewer/more international m not really considering the AAA-games I play today to be bad in any way, I think they are generally much better than the ones from only 3-4 years ago.

And in the meantime we see different innovations in everything from gameplay (which is what I assume Jade mainly is referring to) to controls, presentation of plot to distribution, monetization, product placement, marketing, etc. It goes kind of slow though but it still moves forward! When I 2005 started working with a start-up company doing digital distribution of games most biz devs at publishers had no idea what to do with my requests, couple years later that company sold games downloaded games from all the major AAA-publishers and the had to fight with the most

Also, I think (and please correct me if I'm wrong) Telltale released their first episodic game in October 2006, one of the Sam & Max adventures. It was a lot of talk about that as the "next big thing" back then. As was XBLA for a while, and Wii, and Facebook probably the last one*... Things show up, inspire, makes great success and then fade away. Cycles of this is so much faster in games industry than most other entertainment industries I know about at least. You go to really do your absolute best, constantly develop and improve and be in front of the rest to really make great innovations, in my mind few other industries offer this in such rapid cycles and that is why I LOVE THE GAMES INDUSTRY! :)

* regarding Facebook games though, please read this great article http://www.develop-online.net/blog/514/Facebooks-forgotten-future

Posted:A year ago

#7

Mats Holm
Technical Process Analyst

53 38 0.7
"How come, for under $20 million in development costs, you can get great games like the Witcher series, that sell for $40 rather than $60, come with maps, art books and soundtrack CD and finally have NO DRM!!"

Because their Dev team is in Warsaw (Poland), where cost of living is 60% lower then most places in the Western world.

So, 20 Million in in dev cost in Poland will be around 30-35 million in any western studio. Throw in lack of regulation, worker rights and you get another 5 million on top of that. So now we are looking at around 40 million dollar budget in a Western studio (US/Canada/UK)

Also, it was made only for PC, so then we are talking about no dev units, no certification costs, no licence cost etc, so that is a great cost cutter.

Also, lets remember, Witcher had DRM, the removal of the DRM was 2 years after release of that game. Up to that point is had Securom. And Witcher 2, disk version was released with Securom as well. DRM free version was only for GOG release.

Posted:A year ago

#8

Samuel Verner
Game Designer

131 243 1.9
@Mats

lets say every of the big studios in the world could develop a game for 20 instead of 40 million, but would be limited to pc only. i bet they wouldn't last long on the market. most of the big players just lost their skill to create something unique and original and so they can only reach the masses with stuff which tastes a bit like everything but nothing in particular.

also keep in mind that cd project may pay a bit less, but still nearly as much as other studios, because they run an international studio and they need to get the right talents on their boat.

i think they spend less on marketing, because they are well known in their target group for the quality of their games and don't need to hire robert downey jr. for a silly tv ad.

Posted:A year ago

#9

Paul Jace
Merchandiser

894 1,320 1.5
The title should be "Studio survival threatened by rising cost of AAA". And thats not a reference specifically to Ubisoft Toronto but towards the entire industry, most notably console developers. And much like Jade recommends, studios need to start exploring alternative pricing models and find any other way they can use to cut back on some of these rising cost.

Posted:A year ago

#10

Paul Johnson
Managing Director / Lead code monkey

808 1,009 1.2
How about take note of the stunning visuals and story led content to be found in the current 360 chart topper, and refocus on making games instead of trying to beat your competitors for number of polygons in shoelaces.

Posted:A year ago

#11

Tom Keresztes
Programmer

633 239 0.4
So, 20 Million in in dev cost in Poland will be around 30-35 million in any western studio. Throw in lack of regulation, worker rights and you get another 5 million on top of that. So now we are looking at around 40 million dollar budget in a Western studio (US/Canada/UK)
Regulation is actually lighter in the UK. Salaries are lower, tough.

Posted:A year ago

#12

Andreas Gschwari
Senior Games Designer

556 607 1.1
It's one way of looking at it. However truely inspired people will use the rising cost as a reason to be innovative when creating AAA games. The only reason costs spiral out of control is because people try to copy existing formulas and compete with (now ancient) franchises.

I believe it is possible to be innovative in the AAA space and lower overall costs in the process.

Posted:A year ago

#13

James Prendergast
Research Chemist

734 430 0.6
@ Mats Holm

"Also, it was made only for PC, so then we are talking about no dev units, no certification costs, no licence cost etc, so that is a great cost cutter."

What? This Witcher 2? The one released on PC, OSX and Xbox 360?

Edited 1 times. Last edit by James Prendergast on 6th August 2013 10:43am

Posted:A year ago

#14
How about keeping costs down by having small to medium sized teams per project of 20-50 man teams?

Posted:A year ago

#15

David Serrano
Freelancer

299 270 0.9
@Bryan Robertson

Pixar's model could probably be adapted by game studios. Actually, I wouldn't be surprised to see Pixar branch off into game development at some point.

Posted:A year ago

#16

David Serrano
Freelancer

299 270 0.9
Anytime you want to make a big triple-A, you're spending, let's say $100 million, you're not going to want to take a chance.
The problem isn't risk per se... it's who the industry is asking to take the risk. When James Cameron pitched Avatar, half of the tools needed to create the movie didn't exist. But studios and investors risked an estimated $237 M because they believed Cameron had the experience and skill set needed to pull it off. The AAA industry must take risks, the problem is developers still don't have the ability to recruit the visionary level talent needed to drastically minimize large financial risks.

Posted:A year ago

#17

Tim Carter
Designer - Writer - Producer

555 292 0.5
@Bryan:

That is such a bullshit mcguffin. Trotted out constantly by game develoipers who have NEVER tried project-based, but decide they are experts in it.

FACTS: In film, the same people work together constantly, year after year. You do NOT need to imprison people inside a factory to "keep them". Yoiu just... wait for it... develop a relationship with them and work with them on projects as they come up.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Tim Carter on 7th August 2013 11:02pm

Posted:A year ago

#18

David Radd
Senior Editor

358 78 0.2
It's worth noting that AAA game projects take far longer than most films, where the principal filming is usually complete over a series of several months - generally, most AAA games require hundreds of people working a couple years, sometimes become three, four or more depending on how ambitious the game is or how much difficulty there is in ironing out certain issues. It's easier to build up and break down when a project isn't destined to consume multiple years of your life.

Also, Hollywood has an established union system to hire workers, something that the gaming industry lacks for the most part - this would make it more difficult to rehire competent but different workers in various positions.

Posted:A year ago

#19

Gabor Takacs
3D Laser Mapping, and GIS

1 0 0.0
I've been fearing/saying this for the past five years at least, that we need innovation that benefit cost efficiency. Instead of laying more work on content creators engines and tools should be developed in the direction to reduce the costs of content creation, or even avoid it entirely in some aspects. No one I know of really works towards that. If I come to think of it content creation tools haven't really improved for decades, the basic principles are the same, only things created with them are getting more complex by the day.

And why should every game have its in game assets built from scratch? You don't build all your home furniture from scratch either, you buy most of it, which is way cheaper than building it from the grounds up. I don't know how often AAA games use assets from repositories on average, but I think it would be a good way to reduce some costs. The most common items could all come from repositories. And if the same models show up in multiple games so what? You won't be shocked if you saw the same office chair in two different offices either, would you?

On a side note games that have easy ways to create new content, make great modding communities as well.

Posted:A year ago

#20

Tom Keresztes
Programmer

633 239 0.4
Also, its almost impossible to keep efficiency after teams grow above a certain size. Talented management can manage it to an extent, but even then, the larger teams are, larger the overhead.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Tom Keresztes on 8th August 2013 8:16am

Posted:A year ago

#21

Bruce Everiss
Marketing Consultant

1,692 594 0.4
It is the console business model that destroyed innovation years ago. Suits playing safe and investing in sequels and "me too" titles.

Fortunately console is now just a niche of the game industry and everywhere else we are seeing more innovation than ever before in the entire history of the industry.

Posted:A year ago

#22

Tim Carter
Designer - Writer - Producer

555 292 0.5
A few things:

One is yiou're smoking something if you think it takes less time to make a movie. Clint Eastwood held the script for Unforgiven for 8 years before he could get it into producrtion! (Just one small example.)

New technology is constantly being made in the film industry. During produciton of A Perfect Storm they had teams devoted solely to programming water simulation for nine months. (That's one small example.) But, that said, the film industry doesn't try to reinvent the wheel for basic things each time it starts a new projects - which the game industry does for some head-scratching reason.

Finally, regarding the unions. Yes, they make it possible to modularize production. What the unions do, however, is they will team up production companies with projects. If extra staff are required, the unions will get them and vet them and replace them if they mess up. The unionized workers, however, are not scattered drones. Most often they stay together in teams (again, production companies) with a certain specialty, and move from project to project. To do that you need a cluster: you need a place like LA, where there are lots and lots of talent in place. Southern Ontario (Toronto's area) is severly hampered because it lacks a cluster the way Montreal or Vancouver are clusters.

Posted:A year ago

#23

Nick McCrea
Gentleman

178 231 1.3
@Tim

If I could turn the question around - if making games in a similar project-based way to films is an obvious way forward, and would result in better games at lower cost, why hasn't it happened? No doubt there's a lot of entrenched interests with a stake in the current model, but if the benefits are realisable, someone could make it happen.

This isn't a facetious or rhetorical point, honestly - I'm open minded about it. But it's interesting to think about from this angle - if it's so good, why is it not happening?

The Pixar counterpoint is also a weakness in the case, I think, because it shows that for those types of movies with most similar underlying technology constraints to games (ie CGI movies), the best movies are made by stable, permanently staffed, specialist studios. Also special effects houses follow a similar model - in your example above, would this technical challenge not have been handled by a stable, permanent Fx house, using technology they've iterated over for years? This points to there being a lot of truth to Bryan's point.

Posted:A year ago

#24

Tosin Balogun
Studying International Business

23 21 0.9
How about these AA studio's split their teams into large and small, the large one churn out their super duper sequels and the small team work on low budget but risky games, that way they can take their learning curves into their big budget teams

Posted:9 months ago

#25

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