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Bleszinski: “AAA is a nearly unsustainable model”

The Gears of War creator discusses why blockbuster games often feel repetitive, and looks ahead to VR

The AAA model in increasingly developing into a market in which only the biggest companies can survive - and even then the design of these titles will become more stagnant.

That's according to Boss Key Productions founder and Gears of War creator Cliff Bleszinski. Speaking to attendees at Reboot Develop today, the veteran games developer discussed the "really, really weird spot" blockbuster games have found themselves in, and pondered potential solutions.

"AAA is starting to feel like the American restaurant scene," he said, referring to how increasing globalisation means every major city usually has the exact same chains and franchises when you're looking for a place to eat. "They're not bad, they're not great, they're just there."

It's the same with AAA, which he says has become a "category of eight games that are getting repeated over and over again". He brought up a slide depicting best-sellers such as Uncharted 4 and the Call of Duty games, stressing that these are "great games" but cost hundreds of millions of dollars to produce and market.

He added that it doesn't help most consumers view many blockbuster franchises as "the name you know" and are "too scared to take the risk on new IP".

"$60 is still a lot of money to ask people for," he said. "And to ask them to make that bet multiple times per year? Gamers are picky, they're smart.

"This is a nearly unsustainable model, unless you're an Activision, 2K or a Sony."

His advice to developers still looking to make their mark is to aim for what he referred to as "Double A", which he considers to be "games that look and play great but pick their battles in terms of budget and marketing". Examples he offered included Warframe, Rocket League and Rust, with Bleszinski noting that most successful 'Double A' games are digital and/or free-to-play.

In terms of finding funding for such games, he pointed out that "there's a lot of money in Asia" - his own studio, Boss Key Productions, has partnered with Nexon for its debut game, LawBreakers. This title is also designed to be 'Double A', and won't have a full $60 price tag.

Bleszinski also warned that developers only have one shot to make a new IP, referring to the team at Raven Software: "They made a great game in Singularity, but it ultimately didn't do well because of the marketing, even though the ratings were great. And now they're one of the multi-headed hydras behind the Call of Duty series."

He recognised that the collaborative model used to create titles like Call of Duty and many Ubisoft games, combining the efforts of teams from around the world, is effective but not one he'd ever want to be a part of.

His talk later branched into virtual reality, which he likened to lucid dreaming - something he has apparently spent years trying to master. In fact, VR has helped him hone this elusive skill: "I'm a better lucid dreamer when I wear a sleep mask because I think I'm wearing a headset."

He stressed that high-quality graphics are the key to immersion in VR, adding that "the best VR looking experiences I've had are built in Unreal Engine 4".

"I've not paid to say that by my former employers," he laughed. "Unity is a good engine but when it comes down to it, you can't beat Unreal for visual fidelity."

The issue, as he puts it, is great graphics cost money. Bleszinski is currently pitching a VR project but struggling to get the investment required to make the finished product look as good as it needs to. He observed that shareholders are "only giving out a little money", which is why the industry is seeing a lot of tech demos coming from the VR space.

He also likened the current trend of wave-based shooting games - such as Raw Data and Robo Recall - as the equivalent of '80s arcade games such as Galaga and Robotron, adding that he's confident VR will expand beyond this just as the arcades did.

Bleszinski acknowledged that there are plenty of barriers to overcome before virtual reality is adopted by the masses. Complicated setups, especially for room-scale VR, are particularly off-putting. He referred to his parents that didn't even set the clock on their VCR - they just wired it into the TV and plugged it in - adding: "Why would they set up VR?"

He continued: "If I were Oculus, Facebook or Vive, I would have kiosks at every major retail location, and a tech team that comes round to set it all up properly".

"But like all technologies, it's get better, it'll get faster. But give it a little bit of time."

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