Alex Hutchinson has a lengthy resume in AAA game development, from lead designer on The Sims 2 and Spore to creative director on Assassin's Creed III and Far Cry 4.
One might think such familiarity would make him comfortable working in that part of the industry, but speaking to GamesIndustry.biz at the Montreal International Games Summit last month, Hutchinson spoke more of fear in AAA than comfort.
"If you look at budgets, the cost of games has been increasing astronomically over the last decade, but the cost to consumers hasn't really moved, so that's the really scary part," Hutchinson said. "People are looking at the fact it's $100 million to make the game and saying we just can't sell it like that. So then you have to turn around and sell it for $150, or find another way to get some money, or cut the budget. So there's three uncomfortable decisions in there someone has to make."
"When you're spending a lot of money, you have to justify your project by saying it's going to appeal to a lot of people, which essentially means it cannot be a strong flavour"
That's part of the reason why Hutchinson left Ubisoft last year to start his own development house, Montreal-based Typhoon Studios.
"When you're spending a lot of money, you have to justify your project by saying it's going to appeal to a lot of people, which essentially means it cannot be a strong flavour," Hutchinson said. "I think by definition you just have to be more mainstream. You can have a few elements that are a bit more extreme, but you have to play to the middle because of the amount of money you're spending.
"So it was interesting with Typhoon to say if we trim the budget by a lot, then we don't need to sell as many copies. Which is actually kind of fun, because then we can make something [different]. You're never going to get a $100 million horror movie made, but you can get a $10 million horror movie made, which could be equally brilliant. I think the same is equally true of video games."
While it's still too early to talk about what Typhoon is making, Hutchinson said the team has staffed up to about 20 people, landed a publishing deal, and settled on a strategy.
"I think there's still a big opportunity in the middle of the market," Hutchinson said. "I think you can make a game with a small team that competes with parts of AAA games. I don't think you can compete obviously with the full smorgasbord. But one of the reasons I wanted to start Typhoon was the idea that we don't need to make the buffet anymore. We don't need multiplayer and single player and co-op and second screen activity and VR support and 3D TV... You can actually just pick one of these things and focus."
As examples of games that have done just that, Hutchinson points to Payday 2, Ark: Survival Evolved, and the original Portal as "nice, focused experiences that can compete with AAA on quality level but don't require 400 people."
One can see how that approach was formed partly from Hutchinson's own experiences. While at Electronic Arts, Hutchinson was creative director on Army of Two: The 40th Day, a game that had a bit of a split personality. The 40th Day was the sequel to a co-op shooter perhaps best remembered for its "bro" aesthetic, where players were encouraged to bling out their guns in gold or platinum finishes, perhaps encrusting them with diamonds in the process.
That aspect was present in The 40th Day, but so was a jarringly unpredictable morality system, where players presented with specific scenarios could act with the best intentions but produce the worst results. It was an interesting twist on standard video game ethics, but perhaps not the best fit with a game expected to be a turn-your-mind-off celebration of blowing stuff up.
"In retrospect, I probably made a mistake because my general rule was to try and push in a few things, even on big projects, that just made me laugh, or I found fascinating, to try and change someone's perception a little bit," Hutchinson said, adding, "It was worth it just for the team to enjoy the process of making it, but it's very difficult when the sales message of the game is in conflict with your goals for the game. That's why one has to move. So either I had to win the marketing message argument, which based on the fact it was a sequel was impossible, or I probably should have just doubled down on the bro-tastic nature of it. Ideally it should be completely focused on one audience that likes what you're building."
"Everyone's all App Store or Steam, and I feel sometimes they're uncurated to an extent that it feels like piling your game into that big bin that used to be at the front of CompUSA"
The trick is actually reaching that audience, now that Hutchinson no longer has the benefit of a AAA marketing department behind his work.
"It's absolutely the most terrifying part," Hutchinson said. "Everyone's all App Store or Steam, and I feel sometimes they're uncurated to an extent that it feels like piling your game into that big bin that used to be at the front of CompUSA. I would trawl through that thing and find something, but I would watch everyone else just walk past it. I don't think we've solved the problem, and I don't think those two platform holders have any interest in solving the problem because they make a percentage on everybody. As long as you buy something, they make a lot of money. We need to figure out a way to get through that noise, which is why we've decided to go with a publisher for this first game. We're a new IP and a new studio, so we need help making some noise."
Hutchinson hasn't needed to work with an external publisher since a stint at Australian developer Torus Games in the early 2000s, back when Hutchinson said the games industry had a very "Wild West" feel to it. He recalled one publisher Torus going through some financial struggles. They had three or four projects going at different studios, but only enough money to bankroll two of them. But rather than trim their slate to a manageable size, the publisher would assess monthly milestones for each project, and determine which teams got paid based on those.
"Thankfully that doesn't seem to be possible anymore," Hutchinson said. "The budgets have gone beyond the ability for that to even happen; you need to be a stable publisher to even exist... It's still the Wild West, don't get me wrong. The best part is that you can have crazy conversations and someone can stump up a lot of money for a ridiculous idea, people go out of business in five minutes, people can get into the business with no experience and be amazing... There's all kinds of great parts to the Wild West nature of it, but I think it has stabilized somewhat and people are more adult. It feels more human."
As for where the industry's headed in the future, Hutchinson is optimistic, but perhaps not for the reasons one might expect. When asked what he thinks will drive the industry going forward, Hutchinson said it would be "all the boring stuff."
"People get caught up in the new thing, like VR," he said. "And I think VR has continued to struggle and show that it maybe isn't anything at all, whereas digital distribution and being able to set a price point... It doesn't sound very interesting to people, but it used to be a boxed product or nothing. Then there was free-to-play with a different model, then XBLA or PSN with a different model, and you can set your own price point where you like. It's a huge deal for independent studios. I think these really practical, dull issues are the big ones driving us forward, and the flashy stuff--motion controls, 3D TV, VR--it's all smell-o-vision, really."
Disclosure: MIGS has a media partnership with GamesIndustry.biz, and paid for our travel and accommodation during the event.