Antoniades: AAA retail model is "crushing innovation"

Ninja Theory creative chief says that current model is punishing risk

Ninja Theory's Creative chief, Tameem Antoniades has told 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.

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Latest comments (21)

James Ingrams Writer 9 years ago
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

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Zan Toplisek9 years ago
@ 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.

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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
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Show all comments (21)
Terence Gage Freelance writer 9 years ago
Maybe every big developer needs to hold their own annual Amnesia Fortnight-style event?
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Taylan Kay Game Designer / Programmer / Marketer 9 years ago
@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.
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James Ingrams Writer 9 years ago
@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 $20 million!
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Mihai Cozma Indie Games Developer 9 years ago
I agree AAA is doing what it is claimed, on the other hand 99c games are doing even worse. Customers will take all chances with such a price, so there is no sense of value in those products. The price doesn't tell anything about their quality, purchase stats say nothing as people would buy them just to try them and so on. Even worse, it is no longer feasible for an indie to invest a lot in a game in order to sell it for 10-15$ because 99c games created a mentality that 10$ are way too much to pay for a game. even 2$ sometimes it is too much!!
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Doug Kennedy President, Reverb Communications9 years ago
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.
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Dave Morris designer 9 years ago
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?
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Terence Gage Freelance writer 9 years ago
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?!
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Marcel Pace Sound Designer, Aduge Studio9 years ago
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.
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Guy Costantini Managing Partner 9 years ago
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.
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Max Priddy9 years ago
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.
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Tameem Antoniades Creative Director & Co-founder, Ninja Theory Ltd9 years ago
Max, we don't decide the sku's. The publisher does.
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Tim Carter Designer - Writer - Producer 9 years ago
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.
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Corey Williams Podcaster/blogger 9 years ago
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.
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J S Artist 9 years ago
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.
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Sean Warren Inspector 9 years ago
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.
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Tim Carter Designer - Writer - Producer 9 years ago
@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.
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Tyler Moore Game Designer & Unity Developer 9 years ago
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.
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Sean Warren Inspector 9 years ago
@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...
I don't know what to tell you other than that, have a nice day?
Moving back on topic...
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