Runic CEO: Industry stifled by $200m projects

"I look forward to the end of boxes and disks," says Max Schaefer

Runic CEO Max Schaefer has blamed triple-A titles for stifling the industry, and admitted he'll be pleased to see the end of the traditional retail model.

"We could still improve as an industry in pushing innovation more than $200 million projects," he told GamingNexus

"We stifle ourselves and our customers with over-produced, 5-year development, derivative games."

Runic is currently developing Torchlight II, the sequel to its successful 2009 RPG. The majority stake in the company was acquired in 2010 by Perfect World.

"I'll get in trouble for this, but I look forward to the end of boxes and disks. Kill them with fire for all I care," he continued.

"The retail market has historically starved developers and narrowed the market for available games. Now we need to take advantage of services like Steam with innovative pricing, business models, and games."

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Latest comments (9)

Bruce Everiss Marketing Consultant 5 years ago
The man is right.
Look at the immense creativity and innovation on the Sinclair Spectrum
When costs and risk were low.
With each generation of console creativity has been further and further stifled, till now most of what we are seeing is repeated iterations of block buster franchises.
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Morville O'Driscoll Blogger & Critic 5 years ago
Using the Spectrum as an example of innovation isn't great. Yes, there were a good number of innovative games, but this was in the early days of gaming; you could barely throw a rock without either creating a new genre or adding something new to an already existing one.

That said, I broadly agree. You only have to look at the Steam and XBLA stores to see how there's an increasing number of games that bring something new to a genre, or hark back to features and designs that have been long-ignored.
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Dave Herod Senior Programmer, Codemasters5 years ago
There definitely needs to be some kind of middle ground, games produced on a modest budget, priced accordingly that try new things where the big franchises can't afford to take the risk. They could serve well as testing the water, where if a new game idea turns out to be a hit, they can ramp up the budget and scale to make a bigger game out of it. In a way, like Portal, tacked on to the Orange Box, hugely popular and spawns a bigger, longer sequel. I don't want to play endless rehashes of Modern Warfare, but neither do I want to play 1 throwaway games, or free to play games relentless dipping into my pocket, I'd like to see more games that sit somewhere in between.
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Peter Dwyer Games Designer/Developer 5 years ago

I think that the real problem here is that there is no willingness to take risks with a AAA budget (no idea where people keep plucking this ficticious 200 million figure from). Once a game has that kind of budget it pretty much becomes a "Take no risks" kind of project.

As a result the inovation is almost exclusively comeing from small indie projects that have little to no buget to speak of and can take all the risk they want to make a fun and unusual game. There is no-one to submit a proposal to, no-one to vito your ideas and no-one to not pay you if you miss a deadline.

As a result these huge AAA budgets are most definitely stifling the creativity of any games company attached to a large publisher such as EA or activision. You only have to look at the cancelled projects list to see that. If it has any risk attached it's first in line to be shelved or cancelled.
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Tim Carter Designer - Writer - Producer 5 years ago
Creativity is stifled not by big budgets.

Creativity is stifled by not acknowledging that creators need creative control.

It is possible to restore creative control to creators on a small budget project.

It is possible to restore creative control to creators on a large budget project. (It's done all the time in film - on very large budgets, indeed.)
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James Ingrams Writer 5 years ago
Boxes in retail are not just about high production cost AAA games. While I accept console gamers are more likely to want high end graphics and animation, I think the PC format, as it has done for 20 years, can lead the way.

STALKER was released for 29.95 - 15% less than regular AAA games, and included in the box was an Original Soundtrack and a map, a mini collector's edition for less than a regular price. STALKER has sold in the millions on PC alone, easily matching the PC unit sales of games like Crysis and even Bioshock! STALKER was brought to market not for 40 million, but for 12 million.

The same goes for the STALKER follow up's and games like Metro 2033, Drakensang (2.5 million units in Germany alone) and Two Worlds 1 and 2. All these titles were brought to market for under 15 million and have sold millions of units. I don't think anyone said any of the games were substandard other than esoterically.

I think there is eminently a market for 10-15 million cost games. European PC game publishers are leading the way here. It is NOT just a case of $50 million AAA titles and indie titles. It should not beyond the wit of the large developers to put together special teams, whose purpose is to bring original games to market for under $15 million. For an outlay 30% of a regular title, surely an EA or Valve could give a special team more latitude, like it used to be in the mid 90's.

This market can be rescued, but only if publishers and the media think outside the box. An online indie market just won;t cut it. Media attention would drop off, as it would be too difficult to follow and 50 million $10 games does not match 50 million $60 games!

I have no axe to grind, but no retail video game outlets and no video game industry within 2-3 years, in my view.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by James Ingrams on 19th March 2012 3:57pm

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Wes Keltner Founder, Gun5 years ago

You hit it right on the head. It becomes a game of risk assessment when you hit that kind of budget. I'm curious to see what that ceiling is. What is the magic number that would make a publisher reconsider radical creativity and instead focus more on a formula that gives them a more predictable ROI. When shareholders are at the table, creativity usually takes the backseat.

Honestly, I feel that the current formula for triple-A titles are missing out on one of the strongest hooks a game should have; fun. Sure, defining 'fun' is somewhat fleeting, but I feel it comes down to how our brains consume. Our brains absolutely love to learn new things. It's wired to do so. It's really good at identify patterns and then exploiting them to shortened the distance to the "dangling carrot". However, when the pattern becomes very predictable, we become bored and start looking for something new to challenge us. It seems as if publishers recognize this, but instead of looking into more creative ideas to improve this, they instead create additional content (DLC) and/or immediately begin on the annual sequel. I feel if more emphasis was put into creatively crafting games that train the player and not the character (COD, Skyrm, Mass Effect, etc) then publishers/developers would not have to scramble to keep the audience engaged. When was the last time you were asked to download the ultra-mega-remix for a game of Chess? ;)
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Sam Maxted Journalist / Community / Support 5 years ago
Some Japanese companies get it right with lower-budget games, too. However, these games often aren't sold outside the Far East, so I can see why James may not have mentioned these above.

Western developers have learned much from their Japanese counterparts over the last 20 years, but maybe there's still one lesson that a number of publishers aren't yet getting?
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Bradley Pearce5 years ago
I think a lot of publishers need to revise how they budget their titles, a Ubisoft exec I think in 2008 was saying the average current gen budget for a AAA title is somewhere along the lines of 30 million and they said budget will most likely double whenever we get new consoles.

However mark rein from epic games stated that Gears of war 1(currently the franchise has grossed over a billion dollars) only cost 10 million to make and gears 2 cost about 12 million and Gears 3 I think had a figure near that.

Of course, 10 million dollars is by no means cheap but if you're saving 20 million on average and profiting upwars of 10 times the production cost (not exact of course) whilst keeping the game at the same level production value that Assassins Creed, Call of Duty, Uncharted ect. then i think why can't other studios do that?

Regardless of what you think of any of those titles, it does appear to be that Epic has their budgeting right when it comes to creating a AAA game and the sales speak for themselves when it comes to the franchises profitability. Maybe other publishers could try taking a page out of Epic's book. That's my two cents anyway.
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