Are triple-A games losing relevance?
6th Mar 2013 | 17:55
A few years ago it was little more than a token gesture.
Squeezed somewhere in the schedules of awards bashes (from BAFTAs to VGAs) would sit a quiet, solitary nod to someone like Jonathan Blow. These were tangential trophies - prizes with meaningless titles like "best digital game" or "best indie", as if the likes of Braid couldn't compete on the same level as Mario.
Today it's a different scene entirely. In December, The Walking Dead scooped the VGA Game of the Year Award while, on Tuesday at the glitzy BAFTA event in London, the indies completely took over.
Only four traditional triple-A titles were handed the top prizes last night, dwarfed by smaller titles such as The Room, The Walking Dead, The Unfinished Swan and (in particular) the PS3 curio Journey.
As we applauded the Journey co-creators as they took centre stage to collect their fifth award of the night, one developer sitting next to me said "we've now probably spent more time clapping Journey than actually playing it".
Of course, whether one would classify Journey as an indie title is another matter entirely. After all, it was funded and published by Sony the same way Killzone is. But there was another, absolutely incredible moment that hit home the bigger issue. New Star Soccer, a beautiful iOS football game developed by one person (the widely loved Simon Reed) stole FIFA 13's thunder and took home Best Sports Game. David slays Goliath.
Celebrating indie games may have been a token gesture several years ago, but today some award shows would look out-of-touch if they didn't give self-published games a sizable platform. It's a situation that leads to a difficult question: Are triple-A games becoming irrelevant?
'A warning shot'
"I think last night was a warning shot over the bow for the bigger publishers," says Ian Livingstone, a games industry ambassador and investor.
Livingstone, a man who once earned his crust by heading up Eidos, said modern-day publishers must awaken to the new forms of games that people are enjoying.
"BAFTA did a great job in celebrating the craft, and the art form, and all the new ways of playing games. When you look at the awards last night, and who did and didn't win, yes I do think it's indicative of the winds of change.
"We live in a new age of digital distribution, new pricing models and new IP and I think the major publishers need to start adapting to this."
While Livingstone wants the bigger publishers to break free of old habits, he said the Game BAFTAs was a positive event for the industry as a whole, because it flaunts a breadth of talent and ideas.
"This isn't a revolt to kill off console gaming - I just think the new games are a breath of fresh air. These developers are finding new ways to express themselves and create interesting and unique content.
"But triple-As aren't going away completely, they will continue to drive the industry in the same way that Hollywood blockbusters drive film."
Michael French, a games expert who edits the industry publication MCV, is more sceptical about how much the BAFTA night reflects the wider picture.
"It's a good snapshot of what's happening right now in the short-term, especially since there's not a lot of boxed games out there, while there are a lot of good indie and self-funded games have been released," he explained.
"But if the voting process was different, I don't think the indie games would have won as many awards. I mean, I'm personally a delighted that Simon Reed won Best Sports Game because he's a lovely person and his game is fantastic, but could you really look someone in the eye and say that FIFA 2013 wasn't the best sports game?"
As a journalist for CVG, BAFTA courteously invited me to be part of the jury for one of the categories. It was perhaps quite telling that most of the people I was voting with were indie developers themselves. French says such a process is a "self-fulfilling prophecy".
"If you create a lot of juries where there are indie developers on it, you will get a pro-indie result," he said.
"If you get games journalists and indie developers to vote for the awards, they're going to go for the indies."
'Fewer, bigger blockbusters'
While French takes the short term view, Nicholas Lovell, an analyst and games expert who runs the GamesBrief website, believes the industry is in the midst of long term shifts.
"I think we're heading towards a stage where there will only be a limited number of triple-A games; these games will be even bigger, they'll be what we call blockbusters. They are going to be like the big action flicks, like Avengers Assemble; a brilliant revenue generator that no one expects will win an Oscar."
Lovell said that, while the blockbusters will blanket the games industry with money, niche art-house games will continue to triumph at awards ceremonies such as the BAFTAs. In the long term, he thinks this will benefit the bigger companies who partner with indie devs.
"I think the bigger publishers will eventually take a dual-release approach, by investing in both blockbusters and art-house games," he said.
"Of course, I don't know if the major publishers know how to deal with the smaller indie studios, though Sony is the exception - a game like Journey is absolutely Sony trying to go out there and win plaudits, or at least do something different."
Mike Bithell, the man behind BAFTA winner Thomas Was Alone, said indie partnerships with big publishers will occur more often, but need to be treated carefully.
"I think what the publishers are witnessing at these award shows is what developers can achieve if they really care about their game, and not if they are pushed onto something they don't like.
"The more established publishers can still embrace indie games, and I really think the likes of Sony have. They are massively going after indie, and I think it's their way of getting lots and lots of content quite cheaply."
As any keen CVG reader will have noticed, Sony is also preoccupied with launching a new games console by the end of the year. As will Microsoft, which is expected to reveal its next console in a matter of weeks.
Two new triple-A consoles on the market will likely bring a surge of new blockbuster titles, Lovell said.
"The typical process is that in the first two years we'll see new IPs which will dominate the generation. Publishers tend to know that it's really hard to make significant money from these early-gen titles, specifically because there isn't the installed base, so these games are seen as an investment in a new franchise."
The big question is whether such console debut titles will have the same gravitas and appeal as the next wave of indie games. Will the major publishers stand by and let indies dominate the stage at award shows?
"Actually, yes," Lovell says.
"The blockbuster guys are happy counting the money, the indies are happy counting the plaudits. There's obviously the movie analogy to make here - even the biggest movie studios care deeply about the Oscars. It's because the big movie companies want both Academy Award-winning films and the blockbusters."
His conclusion offers an exciting glimpse into the future as games become more culturally relevant and - perhaps - awards events have an even bigger commercial impact.
"I don't think that the BAFTAs are yet big enough that winning them will drive sales the way an Oscar does. If winning a BAFTA would one day lead to bigger sales increases, then the whole thing becomes far, far more interesting."
Bithell, however, doesn't share the same optimism for indie titles. He believes there's a chance the industry could lurch back towards triple-A.
"I don't think the awards are proof that BAFTA wants to give the games to just indies. A really solid triple-A game still has as much of a chance as the indie titles. I think we are at a peak for indies. It's very fashionable right now - this felt like it was the year of the indie - but I think things will begin to settle down a bit.
"I wonder if, just by default, next year there will be several major new games from the new consoles that pick up all the awards."
Michael French says the real questions about the relevance of triple-A games can't be answered at the end of a console cycle. Next year, when indies compete with new blockbusters on new hardware, will be the acid test.
"The BAFTAs last night was a snapshot of what happened last year, the real question is what's going to happen next year, when all the best new triple-A games go head-to-head with a new wave of indie titles.
"Triple-A is on a bit of a hiatus, essentially it's waiting for the new systems to arrive, because let's face it they are way overdue. What happens when big blockbusters come back? That's going to answer a lot of questions."