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Most AAA titles look the same, and we should be ashamed.
by Johnathon Swift on 06/15/12 06:44:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Game design used to be the dream job of every nerdy teenager out their. It used to be why every other person got into the games industry to begin with. "I'm going to make video games!" was the happilly elated vision so many had.

Now many people just join the industry for a job, with no starry eyed fantasies in their heads. Those who had them risk their very livelihoods to quit steady jobs and start their own indy game companies, if they don't quit the industry entirely.

So what's happened? It used to be that every game had the grandest of ambitions. Every game made was going to be the greatest game ever, it was going to a driving combat rpg exploration game in space with an advanced economic simulation and a great plot. Today people question the very validity of boxed triple A games, and I'm fairly certain that last part is IN part directly because of the decline of game designers dreams.

So let's examine this. By was of a case study we'll use the successive fall of popular series Mass Effect in terms of game design.

Mass Effect 1 started at the beginning of this console generation. It was an odd and unique hybrid of cover based shooting and RPG mechanics with dreams of space exploration thrown in as well. The game had a complex RPG stat system, an ambitious series of Star Trek-ish space exploration like sidequests, relatively solid if somewhat unspectacular shooting mechanics, and level design that felt like it wanted to be more open ended than it was.

People complained. The shooting wasn't as slick as it could be. Some of the rpg mechanics were ill explained and cumbersome (There wasn't even a tutorial!), the level design was a little difficult to navigate, the driving mechanics for the space exploration/vehicle stuff weren't very satisfactory and the exploration side missions weren't terribly fun. 

So when Mass Effect 2 rolled around these complaints were taken into account. Specifically all problem areas were simply eliminated altogether. The space exploration was reduced to a mini game. The driving was gone. The level design was reduced to linear corridors with glaring arrows pointing in the right direction in case you still got lost. The RPG stat mechanics were almost entirely eliminated.

People weren't confused, and so praised the mechanics. Others that took the time to actually figure out the previous game's mechanics were disappointed. A few complained, but most simply shrugged. Life is full of entertainment possibilities, they could spend their money elsewhere. ME2 saw better sales thanks to word of mouth from the former crowd and praise of the first game.

But still, there were complaints. The space exploration mini-game was boring. So Bioware did was was successful before, and just tossed it along with other things. Mass Effect 3 was nothing more than a slightly nonlinear cover based shooter with a few RPG like mechanics tossed in on occassion. Fans were less than happy this time, though for different reason.

But as an industry that was supposed to be creative, and still has the potential to be so in so many ways we should be ashamed. We should be ashamed that our big budget games have been swallowed by dull, generic titles that all play the same. Even Hollywood manages to take more risks than Mass Effect and its ilk managed to pull by the end of this generation.

Hollywood managed to sign over 275 million dollars for three large fantasy projects with The Lord of the Rings, at a time when no serious fantasy project had ever been that successful before. They've recently managed to greenlight an adaptation of Snowcrash, an utterly bizarre cyberpunk novel featuring giant penis virtual avatars, fantastically bizarre characters, and a hardcore sex scene with a 14 year old girl enjoying, well I've said enough. Regardless, Hollywood even gave a solid budget to The Hunger Games. Admittedly a bestselling series, but still a movie meant for mass appeal that features children and teengagers murdering each other for cheering crowds, meanwhile the creators of the new Lara Croft, a carbon copy of Uncharted throgh and through, grovels repeatedly at mere possibility of sexual assult being a them in even a single part of the game.

If such a mature industry can give so much money to such potentially risky projects, then the state of the current big budget games industry for many developers can only be seen as purely unworthy and an embarrasment.

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Jeremy Reaban
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Are basing movies on bestselling novels really that risky? You have a built in audience.

Of course, the trick is that you want books that are popular today, one of the reasons John Carter (of Mars) crashed so badly was that ERB probably hasn't hit the bestseller lists since the '30s. Still, even that would have been profitable if they had spent less money making the movie.

The other thing is, movies have a much longer tail than video games. Video games have gone almost to a magazine model, no shelf life at all, especially on consoles.

TC Weidner
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Video games have a short shelf life because too often art design is confused with some tech demo. Games with creative well thought out art design can have a very long shelf life. Its this stupid fascination with pushing video cards to their max that is one of the main problems in the industry. Tell a story, have the player emotionally attached, make choices matter, make it fun, make it an experience. Make a game, not a tech demo.

I agree 100% with the author, designing for the lowest common denominator is a problem.

k s
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I'm curious to hear your thoughts on indie game development.

I don't think either the AAA nor the indie game scene is perfect but I lay most of the blame on money, if we could be creative without worrying about making money I imagine we'd all (consumers and developers) be happier.

Matthew Mouras
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I don't think the need to be profitable and the desire to be creative are mutually exclusive. Other entertainment industries are able to make money and churn out plenty of interesting things to consume. I think the game industry is going through a crisis of confidence. When it becomes a little more sure of its place in the world, things will look rosier.

k s
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@Matthew I didn't mean profitable, rather sustainable.

Matthew Mouras
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@k s - how do you define the difference between profitable and sustainable?

My point is that "making money" is an easy target, but I have a hard time believing it is responsible for the perceived woes in the industry.

How much of this malaise comes from a desire to see gaming as something other than many other forms of entertainment? Could we use more games like "To The Moon"? Sure, but we're starting to get them. The landscape is widening.

Soon, the idea of attacking franchises like CoD for their yearly iterations will be old hat... it will just be accepted that if you want that experience, it's there for you to consume. Gaming buffs will have their auteurs and the crowds will have their bubblegum AAA games. Do we throw our hands up when the latest Twilight or Harry Potter or Star Wars or Marvel movie hits the screen every year? No. Those that know what they are getting into buy a ticket and a bucket of popcorn - the rest don't even acknowledge it.

There's room for both ends of the spectrum in gaming and both will be sustainable.

Scott Trimble
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I agree with this article in it's support of new, innovative games, and the fact that more money needs to be invested in riskier ventures, as a newer art form I think it's important that we continue to branch out with new ideas. What I disagree with is the belief that the gameplay evolution from Mass Effect 1 to 3 is necessarily a bad thing. Notice that in this article for the 1st and 2nd games, specific issues were named to the problems and solutions of the game, but when it came to the 3rd game it was just categorically dismissed. I don't believe that the game was dull or generic, in my opinion, a faster more streamlined (actiony) design fit the overall plot of the game as a whole (as the climax of the whole series). The slower, more elaborate mechanics for the 1st game (with all of its flaws) are appropriate to the series as a whole (the first- as an introduction, is slower and more exploratory, the last- as the climax, has a much faster pace). Granted, I think we all would've liked to see more flourish with the mechanics of the last, but I think it sufficiently satisfied the needs of the game.

On a tangent, gamer dissatisfaction with the last was mainly tied to the ending, the game leading up to that was well received. My personal problems were less about HOW it ended, and more about the EXPOSITION of the end, simply changing colors was a horrible decision.

Richard Vaught
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Zack, is it possible that too much attention is being put on the graphics, which are a major part of the time/budget expense? I am not saying that games don't need to look good, but beyond a certain point the player does not notice on a moment to moment interactions.

Joe Cooper
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Free2play might actually help on this problem.

So far a lot of F2P stuff is targeting a certain end of the market, but you can't actually have a successful F2P product without the game design in order. Even Farmville has the fundamentals in order. If after too short a period the player isn't engage anymore, you will make no money; the game simply can't be too flat for its audience.

Right now there's a hysteria-like sense that you -must- make the game as flat as possible to be "casual" and this yields crap like Sims Social or whatever it's called, and (conversely) that if your game has good game design than it must be charged for up-front.

But if you carry it to its logical conclusion, there's going to be excellent game designs winning with F2P.

Just watch.

Ariel Gross
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I get your point, and I can identify with what you're saying here. Sometimes it can be hard to keep that starry eyed dreamer inside of us alive when working in the realities of this business. Every now and then I will take a step back and do what is necessary to revitalize that excited, idea-filled kid in me.

marty howe
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Agreed Zack. Everything now is just quicktime events and movies (cutscenes) with minimal gameplay.

I think a lot of games are like this because designers don't know how to make compelling, fun gameplay - so they make a cutscene instead.

Is it the case that audiences 'want' cutscenes?

Bob Johnson
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Yep. We need to stop putting everything into the games category.

Bob Johnson
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I buy into your ME argument and how uncreative and samey AAA games are.

But Hollywood has the same problems.

Your examples of Lord of the Rings and Hero Games as risks do not hold water. LotR is the biggest book series around in the fantasy genre and is essentially a timeless classic.

Hero Games is a current popular best seller for teens and was when the movie was made.

Hollywood Blockbusters perhaps don't look as samey but that has more to do with the medium of film where everything isn't derived from the same graphics engine as most AAA games are.

Summer blockbusters are very samey in terms of basic simple plot, violence, big explosions, one liners, mtv style quick cuts, .... All are fairly brain dead and mind numbing as AAA games are.

Oh there are exceptions but they are not the norm.

Robert Chang
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@first sentence: it's "there" not "their".

Yes. I'm gonna be THAT guy

Sean Cruz
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I mostly agree with you Johnathon Swift, but there is one thing that is nagging me.

Revise your article! There are plenty of typos and missing words, which made sentences difficult to read or understand. In addition, you're not the only one who seems not to revise their writing; several articles I read on Gamasutra have plenty of missing words or typos.

Patrick Haslow
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The title of this article is not supported by the article itself. The title claims that all AAA games play the same and then goes on to only discuss the Mass Effect series. The body of the article suggests that the title should instead have something to do with the decline of game design. I would like this article re-written to include at least 6 examples of similar AAA games, or a better title with more examples. Have it on my desk by Tuesday!

Scott Trimble
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This is more a comment on the comments.

I have to say there is a shocking amount of tunnel vision going on around here. A lot of "ME" and what "I" want, not even really thinking about the rest of the gaming community. Its a lot like when movie critics dump on a movie, but its still wildly popular with the masses (but of course, thats because most people are mindless drones... now if they were EDUCATED like us...And let us not forget the movies that critics love and many viewers hate) I for one, HEARTILY disagree with the idea that games featuring many "quicktime" actions and cinematics are somehow categorically lesser than other games with more complicated gameplay. Of course, robust and well thought out game mechanics are nice, but that doesn't mean that every game should be built like that. For me the story being told is of the utmost importance to get people engaged in a game, if gameplay were the only thing that mattered we'd all still be playing on appleII's.

About the article, I don't think the evolution of mechanics from Mass Effect 1 to 3 are necessarily a bad thing. If you think about the games as 3 acts of the same story, then Mass Effect 1(Act 1:intro), has more complicated gameplay that lends itself to the exploratory nature of the game, ME3 (Act 3:Finale/climax), NEEDS to be action oriented, the more complicated the gameplay the slower the pace of the game as a whole.

But to make things clear, well thought out gameplay is great and necessary, but it is not the sum total of what video games should be. There should be a balance between gameplay and cinematic experience (I believe theres even a place for liberal amounts single button play, but it really depends on the game), and both should support and amplify the game as a whole.

The most important part of games is that they're fun, and a lot of people like to get down on cinematics and action (and that doesn't make them wrong, or dumb).

Nate Anonymous
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I think you're oversimplifying ME2 to make it fit your argument.

The biggest shift was to move ME1 from a traditional RPG that used shooter elements (like Fallout 3) to a more shooter-RPG hybrid. Part of this was probably motivated from the change in gaming engines. But ME2 kept the conversation dialogue options, expanded the number of follower characters, preserved the space exploration aspect, and maintained quest progression choice and side quests. The stripping out of the Mako and reducing the complexity of stats/attributes were changes largely welcomed by the mainstream audience and most of the gaming press.

I think part of the confusion is that many RPG elements have been transplanted to FPS, especially the larger multiplayer games. If you compare multiplayer Quake 2 and MW3, you can see an increase in complexity for gameplay mechanics. So things that were strictly the province of RPGs like character progression, weapon specialization, persistent loot, etc. have become almost universal. This then gives the feel that RPGs are too much like FPSs.

Instead of less complexity or more complexity, I think we are seeing more convergence between gaming genres as developers mix and match what has been done in the past and what other people are doing.

That being said, I do agree that art design is starting to swallow up the gaming indusry to its detriment. Hopefully, the next wave of engines will fulfill their promise of streamlining the art design process of development.