Thursday, May 08, 2008

Liberty City, the other Dubai

Grand Theft Auto IV.
The game that the whole universe knew about.
Daunting in the amount of assets of all types involved throughout its entire development.

Here are some numbers:

1000 people worked on it (150-220 devs, varying from sources).
3.5 years long development.
40 hours of gameplay according to Rockstar, if you go straight to the point, 100 hours if you take your time (solo adventure uniquely).

Is this the new standard for the video game industry? Well, Times Online has decided that it is. “The future of entertainment” they say. They seem to fancy sensational claims, like GTA IV is the next Elvis. Rubbish.

The former instalments were cool, not exactly great, and somehow they bored me very quickly, most of all because I had other games to play, and other things to do than playing games, and the older you get, the worse it becomes.

Now, this behemoth has arrived, and I’m a tad worried. I know the industry is still young, I know that lots of lines have to be crossed and walls smashed to reach a nebulous unpredictable but I hope grandiose future, but I do not think GTA IV represents a standardized future of entertainment, but instead a record.

Least to say, I don’t think projects, which involve a thousand people throughout 3.5 years of development, and costing a “mere” hundred million dollars, represent a sane future for the industry. Eventually, the problem wouldn’t be the cost (the movie War of the Worlds was around $200 million, but even there no one would say it’s reasonable either), nor the total number of interveners on the project at some point (though it’s still high), but the time spent on it by those involved in its core development.
Sure, some high end games already reach the 3 years mark. Lowest dev times are around 18 months.
So just get used to it!

OK. Then, how long before we reach 4 years of development? And then 4.5 years? And 5?
Is that exciting? It’s not like we were crafting bullet trains, nuclear boats, airplanes or complex buildings! We’re creating entertainment, which is meant to be iterated once completed, and some would even say we’re making art.
I can’t convince myself that the initial creative gist behind this spawn would remain as vigorous so many years later.

What a sad thing to spend so much time on the same product. Life is short, and nearly 4 damn years on the same baby looks like a waste of time and creativity.
GTA IV doesn’t seem to revolutionize much. Certain functions and side quests are seamlessly integrated into the environment now, and above all, the game seems to be supported by a good plot for once, but what the hell?
Much more than 3 years on a game which is not that different from the former one?
A pity, really.

Sidenote while talking about GTA IV’s plot, there’s something funny worth citing:

Dan Houser, Bellic’s English creator, said he created the scenario because Hollywood had failed to produce a decent gangster film.

It would depend what he had in mind when he evoked Hollywood, but this made me chuckle.
Why do I have the feeling that the script for GTA IV won’t be up to his author’s pretentiousness, even if superior to former GTA “plots”? The man likes to speak his mind, it doesn’t mean what he says is wise.

Anyway, back to the main topic.

GTA IV is definitely an outlier today, one which doesn’t look much reasonable and not accessible to the majority of the industry in terms of resources it would consume, and I really hope, for the sake of versatility and parsimony, that it won’t drag other studios in its wake.

I also wonder what kind of repercussions this evolution will have, when, on one hand, you have more and more shovelware on certain consoles, and on the other hand, a growth of life drainers. The consumer side of the industry shapes its creative counterpart. Could a whole segment of the industry literally suffocate, by being stuck between flood and overweight?

I am not trying to tell people what they should play, but I’m woefully concerned by the little variety some people bring into their playing habits, and games, for which is announced at least 40 hours of straight play (much generous, most people don’t rush to the end of the game) and being presented as what some forumers will play for months, I’m worried.
I really hope many players do bother having a pause in the course of completion of one of those games, to relax and eventually try something else, breathe.

The other problem is considering the constant rise of inflation and menace of crisis, consumers would logically tend to minimize their investment in video games. Thus look for those hits which provide the most hours of gameplay for the less of their bucks.
Which sucks, in terms of experience, and then in terms of generated variety as far as the middle level of the industry is concerned.

The ever growing size and appetite of AAA titles may force newer studios to start smaller and quicker projects, as it becomes extremely difficult to compete with those titans, especially when more and more of these monstrous games are sandbox ones, be they MMOs or not, and phagocytize life.
Now, could you imagine GTA turning into a Massively Multiplayer Online game?

As an inevitable consequence of these ultimately repetitive and stale playing dogmas, not absolute but still there, it might become harder to find a suitable market in the middle for those still interested in more than mere rehashes of Defender or hollow noname action games, but not wishing to tread the field of super massive projects being allotted colossal budgets.

We always fall back to the same point about development costs, and notably the creation of art assets becoming more and more expensive and time consuming.

If the gap keeps widening, won’t there be a day when medium and small ventures will remain stranded in the lower levels of the industry until the moon crashes, never getting a chance to find resources, time, sales slot and an audience for middle ground games?

Which in my opinion is one of the reasons why the mobile gaming industry is blossoming, as the next generation of phones will globally attain the technical level required for 3D entertainment, and why developing on handhelds is so great, as the limited hardware, which is totally excused, enables developers to capitalize on their experience (PS2 -> PSP for example), all those systems more or less cheating time and delaying the unrelenting aging, before you’ll spend 4 years, three digits millions dollars and two thousand people on the next Gameboy game. Maybe if the Wii was a bit less gimmicky (but then I’m afraid it would have totally failed) there could be a solution there…

As a whole, consumers want what they’re conditioned to acquire by the hardware leaders and major publishers. This is not the work of the majority of devs, more or less unwittingly submissive to the system, either embracing it or dying. It's the labour of a few and those who define the standards of tomorrow. Maybe it could be time to slow down a bit, but such is not an original soapbox claim, isn’t it?

Maybe it’s just another story about pity, doom and dinosaurs.

No comments: