The serious business of making games


I don’t know exactly where this goes, but since I thought it was business related and kinda interesting, I’d share with you fine folk.


Is no o e proofreadingthis stuff anymore?


Not on Forbes, no. I think anyone can publish anything there, as far as I can tell. There’s always dozens of console war click bait articles there all the time for the last few years, for example.


An interesting piece from the AFL-CIO on the games industry:

I’d absolutely love to see game developers gain some union protections, but I work on the boring corporate side of the IT industry and not in the exciting sexy video game industry. So I get regular paychecks but don’t have direct skin in this game.


Oh yeah? I guess I tend to take stuff from Forbes a little more seriously, it being Forbes and all.


The vast majority of content you see from Forbes is from their “contributor network” of barely-paid randos posting whatever they think will get eyeballs. I assume there are still some professional journalists working at Forbes somewhere, but I doubt they’re the ones writing about video games.


Is this the game industry thread? It seems similar enough.

So, I was thinking

Battlefield 5 had disappointing sales
Shadow Of The Tomb Raider the same
Square Enix practically gave away the IP of Hitman, and H2 didn’t do any better than H1 in sales
Fallout 76 bombed in an spectacular way
Activision giving up on Destiny 2 despite contractually they were going to do three main games, and reining in Blizzard, firing hundreds of people
Anthem has a mixed outlook, with currently a 62 average in Opencritic. We will see how it goes in sales

So this isn’t all doom & gloom, no game apocalypse, but it seems to me there is some trend here. Before AAA games had more or less an assured reception and sales, that’s why in fact the A-AA market had contracted, because there was more safety in making big titles. But now it seems that isn’t the case anymore, making a good AAA game with good reception seems to be harder than ever.

I wonder if, now that finally digital distribution is reaching consoles in mass, a mix of f2p games and indie games in pc/console is eating away the market occupied before by AAA games. And mobile gaming, of course.

Who were going to think three years ago that Bethesda was going to make a new Fallout and it would bomb, or that a new mainline Battlefield would heavily underperform?


Doesn’t Square-Enix always say every Tomb Raider has disappointing sales despite millions sold?


Definitely it seems AAA is a little bit more risky than some years ago, and at the current budget levels we might see publishers ramping down on AAA production (less games, probably higher budget).

The question is whether that means A-AA can make a comeback. I’d argue that is already happening through high end indie titles. Some indie titles are becoming A-AA in terms of production quality and budget. For example, the new Darkest Dungeon, for example, seems to be aiming towards about 20 devs in-house, which probably points out to a budget around $2-4 million over 2 years, once you factor in marketing and overhead. This is a far cry from what originally was understood as “indie” (and let’s not get into that discussion, please). There are other examples.

The question of why AAA is having a harder time is more difficult to answer. Looking at my own purchasing, it seems to me AAA is trending towards a genre that is getting narrower (MP live games), and while certainly there’s a big public there, the genre itself does not allow for many competitors to coexist. A decade ago an AAA game could last what, 20 hours on average, with outliers like RPGs going to the 50-60 hours? My theory is that the current design trends push playtime of many players way above that, so even if you have a bigger base to sell to, you are competing for less time per player available to try new things. Tie this with the ever-increasing budgets and we will see both more AAA games bombing (or not making a profit) and the successes being even more extreme, with increased retention and income potential per player.

I do not think indies and/or mobile games impact AAA sales that much directly. That is, I can see mobile (mostly) impacting console adoption in the long term (some potential console buyers will now be ok just with their mobile device) but not necessarily sales to the current audience. It could explain a generation of dedicated hardware being less successful, but it does not explain, imho, why the current gen (which has pretty good adoption) AAA games are having a harder time than usual.


It had disappointing sales in comparison with those previous Tomb Raiders.


And in comparison to the expected sales and budget.

SQE sales were down 4.8% but profits were down 60%. Which means they had a profit margin of just 8% of their sales their previous year. We don’t know Tomb Raider’s specifics, but if this is company wide we can get an idea.

Budgets are tight (in relation with expected sales) so a small drop can make a product unprofitable.


You’re looking at a narrow subset of AAA games to come to your conclusion. What was the game of the year at The Game Awards? God of War. What was it up against? Spider-Man, Red Dead Redemption II, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, Monster Hunter World… all AAA successes.

AAA games fail all the time. This is nothing new. Many did not. Call of Duty Black Ops IIII is still massive.


My conclusion* is that that a bigger % of AAA games fail than, for example, 5 years ago. My conclusion isn’t that AAA games never bombed before nor that there aren’t successful AAA games in 2018.

*more a feeling than a conclusion. It isn’t like I did any deep research.


If you’re interested in some of the stories behind why these games fail, read this book:

It’s a pretty engaging read and sheds light on the mess that is the development of large games.

For a counterpoint, not from the games industry (but which also includes a lot of almost-failure stories), read this:


Bigger % fall, because much fewer AAA games are published. I’m not exclusively looking at AAA but:

In 2009 EA published almost 30 games on consoles/PC. In 2018 it was 11.

In 2009 Activision published 13 games on consoles/PC, In 2018 it was 3.


That’s an interesting thought, too.


Ubisoft, console/PC:

12 games in 2019, 6 games in 2018. Not as bad, but there were many portable consoles games in 2009 I’m not counting, and none in 2018 (portable is not AAA but is core gamer market).


I forget where I read it now, but they mentioned giving Tomb Raider unrealistic sales expectations to make up for other games that underperformed.

In other SquareEnix news, they’re consolidating their business divisions (development groups, roughly) from 11 down to 4 “in order to increase the efficiency of workflows, make more effective use of resources, and consolidate expertise with the aim of improving profitability.”


Ubisoft is like the Babe Ruth of the AAA developers cracking them home runs. Hell even For Honor (their most disappointing recent release) is still getting worked on / patched / given expansions.


Yes, they do seem to have a better hit ratio than most lately. Their latest flops (Starlink aside, which must have hurt) are on their minor releases mostly.