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Triple-A Publishers Are Dooming Themselves, But Maybe That’s Not Such A Bad Thing

"If the ideas are there and the game is fun to play, then are we really losing that much?"

1000xResist

The video game industry is clearly in a transition period, and even though the full effects won’t be felt for years, we’re already getting hit by reverberations. Triple-A games have been few and far between recently while indies have been absolutely flourishing – and getting some much-deserved shine from the press and public. On this week’s episode of Aftermath Hours, we discuss why a less triple-A-heavy future might not be such a bad thing.

Chris, Riley, and I begin by discussing Assassin’s Creed Shadows, which is set in feudal Japan and stars two main characters: a ninja and a samurai. It looks more interesting than the past few games in the series, if nothing else! Of course, since the ninja is a woman and the samurai is black, a certain subset of gamers are Big Mad. We (begrudgingly) talk about them, too. Then we move on to Animal Well, an unexpected Metroidvania-but-not hit that came out last week. Chris loves it, Riley doesn’t get it. (Gentle) fireworks ensue. 

After that, we talk about the recent flood of extremely good indie games and how triple-A publishers – who’ve chosen to go all in on a small handful of big hits, at the expense of everything else – have forgotten how to make these types of games that there’s clearly still a hunger for. 1000xResist is basically a new Nier while Nier’s actual creator is off making gacha games. Dread Delusion is a spiritual successor to Morrowind in the year of our lord 2024. Cryptmaster is… well, Crypmaster is just cool as hell. 

You can find this week's episode below and on Spotify, Apple, or wherever else you prefer to listen to podcasts. If you like what you hear, make sure to leave a review so that we can eventually fund Chris’ idea for a Splinter-Cell-esque spies-versus-mercs-style multiplayer game, except it’s ninja-vs-samurai and it’s set in feudal Japan. It practically sells itself!

Here’s an excerpt from our conversation:

Chris: I think [Animal Well] hits at the right time, which is – narratively, I guess – indies are having a bigger moment now specifically because of the environment that we’re in. Because big companies don’t know how to handle small-to-medium-sized games anymore. And so, to just have this one drop and to be like “Oh, this is a perfect game. What was stopping [bigger companies] from doing that?” Particularly relative to all the Microsoft shit and the Square Enix shit, where they don’t know how to market these small and medium-sized games. 

You had a great week this week of indie titles – more than I could play. I actually tried to play all of them. I was playing Cryptmaster earlier, and that game is so fucking good. That game is really funny. There’s just a lot of games out. There’s a lot of bangers in a row. And it just comes at a time when it doesn’t seem like any big publisher knows what the fuck they’re doing. 

Riley: I think it’s [a byproduct of] something we saw a lot this week with Square and Ubisoft and with some earnings reports last week. All these companies are like “We’re pivoting to less games.” And you have in contrast to that all these killer indies, and a big company can’t just say “Let’s do that!” I’m sure there’s somebody in a room somewhere demanding Ubisoft’s Balatro or whatever the heck. But are the big companies lumbering in the wrong direction, or is it like Luke’s article posited: Have indies kind of– I don’t want to say risen to fill a gap, because they’ve always existed. But what is it that’s letting this moment happen? 

Chris: If there was a big, forgettable release right now, would we be caring about [these games]?

Riley: But there have been, though. What happened to Rise of the Ronin? That came and went, huh?  

Chris: Well, that came out the exact same day as Dragon’s Dogma 2. That was just really bad timing on their part. Also, it’s a medium-sized game.

But yeah, Crow Country, Animal Well

Nathan: Cryptmaster, 1000xResist

Chris: 1000xResist, which I did play a little bit of, though not enough to really give it an assessment. 

Riley: People say good stuff about it.

Nathan: Yeah, people are saying wildly good stuff. Some are saying it’s one of the best games ever.

Chris: It’s weird! I said it looks almost like Second Life. I don’t say that in a negative way, but it looks like some shit made in Unity. Not in a bad way; it has this affect of [being] sort of a narrative, Nier-type of game about the experience of diaspora. It has this high concept of going back into digital memories, and there’s clearly a lot there. It looks really interesting. It’s like if the kind of lesbian that wears Fox Racing gear to raves talked only in riddles. It’s like “I don’t actually know what you’re saying, but it’s fascinating.” 

It’s definitely got that sort of queer Nier Automata affect to it, but done in an indie game. Which I also like because it’s like, Yoko Taro’s not gonna make a Nier game; we’ve got one at home.   

Nathan: I find it all interesting because there’s clearly room for these games, and there’s clearly hunger for these games. But then you have Square Enix, who had this strategy for a while of putting out some smaller games, and a lot of those games I think found audiences. People clearly love a lot of them, like Triangle Strategy. But those games did not meet “sales expectations.” And of course Square Enix has always been really bad at predicting these things.  

But you have these companies that could create a lot of these smaller games. They have the means to do it, but it’s not going to please their shareholders enough. And so they’re pivoting to these much bigger games that represent this kind of horrible roll of the dice. It’s like “Well, if this game succeeds at the scale we hope it will and expect it to, then we have our big hit – our Fortnite-sized, decade-lasting hit.” But if not, that is hundreds of millions of dollars down the drain. You’ve got to lay tons of people off. You’re basically done. They’re betting it all on these titanic projects, and that just doesn’t seem wise.

Chris: The shit that makes me so mad about Square Enix is, their strategy of exclusivity was always going to be a bad idea. That was always going to bite them in the ass, particularly given the install base of the PS5. On top of that, they just don’t know how to market stuff. I know that’s an easy excuse, but they don’t try. I think that if you gave Harvestella to Atlus, they would have known how to deal with that. That would have been an interesting game for them to pitch. Square Enix was just not a good shepherd of it.    

Because I hate myself a little bit – or like inflicting pain on myself – I went back and read a year-end review from the president of Square Enix. And it starts like “This was the year of the metaverse” and then proceeds to lay out all the shit they wasted time, energy, and money on for the last three years: crypto scams, NFTs, AI horseshit. Every hit you can think of – of a scam or a bad idea – they’ve been really into. What if you spent any of that time marketing these little games? Maybe you would be in less of a bad place than you are now. Maybe if you weren’t banking on a trilogy that takes ten years to make, of one game with an increasingly smaller install base and fewer people that are on board every single time, maybe you wouldn’t have this issue. But they’re baking on this [less is more] strategy, and I think it’s not going to work out for them. I think it’s going to be a bad idea – just the shortsightedness of it all.

Nathan: It’s sad on one hand, because we are going to miss out on a lot of these smaller, more inventive games that Square Enix was making. But I guess the upside – and we’re seeing it in real time – is that other people will make games like that. Other people will take the reins and go from there. They’ll be indies, and they’ll be different. Instead of another Nier, it’s gonna be 1000xResist, which definitely doesn’t look as big-budget, but if the ideas are there and the game is fun to play, then are we really losing that much?

Riley: I like all these indie games. I’ve definitely hit that age where shorter, smaller games are definitely more my speed than “Here’s some 60-hour big-budget thing that strains the limits of my PC.” It’s exciting too, now that we have Aftermath, that we can write about these games without stressing out as much – which isn’t to say that we didn’t write about them at our other sites. But it was always a bit of a harder proposition. 

More different things, as opposed to fewer big things from big companies, just seems great to me. What does it mean for the broader industry? All these companies are having layoffs, and they employ far more people than a developer making an indie game. But I think it’s a good thing [for games], mostly.   

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