Are Smaller, More Affordable Games Viable?

Recently, I've been thinking about a subject I touched on briefly in an unrelated thread. I'll reproduce the relevant text here, touched up lightly for context:

TheRocketeer:
If a small team [within a large developing studio] is given the liberty to use company common resources like engines and development kits to produce smaller, cheaper titles, it gives a developer an avenue to explore new territory both technically and conceptually. If gamers are willing to drop around fifteen or twenty bucks on a neat, small [independent] game they saw a story about on the Internet from a completely unknown group, how much more willing would they be to spend the same amount of money on [a game] backed by the talent and technology of a large, well-known developer like Valve, Bio-Ware, or Square-Enix?

Given that these games could be produced for a fraction of the time, budget and manpower as a behemoth title like Modern Warfare 2, Final Fantasy XIII, or anything Valve or Blizzard [develops], these smaller titles would serve not only to explore new concepts and systems on a small scale for a cheaper option, which is great for gamers, but to generate supplemental revenue and keep the company in the forefront of gamers' minds between the larger, flagship launches, and that's great for developers. How much more excited about Final Fantasy XIII would gamers outside of the series' hardcore fans be if they had bought or even heard about anything [exciting] from the company in the last four or five years?

Note that I do single out a few specific companies here. I did so solely for example purposes, and I don't want to skew discussion towards any of them. Take that to a different thread.

What I want to ask is, would you, as a gamer, be more interested in games like this? Let it be known I am not talking about episodic content. Episodic content could be considered a discrete subset of this, though. I am also not talking about indie games; that's fine and good, too, but completely beside the point I'm driving at. What I'm really getting at are shorter, cheaper games developed quickly by a small team within a large, A-List developer to explore new IP, gameplay, and conventions through a lower-cost, lower-risk outlet.

What if your favorite developer made something like this? Would you be more willing to toy with genres you usually don't want to drop a whole day's pay on? Or invest time in an unfamiliar IP? Would you take a chance on unique but untried mechanics? If you ended up not enjoying a particular offering, would you consider that misfortune to any degree mitigated by the fact you didn't use up sixty dollars and eight or more hours on finding that out?

It almost goes without saying that I think this is a wonderful idea. If a development model like this became viable- which is saying, If customers accepted it- it would give new team members an outlet to prove themselves, for new IP and mechanics to be tested in the public arena, and give developers more frequent income and media exposure, which translates directly to more physical and political capital, a good bit of which would go right into the studios' huge, Bismarck-class franchises. For gamers, it means we get to have access to these new ideas and systems that we would never see otherwise, and more frequent opportunities to play and digest new content (some of it from our favorite developers). For both sides, it means both gamers and developers can sample and judge more ideas in a shorter time, allowing for faster innovation with the development areas and playing preferences of developers and gamers, respectively, and we get all of this at a smaller investment of our time and money.

So what do you think: Are smaller, more affordable games viable?

I like this idea. I don't know if any developers will try it, but one or two certainly should.

As long as they don't interfere too much with the development of the larger games, then no. I'm always up for trying new IP's so I'd probably buy it. However, considering MW2 is the biggest selling game of all time I'm not sure about the rest of the gaming audiences tolerance for unfamiliar IP's.

However, it has worked in the past, Hellgate: London was a total flop, but the game developed to test the engine, Mythos, was a surprisingly big hit, and was actually better than the main game.

Of course, it stands that the best way to deliver these things would be digitally. If you're going to be making them with frequency, then you'll just saturate video game shops with cheap titles. So you'll have to keep them online.

I think so. I was really excited when Shadow Complex came out. Not a fantastic game by any means but well worth the $10 I spent. I wish more companies would do that.

I'd think it would be cool. My problem is playing all these games.

I look really hard at a title before I go out and buy it now. I get a lot more time for my money from all the lower cost games on the market, such as XBLA, PSN, and some budget titles on Steam. It is rare now that I spend more than 15 dollars on a game unless I am certain I will at least 2 hours of enjoyment per dollar I spend. I would love if more of the big name developers would experiment with new IPs in this manner.

HELL YEAH!

I mean, hold on a second.

Brütal Legend references aside, this is the approach i find optimal. If big studios could freely explore new possibilities, then gaming industry would be dropped headfirst in the ocean of innovation. And that's exactly what i want. "Single-A" games are the way to go.

Definately. Give the game industry room to move and create without the pressure that big titles would put on them. Let them screw around a little.

I read your thread and reply with two words:

ORANGE BOX

I kinda like the idea of it. For one thing it's dissapointing to buy a game for full price and find out it's only a few hours long and really doesn't feel like a full game, but not just that but it would let companies have a chance at seeing if a game/series would be good without spending a fuck-ton of money on a full game only to have it flop because it wasn't good. If it does good? They can get to work on a full sequel or something, or stick to short, small games if they find it works.

tharwen:
I read your thread and reply with two words:

ORANGE BOX

I was thinking one;

Braid.

Companies are already trying this with things like LostWinds from Frontier.

If you had been wondering, a big boon to the development teams of these games is that they'd utilize the technology and art assets the company is already familiar with. A huge amount of time and money that goes into giant titles like Half Life or Final Fantasy is in completely redefining the technology used to make the game, whether it's the art, the engine, the hardware they're working with, or what have you. Unless I'm sorely mistaken (and please, correct me if I am), I think this is how Valve made Portal, soooooooo... Yeeeeaaah.

Having to collaborate with dozens of other people to create a sprawling, singular vision using technology you have never worked with before and have to learn while you're applying it to an ambitious new project is murderously difficult and time-consuming. Imagine if they tried running the Indianapolis 500 in helicopters. And they have to learn to fly them while racing. If a small team is allowed to use familiar software and hardware with existing art and graphics design kits, it immediately cuts out an immense amount of time and money that can be rerouted directly into, I don't know, making a fun game. The amount of stress the team is spared and their pre-existing skills with the tools they're using can only translate into more effort put into teamwork, design, testing, and, you know, making the game, rather than learning how to.

In regards to concerns about how this would affect regular development, I think any game like this made would be made under the condition that it wouldn't be detracting from the larger, AAA titles these studios make, in terms of staff or funding. When game studios need people for a project, they either use people that have finished their previous project, or hire more people. Project budgets are usually allocated very early in the lifespan of a title's development, too, meaning that money devoted to a project is going to stay where it is, and new money isn't going to be allocated unless it is already free. Plus, the smaller titles are hopefully going to be employing themselves gainfully out in the world, making modest stacks of money that the studio can reallocate on the fly. And if a game that costs %10 of the budget of a mothership title costs %50 more than expected, it still only costs %15 of that larger title, and can be sold for anywhere from %20-30 percent of the retail price of that larger title, as well.

Staff and money are rarely taken from one project to another except in dire emergencies, and in any case, I think there really isn't a lot of worry about it anyway. If a little game is being made by one roomful of people, then each individual is too valuable in himself to be taken off entirely, and no one is going to want to pull a man from the large game to work on the small game unless they earnestly didn't need him there anyway, and why would they do that even if they really didn't?

So, aside from the atrocity of providing too much choice to the consumer (????), can anyone come up with anything wholly and truly bad about this model? Aside from the dark and oily cynicism in our hearts that expects anything good to fail by default, is there any reason this simply could not work?

 

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