Video Game Comfort Food: I Miss Annual Iterative Franchises

Iterative Design and manageable scope have given way to nightmare product cycles and microtransactions

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On the precipice of Red Dead Redemption 2’s launch, over 8 years after the last game in the franchise and 5 years after Rockstar’s last original non-port effort, and embroiled in controversy over employee working hours…

I can’t help but think back to that time period not long ago where Rockstar used their multiple studios and their proprietary engine to put out games on a regular, near-yearly basis. It was during a time when annualized franchises were the thing, and open world games were still on just the other side of the nightmare production scope world they now reside in.

I think much of this was thanks to iteration.

With annual game franchises, technologies and art could be re-used and re-developed, and dev teams could build on previous work rather than having to spend even more time and money starting from scratch to try and chase the latest and greatest trends.

It’s a concept that’s kind of fallen out of favor in big budget game development, barring sports titles and a couple of smaller series that I’ll talk about down below.

Everything has blamed by different publishers over the years, from falling perceived quality, to rising costs, to consumer and developer burnout. “Gamers don’t want an iterative product. They want the next big thing!”

And in demanding that games get bigger and bigger and bigger, and more original(whatever that means), all while being filled with tiny DLC and Battle Royale modes…I think we lost something.

Isn’t a brand new entry 12 to 18 months from now that stands alone more exciting than stretching out an already over-stretched game?

Something to think about, at least.

Here’s that crazy run that Rockstar had.

2006: Rockstar Table Tennis launches the Rockstar Advanced Game Engine

2008: GTA IV and Midnight Club Los Angeles

2009: GTA IV Expansion Episodes and GTA Chinatown Wars

2010: Red Dead Redemption and Undead Nightmare

2011: LA Noire

2012: Max Payne 3

2013: GTA V and GTA Online

I mean, wow. That’s a phenomenal amount of high quality content to put out in a relatively short time. I know that a large variety of teams worked on these, and I know that many of them had beleaguered productions. But only through iterative design and smart re-use of technology was all of that even possible.

Sidenote: LA Noire’s team invented a magical camera system that let them put FMV heads onto 3D bodies…and now no other game has used it at all. Everyone thought it would be the future of gaming and now its in some guy’s closet, probably. I would have loved to see the second iteration of that.

And since those cycles were shorter, the amount of potential crunch time/employee nightmares had to be shorter just by definition. So even if it sucked (and it sounds like it did, for many people) it had to suck for less time.

It’s sad that this is the only place I can reach for positivity in big budget development, isn’t it?

The success of GTA Online and games like Fortnite have shifted the industry fully over to the “live services” way of thinking. When you can spend years developing one big game and then potentially make money off of it forever, why would you bother to iterate and release more smaller things faster?

Rockstar’s output has dropped off precipitously, but reports of harsh working conditions have stayed the same. The only new content out of the company for the last 5 years has been GTA Online expansions that continue to quietly rake in microtransaction money, and some ports of games on the above list to newer platforms.

As someone that used to love seeing what came out of the studio, it’s been a huge bummer. Their games, through frequently problematic in execution, also sought to push narrative in new directions and advance player movement physics and the “feel” of game worlds. Every May, I delighted in seeing what they had produced over the last couple of years.

RDR2 is still trying to do all of that of course, but I miss being able to check in on their progress every year.

It feels like RDR 1 came out 100 years ago.

And I’m sure that the business guys at Take Two really just care about the multiplayer portion of RDR2, since that’s where the majority of the money will come from.

The GTA V port had a lot of work done to it…but it was still a port. And, from the sound of recent interviews that drew heat for their mentions of work hours, Rockstar’s former collection of several teams all working on unique projects has been obliterated in favor of everyone being all hands on deck for Red Dead Redemption 2, trying hopefully to make a game so big and successful that it will do GTA V/GTA Online numbers.

Now, Rockstar can afford to go all eggs-in-one-basket because of the crazy amount of money GTA Online has been making. But in the process, all of the cool iterative design that happened during that period above has gone away. With regular releases, Rockstar could react to what was happening in the market, and try a few new ideas here and there without having to reinvent the wheel. Now that it’s been seven freaking years, everyone is expecting RDR2 to blow their minds.

It has no other choice.

And a seven year development means the crunch period has gone on for an insane amount of time.

Again, a two year cycle automatically limits the amount of time devs spend in crunch.

Other franchises and companies have drifted away from annual large releases in favor of stretching their games out through “live service” extensions and small DLC drops, too.

Assassin’s Creed used to be there every fall with a weird single player thing that was like getting a new fun pulp novel to read. The base engine slowly grew and expanded over the years, culminating in the monstrously huge Black Flag. Then, when Unity had to reinvent the wheel… it fell on its face and Ubisoft suddenly built a few non-release years into the schedule.

The latest releases, Origins and Odyssey, aren’t built as fun one-off adventures that advance the core story. Instead, they’re trying to be uber-games. Massive 100 hour RPG journeys that are then further expanded through additional paid content. And although Odyssey is clearly a smart iteration on Origins’ foundation, it was a phenomenal production effort.

And now the game has to last at least two years and keep raking in money, because Ubi announced there won’t be another one for a while.

Black Ops 4, in spite of 3 years in development, had its single player campaign stripped out and the whole game was refocused around Battle Royale, a new game concept you might have heard of. It looks great, to be fair…but Call of Duty has long been one of the best complete shooter packages on the market.

Now it’s a different thing.

I totally understand the potential for consumer and developer burnout when you have to get a game out every 18 months. I’m not saying that annualization was an ideal solution at all.

But I think it might have been better than where we’re headed.

The limited scope that hard deadlines present also inherently prevents some of the problems in the industry that are slowly getting worse. When the game has to come out, crunch can’t last forever, and you only have so much time to work on grinding player progression schedules and additional DLC.

Plus, consumers love to get a full package for a one-time price when they buy the game, right?

Sports franchises, Dynasty Warriors, and the Lego games still rely heavily on the iterative model. I’m not much of a sports game guy, but I still happily buy Dynasty Warriors and Lego games. I don’t mind that the core technologies don’t change that much from game to game. It’s awesome to see the work transform over the years and it’s awesome to not read dev interviews where people say that it was a nightmare to work on a game that I love.

Iteration is the most time-tested method for making content better.

Building on what you made before is the easiest way to see what needs improving.

It’s why writing has multiple drafts, songs have multiple versions, and films have multiple edits. It’s why business software still has regular releases.

Maybe I’m totally wrong. But I miss the days of buying a fun new 30 hour Assassin’s Creed adventure every year that had a new exciting story to tell, instead of narrowing my eyes at a 100 hour thing that I know probably burned a lot of people out and I know I’ll never finish.

I might not play 100 hours of a sports game or the latest Warriors, but the smaller production scope means I won’t feel guilty for not seeing the work that designers did on zero sleep.

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I do radio voice work by day, and write by day and night. I studied film and production. I love audio, design, and music. Also video games.

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