The Success of Long-Cycle Development

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The success of long-cycle development games like Fallout 4 could end up being one of the defining stories of 2015.

As the year 2015 winds to a close, it’s tempting to start making “best of” lists and proclaiming which game was the greatest of the year. Although I am a sucker for lists (if only to angrily yell why they’re wrong), I’m much more interested in trying to determine how this year will be remembered. What was the overarching theme? In ten years, what will be the big news item people will still talk about?

One thing I did not see coming was the success of Fallout 4, the latest game from developer Bethesda Game Studios. It’s not that I thought the game would flop – I knew it would be a profitable game, and I expected it to enjoy a level of success similar to The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Rather, it’s the fact that it beat out the yearly juggernaut that is Call of DutyFallout 4 grossed more in it first 24 hours than Call of Duty: Black Ops III did in its first 72 hours, and by a pretty significant margin.

This is, naturally, great news for Bethesda. But why is it important that Fallout 4 produced such high numbers (other than the fact that it shows the industry is doing very well)? Because games like Fallout 4 buck the trends of the yearly release cycle and the heavy focus on multiplayer – two elements that publishers claim are necessary for AAA titles to be produced in the first place. The thing is, Fallout 4 isn’t the only example of this in 2015 – two other titles, Bloodborne and The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, are games made by studios that were granted the freedom of taking as long as needed to make their games, and were met with great success.

If there’s a theme to 2015, it might be that gamers have finally had enough with the yearly release cycle, and are willing to pay for good quality games, even if those games take years to develop. This is a message developers need to listen to closely, and one publishers hopefully learn.

The Problem With Yearly Releases

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Activision is still seeing profits from the Call of Duty franchise, but it’s trending downward – how long can it last without massive support from gamers?

I understand that, in praising the idea of long-cycle game development, I am making one large assumption – that yearly releases are bad for the industry. In past years, the evidence would seem to suggest that my assumptions are wrong – Call of Duty rakes in more money each year than most big-budget Hollywood blockbuster films, and Ubisoft is able to make a sizable profit off of yearly Assassin’s Creed releases. But these success come at a cost to both gamers and developers.

To understand the negative effect this demand can have on the industry, it’s important to know where it all started. Ubisoft’s rise to prominence can be credited, to a large degree, with their reliance on the Tom Clancy line of games, specifically Rainbow Six and Ghost Recon. But there was another title, first released during the sixth generation, that stood out – Splinter Cell. Ubisoft released a Tom Clancy game that focused on stealth and rewarded patience, with a protagonist that simply did what needed to be done with as little heroics as possible. Compare Sam Fisher to Master Chief, the biggest star of the sixth generation, and it becomes clear just how tonally unique Splinter Cell was for its time. Because of these unique factors, the original Splinter Cell needed a lengthy development cycle, which showed when the game was finally released.

However, it wasn’t long after that I was playing the sequel, Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow. And it wasn’t much later that I found myself playing arguably the best entry in the franchise, Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory. All three of these games released within a three-year window, a feat I thought was impossible at the time, given the lengthy development times for other major titles of that generation. How did Ubisoft manage to develop each game with the same attention to detail and care, in such a short time? That’s when I learned about Ubisoft’s B-Team.

Splinter Cell was developed by two different teams – the A-Team, responsible for the original entry and Chaos Theory, was made by Ubisoft Montreal. While they were busy working on Chaos Theory, Ubisoft handed off the development duties of Pandora Tomorrow to Ubisoft Shanghai and Ubisoft Milan, ensuring that a new Splinter Cell game would release on an almost yearly basis. This A-Team/B-Team approach was then picked up by other publishers, most notably Activision, who began releasing yearly entries in the Tony Hawk, Guitar Hero and Call of Duty franchises. Later, Ubisoft would implement this strategy into Assassin’s Creed.

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The Splinter Cell franchise has seen better days, seemingly done in by an aggressive development cycle.

If this sounds like good practice, take a moment to evaluate the current status of each of these franchises. Splinter Cell hasn’t seen critical success since Chaos Theory, and Tony Hawk was run into the ground, despite a poor attempt to revitalize it earlier this year. Guitar Hero is seeing a comeback, but the entire genre was derailed due to oversaturation (and the latest version, so far, has not come close to reaching the popularity of the original releases). Call of Duty is a success, thanks to the strength of its multiplayer component, and Ubisoft has found financial success with Assassin’s Creed. Out of five franchises, only two are financially successful, and of those two, Assassin’s Creed always seems to be one misstep away from being “put on the back-burner,” and Call of Duty is starting to show signs of slowing down.

The most obvious problem with the yearly release cycle is that games see a drop in quality – this schedule puts unnecessary pressure on developers to deliver AAA titles in tight deadlines, and the result is games that seem indistinguishable from each other. But there are many issues that affect gamers as well. If gamers want to keep up with each franchise, that means an additional $60 per year, plus money for the inevitable DLC, all of which takes massive amounts of time to experience, lessening the chances that players can go back and revisit these games, a practice I highly encourage. This was the main reason I stopped playing Call of Duty games after the release of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 – it didn’t have the same level of polish I came to expect from previous entries, and a sequel was released so quickly that the paid map packs I purchased barely saw any use. However, according to Ubisoft and Activision, it’s the only way these games can get the funding necessary to be produced in the first place.

Yearly release cycles may have been the rule for the last decade, but as 2015 has shown us, that’s not necessarily the case anymore. So what good comes out of long-cycle development, other than the obvious benefits of more time? What makes it something both developers and publishers should consider, and why did fans respond so well to these games this year?

The Benefits of Long-Cycle Development

The benefits of long-cycle game development are pretty obvious, especially for developers, but they’re still worth mentioning because of their importance. Too often games release in an less-than-ideal state, which can result in glitches that can render the game unplayable. This happened with 2014’s Assassin’s Creed Unity, and this year with Batman: Arkham Knight. The latter was so mishandled that the game was actually removed from Steam because of glitches and game-crippling issues, and re-released four months later. More time during the quality assurance period would mean less of these failed launches, and would also result in more success for developers – although Arkham Knight sold five million copies, it lagged behind Batman: Arkham City, which sold six million copies and was released in a polished, stable state, ensuring positive word of mouth beyond the release window and more future sales.

Another thing to consider is that a prolonged development time can allow developers to balance gameplay mechanics. In addition to the mounting costs of yearly releases, another reason I quit the Call of Duty franchise was due to unbalanced mechanics in Modern Warfare 2, specifically the One Man Army perk. Essentially, this perk allows plays to switch to another class mid-match, which players exploited by re-selecting the same class over and over again, essentially giving them unlimited ammo and grenades. To get an idea of how unbalanced this is, here’s a video of someone going on a fifty-four killstreak:

It’s worth noting that developer Infinity Ward considered a killstreak of twenty-five to be nearly impossible to obtain, which is why they placed their highest killstreak-based reward, a tactical nuke, at twenty-five kills. With little effort, the player in the above video was able to obtain two of those without dying. Issues like these need to be sorted out prior to release, and longer development cycles may help achieve that.

Of course, developers can also use the time to gather feedback from players and incorporate it into their next title, or to take that time to see what other developers are releasing and take inspiration or lessons from them (a practice that could hopefully stop good games from spreading bad ideas). But there are also many benefits for gamers as well. We don’t often appear as the most patient group, but 2015 shows a year in which gamers voted with their wallets and declared we stopped supporting the yearly-release cycle. It makes sense, as there is less of a financial burden on gamers if they don’t have to spend $60 per year on each new entry, in addition to the cost of the inevitable DLC. This gives gamers the chance to revisit and replay games, which can help build a better appreciation for the art form and foster consumer loyalty, which benefits both developers and publishers. It’s no coincidence that Nintendo has such a strong following, and also happens to take their time with games, releasing them in a finished state.

But other developers are catching on. The Grand Theft Auto and Dragon Age franchises are examples of how developers, who have earned fan loyalty, can take their time and release quality games that are successful, so much so that they can even overcome some missteps (such as the case with Dragon Age II, which was met with less than stellar reviews, only to rebound with the successful Dragon Age: Inquisition). Developers may see long-term success if they take the necessary amount of time to develop and polish their games, and the purchasing decisions of gamers is starting to reflect this.

An Industry-Wide Impact

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Games like Bloodborne are only possible if developers are allowed to utilize long-cycle development.

What is encouraging to me, as a lifelong gamer, is there are already noticeable, positive impacts on the industry, all thanks to the success of long-cycle development games. Developers are finally starting to be seen as artists and auteurs, and their creative visions are taking priority over their ability to make money on a yearly basis. Bloodborne was met with critical and commercial success, and the game was highly anticipated largely in part to who made the game – FromSoftware – and who the director was – Hidetaka Miyazaki, the creator of Demon’s Souls and the original Dark Souls. Miyazaki was able to create a new game in a new franchise, instead of being forced to make more Dark Souls games (which, I might add, was entrusted to a B-Team, and didn’t meet the same level of success as the original), and the trust in him paid off. The hope is that this treatment will spread throughout the industry, which could potentially prevent talented minds from quitting the industry early due to burnout (as was the case with Will Wright and John Carmack).

This shift toward long-cycle development is also a positive sign for independent developers. Traditionally, indie titles have been short, smaller affairs which couldn’t match AAA titles in terms of size and polish, but could often do more with creative, unique ideas. That notion was thrown out the window earlier this year when CD Projekt RED released The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. Here was a title larger and more detailed than most AAA titles, yet had some incredible ideas in terms of storytelling and world building, and was released independently by a relatively small developer. Because gamers supported The Witcher 3, the door is now open to mid-size independent developers to hit that sweet spot of AAA polish and indie creativity.

Finally, the approach Bethesda took to hyping Fallout 4 should come as welcome news to all developers looking to extend their deadlines. The common refrain has been that games cost a lot of money to make and promote, and the longer they spend in development the more money it costs to make and advertise. Publishers push games out early so they can start making money, and then hope that enough copies sell to justify paying the development team to, essentially, finish making the game. But with Fallout 4, Bethesda waited a mere five months prior to release to officially announce the title, which meant that the advertising window was considerably smaller (and cheaper) than other comparable titles, such as Halo 5: Guardians or Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. This freed Bethesda up to focus on the game itself, and when it came time to promote the title and generate buzz, they were able to take advantage of social media to help spread the word, resulting in one of the most surprisingly successful launches for an open-world RPG.

Less Is More

These changes fly in the face of the widely-held notion that the only way a game can achieve success is it needs to remain in the public conscience, whether through yearly releases or multiplayer. It’s time developers start to push back against the over-aggressive deadlines set by publishers, and point to games such as Bloodborne, The Witcher 3 and Fallout 4 as proof that gamers are willing to wait for quality, and will handsomely reward publishers as a result. If 2015 is remembered for anything, my hope is that it’s remembered as the turning point when gamers finally had enough of games released in a poor state, and publishers took note. Hopefully, 2015 will mark the year we all adopted a longview approach to the video game industry.