Game development cycles for AAA games are getting a bit ridiculous. We wait for years, anticipating a great new game or sequel, but our hopes are rarely satisfied when the game is finally released. Sometimes the game delivers, and we want more. Other times the game bombs, and the studio loses huge chunks of money from poor sales figures. What can we do, right?
I think there is something we can do, but it requires game developers to embrace a new structure of development. As it turns out, many studios are already heading in this direction, but there is still a significant leap that needs to be made. What if, instead of working for years on a game that loses a studio a couple million dollars, a studio could cut the development of that game because player feedback came back overwhelmingly negative? What if games were developed in such a way that they could be released in consecutive pieces that, together, formed the game? What if the concept of DLC wasn't just bonus material, but was central to the game?
Some games are already being developed in segments. The core game comes out on a disc for $60. Then some DLC comes out that adds onto the game, sometimes really adding great value and depth of experience. What if each game was a series of DLC packs each priced for accessibility and released on a consistent basis, like a comic book?
Here's why this can work:
1. The speed of digital distribution services like Steam make the distribution part of the development a non-issue. As soon as it's ready to go, the game can be in player's hands.
2. Lower pricing per episode will make the games more accessible to people who don't want to spend $60 on new games.
3. A continuous game can become the center of a large, interactive community that has some influence in the development itself.
Digital distribution is growing in popularity, and retail gaming is taking a huge hit around the world. If we want to stay ahead of the curve, now is the time to start the switch. Steam is miles ahead of other digital distribution platforms, and they are even talking about creating a console for Steam to streamline the process even more. Other services like EA's Origin are sprouting up, as well. The advent of digital gaming distribution has come.
With this new distribution method, developers have the opportunity to change everything. In the same way the digital revolution changed book publishing according to Seth Godin, it is about to change gaming. By releasing smaller chunks of a game over a period of time, a studio can build a following around the game that is directly involved with the game's evolution.
However, in before this can happen, a few adjustments must be made.
First, the process must be pioneered by strong leaders. The waters ahead are choppy and difficult to navigate. Communication must be crystal clear, decisions must be made and upheld, and feature creep must be eradicated. Creative directors and producers will be the backbone of the new pipeline. The lack of leadership could kill a fan base built around this model because even a month delay would mean a huge percentage increase to the development cycle.
Next, fear must be overcome. Perspective is powerful and fear will make us want this to all go away. The perspective “what we have is good enough” will sink those of us who hold onto it. The “safe” alternative of sticking with the old method will not be safe for very long, because change happens quickly.
The great news is, if we can navigate this successfully, the rewards will be abundant. Here are a few:
• The consistent releases will keep more players interested in the game over a longer period of time by keeping up the anticipation between each release.
• Crunch can be spread out from one long haul over several months to a short few-week sprint before each new segment is launched.
• If a game reviews poorly after the first or second installment, development can be dropped, saving the studio money and time.
• Lower prices for each episode make games more accessible to more players.
• Consistent feedback from player communities can directly affect the direction the game takes, making for a more involved and therefore committed, audience.
The changes on the horizon are big, scary, and they are coming. If we face them head-on and take action, we will be on the edge of something huge. If we opt for what seems like the safe bet, we will be left behind. Redefining the development pipeline opens up opportunities for huge success. The question is how will you respond?
Alex Welsh is a videogame producer and storyteller, armed with a shiny new BA in Digital Game Design/Business Corollary from Ohio University. He met Filter at GDC last year, and is looking forward to becoming a full-fledged Filter contractor this spring. Check out additional musings from Alex at http://alexwelsh.me/ and @alexswelsh