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Are Game Developers Scared of Taking Risks? (And is that our Fault?)

Introduction

I was recently working on a review for the modern Battlefront 2 and naturally drew comparisons to the original from 2005. Thinking back, I was amazed at just how revolutionary the original game was. I remembered the epic space battles with multiple paths to victory, including landing in an enemy hangar and sabotaging their ship from the inside. I was left baffled, considering this was almost fifteen years ago. How can a game released over two console generations ago be better than its modern day counterpart? Could it be that today, game developers are scared of taking risks?

A Risk Adverse Industry

There are many examples of recent triple-A games that more often than not play it safe. Recently we’ve seen a rise in remade popular games from the 90’s and early 2000’s, which do nothing to drive the industry forwards. In fairness I realise the recent Resident Evil 2 remake added new mechanics with revised gameplay and the Final Fantasy VII remake looks great, but however nostalgic these remakes may be, they are a significantly low risk venture for developers and publishers. I would love this development time to be put towards new, boundary pushing games rather than trying to rekindle our overly nostalgic nature. 

Even games that aren’t remakes are playing it safe nowadays. In Destiny 2, every expansion since its release (except Curse of Osiris), contains a horde-style mode with only slight variations each time. And old Exotic weapons from the original game are routinely recycled as new content. With all the potential available at the fingertips of the Destiny franchise, it’s frustrating to be channelled towards endless horde modes and banality.

Destiny 2 Verdant Forest
Even the free Spring update (the Revelry) in Destiny 2 had a horde mode.

Another example of avoiding risk is the recent announcement of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. It seems rather than try something new, Infinity Ward are returning to the safe ground of their 2007 blockbuster hit (which even received its own remaster in 2016). There are of course multiple reasons Activision and Infinity Ward are working on this game, but I also believe it’s because neither party are willing to take any risks. And to be honest I can kind of see why.

Are we Partly to Blame?

When Infinity Ward’s previous Call of Duty game, Infinite Warfare, was revealed to the world, it quickly became one of the most hated videos on YouTube, currently with 3.8 million dislikes. When the game was finally released, it again received a negative backlash with many people leaving MetaCritic reviews of one or zero. To receive this overwhelming negativity, you’d have to be extremely thick skinned not to take it personally. And as it is human instinct to avoid previous negative experiences, it is unsurprising game developers are scared of taking risks. This arguably harmful criticism can also be seen after the launch of the aforementioned Destiny 2.

It began when players reached the abysmal end game. People began congregating on Bungie’s forums to express their frustrations and overtime the atmosphere turned toxic. Eventually Bungie stepped in and banned people from commenting unless they had played Destiny 2. The reaction from a minority of players was, in my opinion, over the top and hateful, and it must have been an incredibly difficult time for the developers at Bungie.

Other Possible Reasons

A lot has changed since 2005. Back then people were less connected due to the absence of high speed internet and social media, making it harder to congregate online. Additionally, the restrictions of low speed internet and lack of Twitch-like services meant there were fewer opportunities for developers to stream directly to players. As a result games were designed in a vacuum, free from criticism and designed by developers rather than committees.

Can you imagine if Halo 2 was developed today? A lot of people would be overly negative towards playing half the game as the Covenant, but this decision complimented the overall narrative perfectly and added significant depth to the Halo lore. In hindsight, it was an incredibly risky move which I’m not sure would be taken today.

One of my favourite games of all time would probably be a lot different if made today and risks weren’t taken.

Another reason could also be the inclusion of loot boxes which seem to plague literally every new game. If publishers are applying pressure on development teams to invent a constant revenue stream, then of course there is less focus on actually developing the game. For example, when Battlefront 2 launched in 2017, the entire multiplayer was designed around these systems. Perhaps a greater focus on gameplay would have encouraged risks to be taken and there could finally have been ground-to-air-to-space combat. It could have been revolutionary once again.

Final Thoughts

It is impossible to fully understand what goes on behind closed doors at every development studio as most of the time all we get is a finished game. Whether it’s good or bad, we have the opportunity to share our thoughts with friends, family and now everybody online. And while it is a professional reviewer’s duty to be unbiased, fair and objective, we unfortunately have an uncensored free reign over our own critique. This can lead to overly negative comments that would unquestionably affect anybody on an emotional level. Many people would do anything to stop these negative experiences happening again, even if that meant avoiding risk and returning to safe ground.

In a Kotaku article from 2017, game director Eric Alvarez said: “If we didn’t take risks, we’d all still be playing Pac-Man”. Apply this to the modern day and what does that leave us with, live service games and endless loot boxes? Now that is a scary thought.


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