AAA game companies hate innovation
Release an original, finished game challenge (impossible)
Starfield features an interplanetary universe from both first- and third-person perspectives. The unique framework for the game lets players explore an open world in the Milky Way. (Bethesda Game Studios)
I watched the “Starfield” Direct three times. The 45-minute video gave a comprehensive deep dive into Bethesda Game Studios’ then-upcoming title. I saw it twice alone, and then once with my father, who called it the “future of video games.” As someone who’d been waiting for “the space game” for years, “Starfield” seemed too good to be true — and it was.
Though I feel stupid for falling into Bethesda’s preorder booby trap (yes, I bought the premium early access edition — $100 down the drain), I console myself with the knowledge I wasn’t the only one fooled. Many of my gamer friends and industry contacts also preordered “Starfield.” It’s as if we were all collectively expecting a product worthy of selling in 2023. Obviously, we were sorely mistaken.
There’s been a trend of indolence throughout the past few years in the gaming industry. Many AAA — high-budget and high-profile — companies are willing to settle for something formulaic and dated rather than exploring new creative mechanics. Those who are willing to innovate still choose to stick to existing franchises; rarely do we see original intellectual property in the sea of sequels and spin-offs.
Even when we do see original IP like “Starfield,” it rarely innovates further than slapping a fresh coat of paint over a well-worn framework. “Starfield” could have been that revolutionary space game many waited for — if it were released in 2015 and didn’t need an $800 graphics card to run smoothly.
After Bethesda’s utter failure with “Fallout 76,” I had extreme déjà vu when playing “Starfield,” which had similar frame rate, graphical, dialogue and combat issues that “Fallout 76” did. The combat is stale, the user interface is dated and even conversations with NPCs resemble those found in games released nearly a decade ago. Some have even said “Starfield” is worse than “Fallout 4,” a title released eight years ago. Overall, the game just feels soulless — what’s the point of 1,000 procedurally generated planets in a seemingly infinite virtual universe if it all feels so empty?
“Elden Ring’’ is one of the biggest video game triumphs of the 21st century. OK, maybe that’s just my opinion, but I know I’m not the only one who thinks so. Anyone who knows me knows that “Elden Ring” is one of my favorite games of all time — and for good reason. It’s FromSoftware’s magnum opus, combining all the knowledge they gathered from “Dark Souls,” “Bloodborne” and “Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice” into one beautiful new IP. This lore-rich open-world experience was absolutely unprecedented at the time of release, leaving the games industry starstruck.
Though “Elden Ring” did have some performance issues for the first couple of days after launch, the issues weren’t game-breaking and were swiftly patched.
This year, we basically got another “Elden Ring” quality game. The release of “Baldur’s Gate 3” was met with critical acclaim. A “Dungeons & Dragons”-style adventure, the scope of “BG3” is colossal. I’m 60 hours deep and still haven’t finished the second out of three acts. Everything about the game screams “original.” Best of all: it was released in a finished state. With incredibly low crash rates, minimal bugs and beautiful graphics, “BG3” set a new bar for modern game development.
What do these two phenomenal games have to do with the unoriginality and laziness of the industry? Well, both games had some AAA developers heated. Upon the release of “Elden Ring,” many AAA developers took to Twitter to express their frustration that consumers would now expect polished, unique products (the horror!).
Multiple developers from Ubisoft, the company responsible for the “Assassin’s Creed”franchise, expressed their annoyance with the success of “Elden Ring,” criticizing its user experience and quest design.
The irony lies in the fact that the “Assassin’s Creed” series has one of the most unoriginal, hand-hold-y approaches to open-world gameplay, marking each objective on a map littered with quest markers. Ubisoft isn’t the only company that does this — it’s rare to find a game that just throws the player out on their ass and says “good luck.” This is why developers hated “Elden Ring”: it dared to innovate, setting a new expectation for fans of open-world gameplay.
Most recently, “BG3” has also been met with developer criticism. Why? Because it’s too good. Employees of multiple massive companies like Xbox repeatedly called the game an “anomaly” on X, formerly known as Twitter, claiming that consumers shouldn’t hold their games to the same standard. Their reasoning: not every game studio operates the same way.
Though there’s some truth to this, it’s ridiculous to dismiss an industry expectation of polish just because Larian Studios, the developers of “BG3,” dedicated all their resources to one product. We as consumers expect finished products, unique experiences and fun gameplay — all of which some of these companies repeatedly fail to deliver.
At the end of the day, the “raised standard” that “BG3” set was one that encompassed all of these expectations. It’s unsurprising that companies who continuously fumble these features would feel threatened by the success of Larian Studios.
I’ve witnessed a stark decline in creativity and refinement in the games industry throughout the past five years. The disappointment of “Starfield” is unfortunate but unsurprising. AAA companies need to wake up and realize they cannot ride the coattails of their previous successful formulas forever. They will be overtaken by smaller, better studios in the future — and I hope that future is soon.
Aubrie Cole is a sophomore writing about video games in her column, “Downloadable Content,” which runs every other Tuesday. She is also an arts & entertainment editor at the Daily Trojan.
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