Hello my fellow GD’ers! It’s finally 2019 and I hope it brings a lot more joy to you than 2018 did. So, this being the first day of the new year, I thought I'd write another blog just to commemorate it. Actually… I just wanted to write. Hah.
Anyway, I recently read a blog about Half-Life 3 and how the hype has died down. I wholeheartedly agreed to that piece to be honest. Now what is the single biggest reason for its slide in popularity? One could say that there are so many awesome games releasing lately that the void of Half-Lie has been filled. Well, kind of anyway. But no, that’s not really it. What really ‘killed’ it is Valve’s absurdly long development cycle.
The first game released in 1998. Half-Life 2 in 2004 and its two immediate sequels - Episode 1 and Episode 2, released in 2006 and 2007 respectively. Nothing since. Let’s not even get into the whole Episode 3 saga… Many games came and went (Left 4 Dead and Portal to name a few) but Half-Life was still on the shelf. Reports say that the game did go into development but never, to this day, made it out. Or it did. I don’t think we’ll ever know because Gabe Newell just doesn’t want to talk about it. Too busy counting all that Steam money.
But technically, since we never got a confirmation, HL3 is still ‘in-development’… for 11(+) years… Bravo.
This got me thinking though. What is the perfect game development life cycle? But first let me show you, to the best of my knowledge, the different stages of a game’s development before it comes to life.
- Planning would include meetings to decide what game to make next or, in case of a sequel, what direction to take. Coming up with the setting, the story, the characters etc would be the goal here.
- Pre-production generally means hiring the required writers, directors, artists etc and assigning them to their respective tasks. Basically getting everything in place before you begin the real tasks.
- Production is where the game is really taking a form. This is also where the most amount of time generally goes whilst a game is being made. Recording of the dialogues, the music; rendering the environment, the levels etc is what this stage entails.
- Post-production is also a very important stage. This decade specifically, I think, is where developers started to emphasize and give real importance in the post-production of a game. Basically the game is playable (Alpha stage) and is being put through the ringers to identify the bugs, glitches etc. Once the developer is confident that the game can be shown publicly, they release it to a section of the general audience to get the first feedback (Beta sage). It’s very crucial and is actually becoming more and more common in recent times. Off the top of my head, the biggest developer that really makes full use of the Beta is DICE/EA. The feedback really helps them iron out the bugs, make balancing adjustments and even remove certain elements altogether if they don’t fit in. Safe to say post-productions play a major role in a game’s success, especially during its initial release. When a game is relatively bug-free and well-optimized at launch, it leaves a lasting impression. The word-of-mouth alone will ensure its longevity and success.
- Going Gold. The game is finally 100% complete and its source code is sent out to the printing or to be downloaded, whichever the gamer chooses.
So with that out of the way, I would like to put out a few examples.
Rockstar North / Grand Theft Auto franchise:
[Only focusing on the main entries]
1997 - GTA
1999 - GTA 2
2002 - GTA: Vice City
2004 - GTA: San Andreas
2008 - GTA IV
2013 - GTA V
As you can tell, Rockstar likes to take their time. With a development cycle of around 4 to 5 years, they have mastered the timing of their releases. Chances are however, that the next entrant in the GTA franchise – Grand Theft Auto VI – might take the biggest time-off yet. RDR2 released only a couple of months ago and surely all of the resources at Rockstar are behind Red Dead Online. And after tasting ridiculous success of GTA Online, they are sure to give this game’s multiplayer component the same attention. Attention = Time. My guess is that we won’t see GTA VI until at least 2021. But with RDR Online out, people aren’t going to want to go back to GTA for some time anyway and that’s where Rockstar wins. They’ve got two hot properties that really fills the void of the other. But make no mistake, whatever year it might be, when GTA VI eventually releases, records will shatter.
Ubisoft Montreal / Assassin’s Creed franchise:
2007 – Assassin’s Creed
2009 – Assassins Creed II
2010 – Assassins Creed Brotherhood
2011 – Assassins Creed Revelations
2012 – Assassins Creed III
2013 – Assassins Creed IV – Black Flag
2014 – Assassins Creed Unity & Assassins Creed Rogue
2015 – Assassins Creed Syndicate
2017 – Assassins Creed Origins
2018 – Assassins Creed Odyssey
Assassins Creed was something special. Born from the ashes of Prince of Persia, this game really took off with Assassins Creed II. Gamers fell in love with Ezio Auditore da Firenze and the beautiful Renaissance-era setting. Such was Ezio’s charm that Ubisoft spawned three games with him as the titular character. No other character, apart from Altair, has gotten so much attention from the developer and gamers alike. The IP was red-hot and Ubisoft would not let this chance slide. They released game after game, each with a new character and new setting. Even with so much on offer however, a rather unusual feeling started to creep in. Every new game started to feel…. like the last one. Just when it seemed like Ubisoft had peaked with the AC franchise, they came out with Black Flag. What a game that was! Those naval battles were a thing to behold. Edward Kenway was a fun protagonist but it was the setting that really made this game stand out. That pirate theme was ridiculously fun to play around in. So much so that it produced a pretty similar game in Rogue the following year. But it was Unity that really dented this franchise. It became clear that Ubisoft had given up on innovation and was in it primarily for the moolah.
Finally accepting that they had hit a rough patch, Ubisoft decided to take a step back. For the first time in a nearly 7 years, there was a year without an Assassins Creed game. That was 2016. Ubisoft Montreal finally got some breathing room to assess their actions. They would barely get 2 years of development time for their annual AC games and it showed in their games. But with a whole year off, they used that extra time to really broaden their scope and ambition with AC: Origins. A massive open world game and the fan-favorite setting of ancient Egypt, Ubisoft were back on top. Just goes to show you how valuable an extra year can be in this industry. That bi-annual pattern did not continue, however, as Ubisoft released AC: Odyssey the very next year. Personally, I don’t feel like getting it at the moment. Origins is still fresh and Odyssey really does look like an Origins expansion to me. I think I am in the minority here as I see a lot of people really enjoyed this game. But there you go.
Activision / Call of Duty franchise:
2003 – Call of Duty
2005 – Call of Duty 2
2006 – Call of Duty 3
2018 – Call of Duty Black Ops IV
Forgive me for not completing the list but you get the point. Barring the two years between the first and the second iterations, there has not been a single year since then that has been without a CoD game. That’s 14 straight tears, and counting. An astonishing feat of game development. And it’s still earning an enormous sum of money with each release. How is it possible though..? Well, it pays to have three studios who each take turns to release their version of the game. It all started with Infinity Ward. Then Treyarch got in on the fun. Each took alternative turns. Infinity Ward with their Modern Warfare story-line and Treyarch with Black Ops. But then Infinity Ward started showing cracks of unrest from within. So much so that Activision brought in Sledgehammer Games to help Infinity Ward finish MW3. It looked like Activision was impressed by Sledgehammer’s work. They became the third unit. This trinity has since then released their own takes of the CoD formula. They’ve already completed two cycles. Treyarch came out recently with the BO4. They took a risk though. A CoD game with no single-player. It’s still a little weird I suppose. But gamers responded. It was a smashing success once again. Next up is Infinity Ward and so on and so forth..
So how do they do it? It’s hard to explain. This is the one gaming property that completely flips the tables. Here I am trying to prove to you that releasing a game (of the same property) year after year will diminish its appeal and start affecting the publisher both critically and financially. And then there’s Call of Duty who after 14 years of releasing the same property year after year, are not only raking the same insane amount of money that they are used to but are somehow able maintain their quality as well. I mean have you seem the numbers on Black Ops IV? Fuckin mind-boggling I tell you.
So what is it about them? You guessed it. When Activision added Sledgehammer Games to the mix, it gave the other two developers a whole extra year to prep their games. And we know how crucial a year can be. As it stands, they each get 3 years of developmental time to plan, produce and release the game. And Activision is reaping the benefits. A win-win for everybody involved. Still, I ask you. Do you really love CoD so much that you buy it every year? Actually, are they really that different from one another that makes the purchase justified? I’m not a CoD player so I don’t really understand. If you’re a die-hard gamer of this franchise then do answer. I’m curious.
Naughty Dog / Uncharted franchise:
2007 – Uncharted
2009 – Uncharted 2: Among Thieves
2011 – Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception
2016 – Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End
A developer with a golden reputation, Naughty Dog is widely regarded as one of the greatest creators in this industry. There is also a section that feels disheartened as Naughty Dog is Sony-exclusive. But that’s the price you have to pay if you went with Xbox….. :P Cheap jokes aside, there’s rarely a gamer out there that would find any faults with Naughty Dog’s approach. They have a strict 2.5 - 3 year developmental cycle that they are really comfortable with. And they, just like Rockstar, have manufactured two outstanding IPs with which they take turns to show their creativity. Uncharted and The Last of Us are as different from one another as Rockstar’s entries are. In the end, that’s what keeps the… staleness away. Every release of ND makes you instantly excited. With The Last of Us Part II as their next game, Naughty Dog are right on schedule. If their track record holds, expect TLoU II to release in Q3 of 2019. But with Sony’s PS5 incoming, they very could push Naughty Dog’ schedule as well. Can you imagine The Last of Us Part II helping PlayStation 5 usher into a new era though? Yeah, same here. So don’t be surprised if this gets pushed to early 2020 alongside the PS5. Bottom-line is gamers will throng the stores for this game. 2019 or 2020 be damned.
Bethesda Game Studios/ The Elder Scrolls franchise:
1994 – The Elder Scrolls: Arena
1996 – The Elder Scrolls: Daggerfall
2002 – The Elder Scrolls: Morrowind
200 6– The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion
2011 – The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim
Another massive IP. The Elder Scrolls really defined the RPG genre like no other. A franchise that really took you on an adventure with every game. I can tell you that I have spent close to a thousand hours in those last three games combined. Truly huge in every sense of the word. And how much time did this sprawling world take to create? Nearly 4 years. Upon closer inspection you will find that in between those years, Bethesda was also churning out Fallout games. But Bethesda always have a portion of their team that’s constantly working on TES so it’s not one and done with Bethesda. At least I hope not. Anyhow, Skyrim released in 2011 and we now entered 2019. It’s been close to 8 years now. The longest we’ve been without an Elder Scrolls game. And if you were following E8 2018, you know it’s still years away.
For one, Todd Howard hinted that they still don’t have the right technology to create the next TES. But most importantly, and to directly contradict my point from earlier, he also said that the team isn’t working on TES at the moment. Instead, they are working on a brand new IP – Starfield. An RPG set in space. And in all honesty, I’m pumped for it! This situation is just like the one with CDPR. They decided to make something new after The Witcher 3. Enter Cyberpunk 2077. And you just know in your heart it’s going to be great. I have the same feeling for this futuristic RPG from Bethesda. I just hope they stick to single-player though. That’s my only concern. Anyway, Starfield doesn’t have a release date yet. Reports state they are looking at the next-gen consoles to arrive before releasing it. So let’s say… 2020. The optimistic outlook would be to arrive alongside, or at least the same year, as the next-gen consoles. So lock that down. The reason why Starefield is so important here is because Bethesda has been vehemently clear that TES VI will come only AFTER Starfield. And do I think they release a new ground-breaking TES game only a year after Starfield…? Nah. I’d give a minimum of two years. So yes, The Elder Scrolls VI will release in 2022. And when that happens my fellow GD’ers, it will have been more than a decade. I’m feeling old already. Wait… but there goes my average development cycle for TES right out the window. Hmm.
CD Projekt RED / The Witcher franchise:
2007 – The Witcher
2011 – The Witcher 2: Assassin of Kings
2015 – The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt
These guys are exceptional at what they do. They aren’t owned by a big publisher so there’s not a huge cash resource waiting for them if they need it. No, they have to do things with a bit more care if I may say so. And these guys can get things done. Boy o boy…. There aren’t a whole lot of studios out there who command so much respect from its community like CDPR do. And they earned that admiration through and through. Now looking at their track record, it’s pretty clear. 4 years between every Witcher game. That’s what it takes to make these gems. And they hear a pip from me if they can keep churning out hits like those… but The Witcher is done. They have their eyes set on Cyberpunk 2077. A brand new IP for this developer. It’s a big deal for them and they have to get this right. Now, if this was Witcher and if they were to stick to their regular schedule, we’d have TW4 this year. I still think the same applies to Cyberpunk 2077. Let’s not forget that they’ve working on this before TW3 even released. So in theory, they’ve been into development with this game far longer than they’ve been with any other. They even opened a new studio (in Wroclaw) to hire more staff to assist them with this game. That’s a good sign because they’re not just relying on their reputation to pull them through. They are giving it there all. So now, we have seen quite a lot from the game with extended gameplay videos but the question remains, when will it release? I want it to be this year.. but both Sony and Microsoft might entice them to release on their new platforms. Which means a delay to 2020. Which will then make it a 5 year development cycle (counting after TW3’s release). Their longest cycle yet. But would you be mad at them though? For a game of that size, I wouldn’t mind at all.
So now… I think I may have wandered off topic for a bit. Hah! But yes, my main question to you would be, and it’s pretty difficult to put it in a sentence but here goes:
- How long should developers wait before releasing a new game / sequel? Or rather
- How often would YOU purchase a new game of the same franchise? Or maybe
- What is the right development life cycle for a game?
The first and the last question share the same essence but I hope you understand what I’m trying to say. So that was it. I hope this was a little informative for you wonderful folks. Won’t lie… this took a lot longer than imagined but it’s so much fun to speculate. And that’s what this is. The game development life cycles stated above are my best interpretation from the data available. Don’t take it all at face value.
Again, I hope you all have a joyous 2019 and by off-chance if you liked this blog then do let me know and I’ll gladly write more such pieces in the future :P Until then, TR is out!