On October 27, three of the biggest videogames of the year arrive, all at once: Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus, Assassin’s Creed: Origins, and Nintendo’s Super Mario Odyssey. Together, these three titles represent a cross-section of the big-budget gaming industry, from a family-friendly run-and-jump romp to a bloody rampage through a Nazi-filled alternate history. From power fantasy to primer on Ancient Egyptian architecture, this one day showcases much of the best of what triple-A gaming—the biggest, costliest games by the biggest, wealthiest publishers—can do.
It represents enough money to balance the budget of a small country. Maybe even a medium-sized country. Accounting for years of development time, bleeding-edge machines and software, and astronomical advertising budgets, these three games, all told, are worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
None of this is new, of course. The holiday season has been the destination for the most expensive, most hyped games and consoles for just about as long as the industry has existed. But every year it feels a little more stark. It used to be that the fall release window, which nowadays stretches from mid September to early January, was a veritable deluge of titles from all corners of the market. Now, fall releases are broad but shallow. Fewer than 10 of these games come out every year, representing the combined hopes and pocketbooks of all of the industry’s major players. A Call of Duty, maybe a new Star Wars game, a couple of Nintendo entries and, if we’re lucky, some big-budget original titles. Otherwise, the fall release season looks remarkably like any other part of the year. In fact, unless you’re someone like me, who’s obligated to play all of these big games, it’s even a little dull.
What happened? Money, mostly. Most aspects of big-budget game creation has gotten more and more expensive over the past decade. Part of this is due to inflation, but the larger culprit is the publishers themselves, who have driven an ever-escalating arms race of technology and scale. These big games are bloated, immensely complicated machines now, built by hundreds of people in collaborative design efforts among multiple studios across continents. This scale creep means that fewer of these games can be economically produced, and each one has higher pressure on it to succeed, which in turn ratchets up marketing budgets to absurd amounts. In 2015, publishers spent over half a billion dollars on television advertising alone, and there’s no way that number’s gotten smaller since.
The effects of this are felt in every corner of the industry, and they’re not great. Mid-tier studios, producing modestly scaled games on modest budgets, have essentially disappeared, unable to compete with this massive products. The independent game scene, while critically successful and massively influential, is constantly facing a struggle to remain solvent, even for the most successful creators. And if scale and budget has increased, worker rights certainly haven’t. If your studio fails to produce what seems most profitable at the time, it might just get shut down—just ask Electronic Arts subsidiary Visceral Games, shuttered last week after the company decided that the Star Wars game they were developing didn’t meet EA’s projections of profitability in a shifting marketplace. Meanwhile, while costs have gotten higher, retail prices have stayed stable, capping out at $60. Which, in turn, leads to publishers pouring more money into more ways to move product, which feeds back into the entire cycle.
So year after year, when fall rolls around, there’s something unsettling about it in the videogame world. It’s increasingly sparse and loud, a reminder year after year that the industry is as large but also as troubled as it’s ever been, at least since the console market crashed in the ’80s. And when Friday rolls around, and you buy one of the three big titles—or don’t—it’s worth remembering that the system that produces those games isn’t going to be sustainable forever. Eventually, something is going to have to give. It’ll be interesting to see what that something is.