Raphael Van Lierop, game director on Relic Entertainment's upcoming Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine
argued that the category of the "blockbuster game" is still important to the future of the games industry, even amid the emergence of new business models.
But the importance of the blockbuster game will only last as long as the form is nurtured, rather than allowing growth to spiral out of control, he said.
At this week's Gamasutra-attended Canadian Games Conference in Vancouver, Van Lierop opened with an introduction to his own personal history with video games, from early shooters such as Konami's Gyruss
through to Ion Storm's Deus Ex
, arguing that he felt each of these games were "blockbusters in their own right" and paying tribute to the influence they had held over current game makers.
"I believe blockbuster games are the ones that push the limits," he explained, giving examples such as the original Halo
, which he called the "first truly viable FPS on a console... other than maybe Goldeneye
," that "pushed the limits and opened possibilities." He added, "If not for Halo
, we probably wouldn't have seen Xbox Live as soon as we did."
However, Van Lierop admitted that innovation in blockbuster games is inherently limited by how much money it takes to create such titles.
"I believe the greatest risk to the blockbuster video game is money," he said. "Every single important decision we make about these games is about money; how much is it going to cost me to make this game, how can we make it get noticed so we can make more money..."
Van Lierop said that this concentration on money has led to a blinkered view of the industry, with game publishers allowing game budgets to grow exponentially -- without revenues growing at a similar rate.
"Fewer and fewer [games] recover costs," he said, "and the ones that are successful are becoming bigger and bigger and cost more and more. So more financial failures force publishers to take fewer risks; to stick to safe bets and tried and true formulas."
In addition, this was causing a knock-on effect for the consumer, argued Van Lierop. "Games cost far too much. $70 is not a small investment; it's too expensive to be an impulse buy, so players won't take a chance on a franchise they don't know. Most gamers don't even know the developers who make the game; they only know the name of the game or the franchise. It's why publishers spend tens of millions of dollars to sell the name of a game."
With games costing so much, Van Lierop felt that games had placed themselves in an awkward position, where a game's perceived value was heavily related to the amount of time it takes to complete it ("like a restaurant critic who rates a meal based on how long it takes to eat it," he quipped) and yet most gamers fail to finish video games due to simply not having enough time available.
Van Lierop continued that to change the trend of games as more expensive for both developers and consumers, it required that consumer and reviewer expectations be changed to truly separate length from quality. "The budgets of games are driven by a simple equation; people times time equals money. So make games shorter," he said. "Gamers are entitled; they want to have value, but players ultimately care more about the value of the hours they spend rather than the total number."
"There's no reason consumers couldn't recognize $40 of value in a $40 game, or $20 of value in a $20 game. Game length is an outcome of what we're charging gamers; consider the Half Life
episodes. Thirty dollars for four to seven hours of that quality? That felt pretty good to me," he added. "And I don't know if anyone has played Sword and Sworcery
, but that was an awesome short game for just $2.99."
Inversely, Van Lierop felt that for the biggest blockbusters, it would be entirely valid for them to cost more. "They could probably charge a hundred dollars for the next GTA
; these games are like the 3D IMAX premieres of our medium."
Van Lierop also considered that games such as the Modern Warfare
series could be "carved up" so players can buy only the part they want, be it the single or multiplayer portions. "I'm not talking about making the game episodic," he said, "simply taking the whole thing and breaking it into pieces. iTunes changed the way I buy music for the better, because I buy more music than before because I can buy the specific songs I like, I don't have to buy a the albums they're on."