No Man’s Sky: The Triple-A Price Tag Debate.

Okay, I think we need to bust a myth before I talk about this. So hold on, this one is going to hurt…


 

Cling to a loved one when I tell you that No Man’s Sky is not an indie game.

It really isn’t – indie, short for “independent” or “free from outside control; not subject to another’s authority” to utilise the dictionary definition, is a loose term we throw about with a reckless abandon to the point that the terminology itself is itself free from any meaningful weight; to be “indie” is to eschew outside influence and control, to take control of ones own destiny and do things yourself. Very few games we term today as “indie” are actually independently made; small developers use publishers to get around gated costs and rulesets for online stores like Steam, small publishers are at the behest often of larger organisations and even many crowdfunded projects ultimately have to answer to their backers – you and me. There is no “independence” involved in any of this – they are reliant on outside forces to support them, fund them and ultimately get their product noticed enough to appear on shelves and in your online stores. Very, very few games today are truly “indie” in that regard – only giving the superficial surface level impression of independence.

No Man’s Sky is a Triple-A title that Sony has had more than a little influence in shaping; there has been no real secret that money has changed hands, nor that Sony has provided other resources in exchange for console exclusivity. For all intents and purposes, No Man’s Sky is about as indie a game as Bloodborne, or The Order: 1886 – it’s a project Sony has been watching over and nurturing for some years now. Perhaps it began as an independent project; but as the scale grew, and the tools needed became ever more complex and harder to come by, it became evident that controlling ones own destiny in such a manner was a foolhardy plan – better to have oversight from the wisdom of experience than to stumble blindly in the dark, right? For all the complaints of No Man’s Sky being an “expensive indie game”, the one word that misleads in the conversation is “indie” – no, it’s just an expensive game. Drop the justification and open your eyes. This isn’t being cruel – it’s being honest, something we struggle with sometimes.

That said, twist this another way and there’s a worthwhile discussion to be had.

Dark Souls 2 saw me sink almost 250 hours into it. But it was launched at the same price as The Order: 1886, a game you could in theory finish in a single day and still have enough time left over to do other things. Which of these things is “more” triple-A than the other? A game that was graphically and technically a little rough around the edges but came with an obscene amount of content and replayability – or a graphically polished story with a running time of two or three Hollywood-grade movies? The content does not matter, clearly.

I’ve mentioned before that oftentimes the cost of a video game isn’t always reflective of its content, more of its budget – a game which was created in a persons spare time over the course of a few years can sell for £10 a pop and be profitable without much of an issue. Likewise, a massive multi-million dollar budget will invariably need to sell for more to make back the development costs. Even if both games had an average play time of 10 hours, it’s not the content that’s the issue here – it’s the amount it cost to make which dictates the price point needed to make sensible returns on your average investment. The greater the budget, the greater the price tag.

We throw around Triple-A, but as I’ve alluded to before, there’s nothing AAA about “Triple-A” Videogames; in financial terms, Triple-A denotes a safe investment which is likely to see a return. The less likely you are to see a profit on your investment, the weaker the grade you are assigned, and many, MANY games today are anything close to safe investments. In an industry straining at the edges to get content out in a relatively finished format because of outside forces, more and more traditionally safer video game genres and franchises are crashing and burning; Batman, Assassin’s Creed, Call of Duty to a degree, Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat – names which have stood the test of time have this generation been subject to rampant misuse and consumer revolt. There is no longer any safe space for these names – once all but guaranteed to be massive hits, now mired in controversy and seeing people demanding refunds.

But whilst this upper-echelon tier of the industry is in a death spiral, the lower end is experiencing a true renaissance.

Already this year I’ve been captivated by Stardew Valley and Darkest Dungeon – fantastic games, different in tone and feel but both worthy purchases that demolished the midnight hours. Over the years I’ve sunk a good 200+ hours into The Binding of Isaac, sung the praises of Ziggurat, Hand of Fate, Gunpoint, To The Moon, FTL, Recettear and many more games. These are well crafted video games tackling different genres with different takes and approaches, but all have been worthwhile purchases – sure, this tier is still full of garbage, but there’s a larger probability you’ll hit on something worth your while when rummaging around.

This is good for the consumer; there is a greater probability you’ll find something cheap and worthwhile in the lower tier, whilst the expensive upper tiers continue to throw money around like it’s going out of fashion and ultimately only seem to be creating a real mess. For the most part, cheaper games are becoming safer investments – a lower entry point, often coupled with lower developmental costs and overheads, makes it better for all concerned parties. Is it really a surprise that big console releases are seeing fewer Box Office period sales as a result? Consumers are being burned by these big-budget behemoths that put visual flair and fancy-pants effects higher than engaging and entertaining their target demographic. No-one wants to pay £50 to watch a developer rub one out in your living room, after all. Internet porn is so much better – and cheaper.

I don’t believe there is anything wrong with having multiple pricing tiers in the games industry; but perhaps, just perhaps, we need better names for them. Bigger-budget titles can have a place in our living rooms; Dark Souls 3 is out next month and I am ALL OVER THAT MESS. Oh, a reminder that I have one working eye and platinumed Bloodborne and Dark Souls 2: Scholar of the First Sin in this state. Ahem. I just thought you’d like to know that again. Big budget games can and should have a place; but it might be time we reminded this Upper Tier of the market that in their hubris to do “more”, they’ve been consistently doing much, much less than they used to. Middle-market is perfectly fine; Splatoon demonstrated that there’s a vibrant and healthy middle market waiting for exploitation. And the Budget Tier can continue to turn out awesome games when it feels like it can.

Will No Man’s Sky be a good upper-tier game? It might be, and I’d be thrilled if it was another upper-tier game with polish, panache and 40+ hours of content – we need more of that in the upper-tier; an example to hold against the likes of The Order: 1886 and its ilk. There’s no point comparing, say, a game like The Binding of Isaac with Ultra Street Fighter 4; they inhabit different tiers of the market, and it’s just a silly thing to do. What you need is to hold like against like; budget against budget, middle market against middle market and big budget against big budget. This is the only way I can think of to inspire the upper tier to do better.

Not all companies are useless and greedy; support those that deserve it. No Man’s Sky is a big-budget game with a big-budget price tag. That’s just how it is. So rather than judge it on meaningless tags and go off on pointless tirades, how about we ask the simple question; is it better than other games being offered in that price bracket?

If it is – then really, your argument is rather invalid, no?

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2 Responses to “No Man’s Sky: The Triple-A Price Tag Debate.”

  1. Danwen Huang says:

    I know a PHD student in my uni who’s met the people from Hello Games that were working on this even while in their hotel rooms at a conference. So whilst the team maybe indie size I think that with the amount of work put into it and the additional money that’s probably going to Sony’s marketing etc, it’s a reasonable price tag. But it really depends on if the buyers think it’s worth their money.

    I think the game is looking to be amazing so will be saving up for the price. 🙂

    • Kami says:

      Indeed, it does look rather good. I just accept it’s a bigger-budget game which inherently comes with a bigger-budget price tag. What’s the point of a multi-million dollar/pound budget when you can only charge £15/$20 a pop? You’re guaranteed to lose money on your project at that point, and no-one will invest in a project that is clearly going to lose money. That and it’s likely that’ll stain Hello Games reputation as well, making it that much harder in future to get the money they will need.

      I may get it; I may not. It depends if Dark Souls 3 still has its nefarious claws in me. But I just found the argument that it’s “too expensive for an indie game” kind of rang hollow. It’s clear it’s not an expressly “indie” game; and there’s nothing wrong with that, either.

      We really do need better names for market tiers, though.

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