Right now, the games industry is behaving like Breaking Bad's unbalanced protagonist Walter White. It represents a front of comfortable conformity and normality, but in reality, everything is chaos and fear and mind-crunching risk.
Games appear on the market with the regularity of school bells, predictable parcels of entertainment that, mostly, do their dual jobs of entertaining consumers and creating profits with as little fuss and drama as possible.
But the game industry also operates a secret meth lab. It's called the next generation consoles -- and in this hot environment, the industry is cooking the future survival of triple-A, "hardcore" games.
The risks are terrific. More than ever, the console game business is facing brutal competitors. The industry's growth relies on terms like "digital," "personal," "free." It's easy to see how all of these are in diametric opposition to games' core competence of highly priced, mass-market packaged goods.
And the cost of creating games for this older model becomes ever-more fearsome. Even the most conservative estimates, trotted out by games publishers for the ears of concerned investors, put average costs for the next generation at 25 percent higher than current costs.
And so, leaving DLC and subscriptions models aside for a moment, the console games of five years time will need to sell 25 percent more copies at current prices than they do presently. This puts a great deal of pressure on both the hardware companies, which must deliver an appropriately fertile installed base, and the games-makers, who must create ever-more spectacular experiences while confirming, like the Hollywood blockbuster model, to a fairly limited range of genres.
More than ever before, this jump to the next generation represents a risk that could destroy triple-A games as we know it.
Ubisoft chief Yves Guillemot recently told Gamasutra that games companies are impatient for the next generation to begin. "It's a lot less risky for us to create new IPs and new products when we're in the beginning of a new generation," he said. "Our customers are very open to new things. Our customers are reopening their minds -- and they are really going after what's best. ... At the end of a console generation, they want new stuff, but they don't buy new stuff as much. They know their friends will play Call of Duty or Assassin's Creed so they go for that. So the end of a cycle is very difficult."
But while the "shiny new consoles = tasty new IP" models of the past offer a rosy promise, the costs involved today are vastly more impressive than they were in 2006 or 2000 or 1995. And the competition, cheap downloadable games or free adventures, are much more nimble, skilled and formidable.
Certainly, the people who are seeking to make inroads into triple-A packaged games see risk and expense as huge drags on the creativity of triple-A games.
Edmund McMillen, creator of The Binding of Isaac and Super Meat Boy said, "Triple-A games cost as much as studios want them to cost. It's all about how much money they want to waste on celebrity voice actors, over-the-top cut scenes and tons and tons of talent. It's very possible to make a small triple-A game that does amazing and costs very little, but I think most people view triple-A as bloated story-driven RPGs and crazy shooters with famous actors."
He added, "The consequences for game developers who aren't part of this group of people is simple, it's easier now for smaller teams to make more innovative projects and take bigger risks than these large budget games. It's becoming more and more polarized as more money is at risk."
Jenova Chen of thatgamecompany pulled a huge hit this year with PS3 downloadable short Journey. He points out that triple-A packaged games just don't offer up any commercial surprises. "I haven't worked on a real triple-A game from the beginning to finish. But my opinion is that if you look at the games that really became overnight successes in the past two years, almost none of them are original triple-A titles."
Richard Garriott has worked on big games -- namely Ultima -- but, following his 2008 journey to space and the failure of big-budget MMO Tabula Rasa, he's focused now on the free-to-play social market with Portalarium and its much-anticipated "Ultimate RPG."
He's not even convinced the next-generation hardware proposition is powerful enough to sustain an ecosystem big enough to support games that cost $30 million to $100 million to produce. "Personally I am a little worried about how consoles will survive when there's so much computational power either in the tablet or the screen or the cloud behind it. I'm not sure there's a need for a console in the middle."
He added, "That being said, one of the things about all of this next-generation hardware is that there's more moving pieces on the inside. In other words, to grant more capabilities, they're all cramming more pieces of capability inside the box. And that requires fundamentally more specialists, more code base in order to take advantage of that power. And that's why, ultimately, the cost will continue to go up. Even with the advantages of engine development, game development is still going to cost more and more in time and personnel."
But he says that there will always be consumers who wants a graphically rich, adrenaline-pumping experiences, and they will keep coming back for more, in sufficient numbers and spending enough money to keep disaster at bay, and this offers some consolation to triple-A developers very much invested in the future of their particular sector of the business.
Live in our world
One of these games that promises a lush triple-A experience is Far Cry 3. Dan Hay, the game's producer explained, "The whole concept is to take you out of your personal life, take you out of your personal experience, and not only escape, but in some cases almost be forced to escape and spend some time with us. We want to make sure that you have the opportunity to live in our world. The natural evolution for us is to make sure that you can. That you're going to have that experience and live that adventure. That, for me, is the real focus of making sure that the game is calling to you and that experience is something you want to imbibe in all the time."
In a sense, this is what games do, even when they are not apparently offering anything particularly new. Call of Duty is a game about shooting people, and yet it does just enough each year to persuade tens of millions of people to come back for more. Same with the sports franchises. Skyrim offers a grandeur and sweep that just cannot be replicated with anything other than large numbers of artists and coders working according to a grand plan for many years.
The future of triple-A games will likely be one of predictability and carefully considered choices made by cautious corporations. Like Walter White, chemistry teacher, the games industry will maintain an air of equilibrium. But the threat of imminent destruction will never quite disappear.
Colin Campbell is a games journalist living in Santa Cruz, CA. He writes mostly for IGN. You can follow him on Twitter @colincampbellx