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Jade Raymond's been thinking about the future of AAA games
Jade Raymond's been thinking about the future of AAA games
March 29, 2013 | By Kris Graft

March 29, 2013 | By Kris Graft
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    24 comments
More: Console/PC, Design, Business/Marketing, GDC



Jade Raymond has worked on some of the biggest "triple-A" video game franchises, most famously as a producer on the Assassin's Creed series. Now the managing director of 300-person Ubisoft Toronto, she's working on a brand with similar weight in Splinter Cell Blacklist.

But as the costs for such huge games continues to grow, what's the future for triple-A? Is it all just about making games that are infinitely bigger and more expensive?

"No, no. It's got to stop," Raymond told us at GDC 2013. "To give you an overly-simplified answer, I do think games and franchises need to include more user content. And by user content, I don't mean that all of a sudden, every game is going to have a level builder, because not everyone wants to sit down and build a level. That's too complicated.

"But by user content, you can think of Dark Souls, and how your game is affected by other people who are playing," she added. "In what ways can the user impact the experience? I think that's what's going to drive hits, but also at the extreme end, it's going to enable us to continue to create interesting content without always having such huge costs associated with it. To me, that's the key. What I think people want is their own custom experience, in anything."

Enabling users to create content is a trend across all kinds of industries, from news sites that run user-contributed articles to services like Yelp that rely on user ratings and commentary.

In the game industry, Valve has been one of the most outspoken proponents of user-generated content, letting players make their own virtual items, sell them on a digital storefront and giving the creators a cut of the sales. Valve boss Gabe Newell also recently said that Steam storefronts should be user-generated content, and that there are plans to allow players to create and curate their own storefronts.

"I love a lot of the stuff they're doing over at Valve in terms of user-generated content. It seems to be a smart way to go about it," said Raymond. "With virtual hats -- who would've thought. It's a smart way to have your community engaged. And those people are spending more money, but they don't feel that they're being milked.

"That's really the key -- that when you're considering business models for your game, that you're adding value."

Raymond suggested that Ubisoft's own upcoming games will increasingly focus on the players and allow them to interact and create in new ways. "Some of those ideas, we're fitting into Splinter Cell Black List, which we're working on now," she said. "I think that ability to have your ideas spread and for you to see other peoples' experiences and have an effect other peoples' play styles [is important].

"If we do it intelligently, we could have a lot more content with what other people are creating. They're making [the game] more interesting for each other, and also gratifying themselves."

The bottom line is that game developers shouldn't be the only ones who are expressing themselves with video games.

"It's nice to hear a game developer's idea of a grand vision, but I honestly don't think it's about our creative vision so much," Raymond said. "It's about the gamer's vision. It has to be more about how I'm allowing this to become the player's brand."


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Comments


Jed Hubic
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I remember in the 90s as a kid and even the early 2000s where content and tools for players was just expected. Seeing how many old games like Freespace 2 and Warhammer Dark Omen still have player created content thriving , shows me that maybe the industry is just circling back rather than going into new territory. I also fail to believe when we have AAA games coming out annually that a company like Ubisoft will legitimately want user driven content beyond a year, maybe a curated experience but I doubt a true freedom given to the community. I could be wrong or even misreading the article, but I must say I'm a bit skeptical.

Jed Hubic
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Hey Michale, now don't quote me on the exact extent of customization because I guess it's subjective but off the top:

Quake
Doom
Neverwinter
Interstate 76
Heavy Gear
Warcraft 2
Starcraft
Total War
Freespace
Warhammer Dark Omen
Populous The Beginning
Homeworld
Battle Isle games
Mechwarrior
Jedi Knight
Half Life

I'm sure there's many more, and many didn't have extremely explicit content creation tools but they existed. Basically, community support was expected at that point in time, and I'm kind of leery when it's this big high level decision to make community content from a publisher level as opposed to something intrinsic on the developer level. Maybe I'm talking crap though???

wes bogdan
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There has to be series carryover where a weapon,jtem or gear can be used in at least that series future releases otherwise why bother as it's trapped in last year's model and just as useless.

Other idea's would be offering a $19.99 New game but only including 1/3rd of the $59 game making the rest $15 dlc x2 to finish the game but gamers are likely to find this as appealing as divix for dvd.

With new consoles comes New opportunity to simply include default as the sole CONTROL scheme while the psn /xbl profile in tanxum with ps4 and Xbox next would allow FULL CUSTOMIZATION like in the new DMC though there would also be sticks as dmc allowed me to flip EVERYTHING but forgot about the analog sticks so it's almost perfected custom scheme IS useless without look as left and move as right.

Imagine if between the system and PROFILE i could create,save as my default and BE DONE secure that all i need to do IS NOW play anything newer again unable to play which would also have the effect of not being able to use/need to buy said games.

I start with inverted SOUTHPAW but transfer all face button functions to THE dpad and dpad functions to the face buttons also i keep zooming on the freelook side and Fire on the walk side and prefer toggle to hold all of which can be filed,saved and moving on to what's important gaming.

While inverted aim is great in anything from mario,zelda,metroid,halo,gears,gow,kz and really any 1st,3rd person game it must have an exception for twin stick games inverted flight or shooting would cripple stardust or any game like it.

There could still be a huge backlash for ps3,360 games and pads not being supported when even as the nextboxes ship your vast game collections are now so much junk...bioshock,halo 4,borderlands 2,uncharted 3 all unplayable not a great start...unless we suddenly have super fast wireless and it's FULLY data cap free sold for a song so we could stream our old games day 1.

Joey Viner
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I think the $20-initial cost + extra for DLC is an excellent idea. This lets you only spend $20 on games that aren't that great, lets you give more non-discounted/direct money to games that deserve it, and solves the used games "problem" for publishers. I assume it'd also mean less DLC costs overall for the user since they can just add it to the main game instead of having DLC campaign additions a month later to avoid people trading in games. Or, it could mean more DLC revenue for publishers since people would be more accustomed to buying it and would give it more of a chance.

Jonathan Murphy
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The entire landscape is going to change fast. Cliffy B and many others saw it. The real money is on the world stage at $1-$20. I'd also like them to throw out the term AAA. It's a poisonous word that allowed the price to go from $40-$50, then $50-$60, then $60-Collectors Editions, DLC, and shameless over milking of fans. I don't care if 1 person or 100,000 people made a game. If it's fun and affordable that's all that should matter. After all we sell entertainment.

Joe Saputo
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I've been making games for years, for people to play just b.c it was fun, I made an online game using other people software and it was free to play and a few hundred people played it, and I made a Promise that I would make the game again,so I'm here 24/7 having slim to no life making a game that is based around the core systems I will need to make the Game I once made before but this time with all my own programs and Unity by my side. and I will do this for fun, even if i do make some money with the final product that's just to pay the bills to keep on making game, not to get rich, but to do what I love,and to give people what they want and for cheap.I love triple A games, but I hate the price and I hate the publishers, if I wanted to work for Activision which one of there offices is only 30 mins from me I cant b.c I didn't go to school for it,the industry is too locked up and way to much about making millions, i miss the days when as a kid I could take my birthday money or x-mass money and come home with 2 or even 3 games. I'm a HS drop out just doing what I love, and making people happy and giving them what they want, I'm a Gamer as well as a video game Maker, and that is what we all need to remember make something we will love and enjoy playing, don't just make what will make you money,so with this said you make the game you know you'd love and what you know what your fans would love, now give them the ability to add more to it, and not just a level editor b.c we all know as game devs. not all people want to do that,but give them more stuff to do or add things that effect and change game play, the game doesn't have to be huge,you could give me a 100x100 pixel room in a game, and if there is multiple things to do in it,and everything I do changes the outcome and gives me something different to do of course I'll be happy and play for a long time. So with all this in mind, remember it's not about the Company's, it's about the Fans without the fans your billion dollar or one dollar company, how ever much it's worth is nothing. Fans(Gamers) are what makes this all worth it.
So Jade Raymond you keep on kicking ass and make these so called AAA company's make there games worth the money.

Idris Z
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I think it's great that you enjoy making game because it's fun, and it's nice to see people enjoy their work.

one thing you didn't realize is that game price never increase since 90s, the average price of a game on NES or SNES was $50, if you factor in inflation, the game price actually dropped, since $50 back then is around $90 now.

Nick Harris
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I also think it's great that you are doing it because it's fun. I like playing games, analysing what makes one more fun than another, writing about them and I enjoy the puzzle solving abilities required by programming. The very fact that you get visual feedback from your code rather than some dry database table update makes debugging immediate and responsive, you can see that because something is inverted that you have misunderstood a coordinate system and need a minus before some y variable. You can hear when the music and sound effects are messed up and with experience diagnose the fault from the symptom and have the remedy in mind as you immediately head for the code you guess is responsible. Testing everything after each minor change helps you limit bugs to the last thing you modified or extended and it is a great feeling to build an AI and breathe life into a new digital creature. More fun I would say than actually playing most modern cinematic adventures.

I've been working on a game as a hobby for quite some time and I realised that procedural generation would be needed to create scalable textures on things and provide street layouts for cities on fractal landscapes on planets too numerous to build by hand. Parameters would be tuned by dint of their geographical and spatial location so that the architecture and flora was varied depending upon where you were. However, I soon realized that this wouldn't be a complete solution if I didn't provide a Forge-like editor in which prefabricated objects could be phased into one another and decorated with logos, graffiti, scratches and grime with surfaces deformed by collisions, blast damage and bullet holes in war-torn areas whilst hung with neon signs and ornate tapestries in peaceful ones. This 'kitbashed' User-Generated Content would exist in a big reusable library, allowing the crafting of custom balanced multiplayer maps that would then be placed by the procedural generator at appropriate locations linked to strategic locations. Hence, a refinery may be an important installation for military forces to capture, but its location would be determined algorithmically and its design would be an agglomeration of several smaller interlocking parts, which in turn would be an assemblage of kitbashed prefabs, which in turn would dress themselves up by referencing a library of artwork - much of which, like the 3D neon signs could be entirely procedurally generated from the text, to the language used, to the chosen style of "font" on which the neon tubes were based, to the colours used and how they blinked, dynamically changing the illumination of their surroundings.

I feel that this approach provides the limitless open world players seek to explore making it important to provide a set of controls that give them superior articulacy of expression than any single genre currently provides, but I also am aware that an over reliance on algorithms will create places without character and combat zones that lack challenge or proper balance.

Jade Raymond may want to think about allowing her customers to create not only multiplayer maps, but new single/coop missions for them (or the main island shipped with the game). The editor would need to know where it could spawn enemies out-of-sight inside buildings if you were outdoors, or outside if you were inside and then have them patrol user-defined zones, rather than just rush you. The smarter the AI could be, as in F.E.A.R. the better and I would prefer that the power of the next generation were put towards deep emergent systems of varied gameplay rather than pretty visual effects that have no impact on how you play. It would increase the longevity of the game if it had a Community Hub where multiplayer and campaign maps could be uploaded and rated. A collection of stock motivations for completing objectives could be written by Ubisoft to let their players dress up their creations. Ultimately, they would be in the business of selling a toy, like LEGO, rather than a very expensive DVD (semi-interactive) adventure movie. It isn't important that every player is a creator provided that they download some of the highest rated UGC when they have completed the main game.

Does this hurt sales of Ubisoft's sequels? Well, in Assassin's Creed the time and setting change so all the art assets are different, so you are paying for different LEGO bricks to build with. A new Far Cry could interoperate with all the UGC of past island adventures, but revamp their appearance with a refined engine, smarter AI and new weapons.

Jonathan Murphy
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DVDs are $20, $5, hell sometimes they'll throw them at you for $1! Games used to be like that. The rabid amount of store competition. Then came the term AAA. Then came Gamestop, an over abundance of middlemen, outsourcing, lengthy crunch times, the seagull(they crap on everything & leave) CEOs. But this wasn't permanent.

To just cite the same old excuses of inflation, things were smaller, we were still growing. They are excuses. This is a road of evolution, a road paved by consumers, and creators. We have begun to yell, and we're yelling louder. More can hear us, and more will hear us. We want a new direction, we'll make that new direction.

Amir Sharar
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Jade said: "...it's going to enable us to continue to create interesting content without always having such huge costs associated with it."

That is true, but I would have also figured that procedurally generated levels/objectives/powerups would have been the most obvious path towards keeping costs down for new content and at the same time providing players an enormous amount of content.

Take these principles and apply them to Assassin's Creed, and you can see the potential. In fact both AC and Splinter Cell are known for their incredibly responsive player controls (where controlling the character in his environment is fun in and of itself), that applying randomly generated sandboxes for those titles would make them still enjoyable experiences.

Still, it's interesting to hear what she's said, as it's not the most obvious route and includes the fact that our single-player gaming is far more social than it's been in the past.

Steven An
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That's a pretty interesting idea. Most procedural generation games that are successful are rogue-likes, such as Spelunky and Binding of Isaac. Spending millions of dollars on a rogue-like is a little unheard of (Diablo is not a rogue-like in the same way), so I don't expect the AAA industry to catch on to this.

Do you know of any successful (in terms of design, not business) pro-gen'd games that are not rogue-likes?

Also, we haven't seen any pro-gen'd games that have the same level of visual fidelity as most AAA games. Again, the industry is used to using screenshots and videos to sell games, because marketing game play is difficult to do at the scales that they need. Although, Minecraft has shown that you can be ridiculously successful even with low-fi visuals just through word of mouth, so perhaps that will change things a bit. 2013 should be interesting, I hope!

Michael Wenk
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Its good to see an article where a developer addresses this question. Its sad to see the same old "emergent gameplay" argument. While that may work in some cases, its not a global solution, especially for a AAA game. If I have to pay 60$ for a game, I want it to be a bit more deep than that. If its not, well its likely I won't buy from the same developer/publisher again.

I don't know what the solution is. But I do know that if EG is really the best that can be done, I truly wonder if AAA games will exist in a few years.

Erin OConnor
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I am not sure what the industry is expecting.

I mean look at Tomb Raider. Sold over 3 million units and they "failed to meet expectations".
I seem to recall moving over 1 million units to be good.

It also seems like the industry is too busy trying to cash in on these "franchises" while they can. I mean trailers for Battlefield 4 already...

Does a publisher see user created content as a lost opportunity to make money?
(I think they do, hence the proliferation of DLC for simple things like re-textures)
I am sure there is an executive out there that has nothing but contempt for DOTA2. I mean users creating and selling additional content?

PS. My toaster has more functionality than U-Play does.

Jed Hubic
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Agreed totally Erin.

I fail to see how you build huge community of generated content when a sequel's always around the corner, and not to mention servers being closed down, etc.

Tim Borquez
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Lots of content seems great but it can easily get really generic and boring when the "content" was built using in-game tools. Or when the content is poorly made as it wasn't hand crafted by professionals. That idea of influencing other people's games like Dark Souls is much more interesting to me. I'd love to play a game where everyone's content is greatly influenced by each other's game automatically.

Eric Schwarz
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How about instead of relying on employing 1000 uncredited Chinese/Indian workers to create art assets, we instead start doing stuff like using public libraries of royalty and royalty-free assets that we simply use across all games? It's far cheaper, it opens a new market for freelance artists, the best quality stuff will most likely rise to the top, and it gives artists and designers time to focus on the stuff that matters rather than making the 30th permutation of "crunched up soda can" needed for the title.

Also, how about using far more prefabs? Instead of placing shelves down and then putting all the individual objects on each and every shelf, why not have a system that simply selects props to place on the shelves randomly so that you can save yourself tons of time on inconsequential stuff while still achieving the exact same results? Same goes for stuff like placing down tables and chairs (why place 10 separate objects when you can place 10 with one click), buildings (set of standard exterior pieces that easily snap to each other), detail textures and decals (check a "rust" button to overlay rust onto a big metal object) and so on. I know Bethesda had a guy on Fallout 3/Oblivion/etc. whose job was solely to put objects on all the shelves and tables in the game world; I'd be surprised if he didn't go insane doing that job.

I'm not saying Ubisoft don't already do this sort of thing, but this sort of improved efficiency is one way you can continue to make triple-A titles viable.

Eric Schwarz
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@Michale Karzay

If those assets look cheap or repetitive between games then obviously there aren't enough of them or they aren't good enough. The point is to do this for assets nobody is really going to notice it or care about. Rocks, plants, trees, ground textures, building and architecture props, that sort of thing which is always going to look similar across games is most viable for such things.

Obviously I'm not talking character models or any clear, definite stuff people are bound to pay attention to or consciously recognize (i.e. a soda can with a specific label on it). And even if that's the case, it's still likely faster and cheaper to go into Photoshop and recolor a texture than to make a new one from scratch.

90% of game environment textures are taken from stock assets pulled direct from Google and sites like CGTextures.com, all tweaked very slightly differently. I don't see anyone complaining about those. And it's usually textures that are the biggest giveaway - what about particle effects and untextured models?

Nick Harris
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@Eric Schwarz

I understand that the forests in Oblivion were procedurally generated:

http://previews.teamxbox.com/xbox-360/1035/The-Elder-Scrolls-IV-O
blivion/p2/

However, I don't think that they are created just-in-time as the player visits each new area where the forest always looks the same because it is algorithmically derived from the same "seed" which is dependent upon that specific coordinate location as well as being impossible to damage. Although, I think Far Cry 2 let you burn trees and it would remember their damage as stuff you had recently done and they would stay that way if you returned to the area, but over time they would regenerate back to conform to their procedurally generated value so as to reduce the burden of storage. Here's a video of one being shot:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4oOOY47z98M

Now, taking your example of a soda can it may be possible to build an algorithm that knows how to decorate products so that they seem appealing, traditional, edgy, futuristic or simply refreshing. A bunch of sliders, like you might get to manipulate face-shapes at the beginning of Skyrim, would control the balance of these factors and artists could just play with these and supply the made-up name of the product, rather than labour over generic graphic design for some inconsequential object that was likely only to appear empty and crushed in a dark alley.

Provided that some artwork remains hand-made with due care and attention being employed to let that object allude to a wider contextual offscreen history and make the player feel that they are in a world that has been concieved with real background depth, then I think it's okay. I think it is similar to the chorus line staying in the background whilst the showgirls do their stuff 'front of stage', enough of the audience are transfixed by being close to their beauty that they fail to notice that the average looking girls kicking their legs at the rear of the stage are just making up the numbers - e.g. make an effort over stuff you pick up, activate, or open as you will naturally spend more time looking at its inherent quality (or lack thereof) as you are momentarily paused as you perform some action with it.

Eric Schwarz
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@Nick Harris

Yep, I know exactly what you mean. Although minor correction, Oblivion trees were SpeedTree and not placed procedurally - grass, however, was placed based on terrain type and was slightly different every time you loaded the game up because it was "created" in a radius around the player. Far Cry 2 meanwhile did not "regenerate" trees over time but simply "forgot" everything that happened once the player left an area, including defeated enemies and destruction caused, due to console memory limitations.

TC Weidner
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I personally think the industry needs to concentrate on creating easier to use and more versatile tools for game creation as Eric mentions above.. Its certainly moving in the right direction, but too often it seems companies want to recreate the wheel and in doing so create huge cost and budget problems for themselves.

Marc Schaerer
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Out of my view, the industry finally has to return to the path where long living titles are their focus, not yearly updates and killing the previous generation (a discipline where especially EA and Ubisoft excel in when it comes to shut down servers for games that rely on them) within such unrealistic, absurd timeframes.
With the pace they do that, there is even a chance that they over time will get banned from professional esports platforms because no sport gets fucked up yearly to the degree these developers mess with their playerbase and games and no sponser will back up such sports for every if their teams fall apart on a yearly base.

Also what these teams seem to forget and miss is that neither Epics Unreal nor Valves HalfLife got where they are now with that path, they built up communities and over time whole ecosystems. And I doubt we need to even name Blizzard in this whole mix as they seem to be the only ones who really understood that whole materia (its thanks to them that we have DOTA and TD and the resulting blends as genres as SC and WC3 brought them to life).

As such I agree: publishers like EA and Ubisoft simply DO NOT WANT an ecosystem around their game nor a long term existance. They want that money now and replace it as soon as possible with the next generation and as little 'old stuff reusable as possible' to sell all the content once again (I think Sims is a prime example of that) and I am really looking forward to see what it will need to make them change back to become business that want to be part of the gaming culture and expand it once again instead of being the 'wallstreet brokers' of gaming.

Alex Leighton
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I think part of the problem is that shareholders always want to see something new, even if there's no valid reason to make a new thing. Kind of like car manufacturers adding a new cup holder and an option for a different colored stitching because admitting that the 2013 is exactly the same as the 2012 would just be unacceptable, because then people would say "Well fuck, there's a bunch of 2012s out in the back of the lot and they cost 5 grand less, give me one of those." But no, there's a new cup holder, or a new map for multiplayer, or now the game has tower defense, and to get it you have to upgrade. But wait, there's more! If you don't upgrade within 3 years, your cupholder will squeeze any beverage you try to put in it until it explodes in your face. Here's a website with a countdown clock so you know when you need to buy a new car.

Wolf Wozniak
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Make AA or A games. Those are easier to make, and end up more heartfelt anyway. :D

Michael O'Hair
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I think all this needs is
something completely new
something completely new
something completely new
something completely new
...


none
 
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