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High end vs next gen: how creators will survive "the death of triple-A"

Bioshock and Aliens developers talk changing the rules of the publishing game

There's been a lot of uproar about the escalating risks of console games publishing over the past six months, a lot of talk about the "death" of triple A, of boxed videogames, and of consoles full stop. The hubbub far outweighs the reality, doubtless - key franchises like Assassin's Creed, FIFA, Call of Duty continue to sell well, in spite of hectic doom-gloom pronouncements - but these are clearly serious times for the industry. Caught between market fatigue and mountainous development costs, publishers are busily consolidating veteran teams out of existence.

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Barely a week goes by without news of a round of layoffs, or of a plummeting stock price, or of the departure of a key creative to work in mobile or browser development. The markets are awash with uncertainty. Investors either hold fast to major firms and their waning IPs, or compete for a share of expanding sectors that have yet to turn equivalent profits. Much has been said on the subject in glassily upbeat terms by analysts, "spokespersons", CEOs and producers, but it's not till I speak to Bioshock Infinite's level designer Shawn Elliott that the media-trained mask slips, and a little of the underlying strain bubbles through.

I ask Elliott what he makes of Epic technology boss Tim Sweeney's claim that next generation games will cost twice as much to develop - one of the more conservative predictions, would you believe. He sighs and sags, eyes roaming the carpet. "It's... I guess... for guys at my level it's... the fear is probably that which everyone has. You see these notices that studios that have been around for a long time and have produced some, like, excellent games, you know, that are either consolidating or are just being closed outright.

"And sure, it's hard not to be afraid that the future doesn't hold out a place for you but... it's a big gamble, right?" Elliott goes on, still studying the carpet. "There's no other way to phrase it. Similar to Hollywood, the stakes just kept getting higher and higher."

A few numbers to put all this in context. Estimates for how much boxed console games currently cost to develop range from the $20 million average given by EA Casual boss Harvey Elliott (as of 2008), to the whopping £50-£80 million figure, including marketing costs, proposed by Peter Molyneux last year. Pick a major franchise at random, and you'll probably notice a dramatic rise in expenditure - Halo 4's total budget, for instance, reportedly exceeds even the $60 million Microsoft spent on the development and marketing of Halo 3, the franchise's debut on Xbox 360.

Partly as a consequence, the amount the average game needs to sell to break even has soared - where once a million sales worldwide would have been an incredible achievement, publishers now expect to haul in at least three or four times as many purchases. Hence, among other things, the popularity of pre-order incentives like those dubious "limited editions", and that damaging obsession with countering pirates and demonising the pre-owned market.

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The cost of upgrading to next gen could be, for many companies, the final, cast-iron straw. "Where games are at now - the big budget games - you have the potential to be extraordinarily and unpredictably successful," Elliott goes on. "But the risk, the bet you're taking is that you can also fail utterly. It's like playing at an extremely high stakes table, where the stakes are bigger than anyone knows - the stakes as far as the losing are known because it's as much as you've put in to it, but the stakes are far as success is concerned are far less of a known quantity.

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