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The Astronauts: "In 2014, $60 for a game is a little insane"

adrian chmielarz people can fly bulletstorm the astronauts the vanishing of ethan carter epic games video games gaming

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#1 Andrew

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Posted 30 May 2014 - 21:01

The Astronauts: "In 2014, $60 for a game is a little insane"

Thu 29 May 2014 2:16pm GMT / 10:16am EDT / 7:16am PDT
 

Creative director Adrian Chmielarz on the lessons of Bulletstorm and the problem with price-points

 

People Can Fly's Bulletstorm was one of the great 'What If?'s of the last console generation: a brash, knowing, and consistently inventive shooter, full of personality and playful attitude at a time when so much of that genre was mired in the dust-caked hotspots of the Middle East. With the full backing of Epic Games, and Electronic Arts on publishing duties, Bulletstorm had 'breakout hit' etched onto every one of its colour-saturated pixels.

 

Adrian Chmielarz remembers it well. As creative director of People Can Fly, the launch of Bulletstorm was the culmination of an earnest effort to breathe something approaching life into a staid genre, and by doing so earn a seat at the AAA table. That process had started with the founding of the studio in 2002, had taken its first step with the unabashed and under-appreciated Painkiller in 2004, and after nearly a decade of work the decisive moment was finally at hand.

 

In early 2011, a few weeks before launch, Chmielarz received a call. The industry's motley crew of analysts had released their sales expectations for Bulletstorm: the optimists said 4 million, the pessimists went as low as 3 million.

 

Chmierlaz cracks a rueful smile. "Oh boy, oh boy - I would wish for those numbers."

 

BulletstormWheel.jpg.jpg
 

To be clear, Bulletstorm did not sell, as Chmielarz puts it, "tragically," but based on its buoyant critical reception it fell far short of its commercial potential. In the immediate aftermath Chmielarz saw EA's marketing as the culprit, reducing People Can Fly's clutch of fresh ideas to ####-jokes for dude-bros. "Things that were, in my opinion, like spices in the game became its main ingredient in the marketing," he says.

 

Three years on, however, he is able to see the bigger picture. That Bulletstorm's mishandled marketing still grates on Chmielarz is plain to see, but he now understands that there were forces at play in the industry that were beyond the control of even the biggest publishers, let alone a studio like People Can Fly.

 

"Everybody is smart in retrospect," he admits, "and looking back I do think that we were possibly among the first victims of this giant shift in gaming, where the middle-class AAA games began to die - not 'middle-class' by quality, but we didn't have ten multiplayer modes and co-op and all of that. The saying in the industry right now is, 'If you want to sell a game for $60, to the player it has to feel like $200.'

 

"Bulletstorm was a $60 game for $60. And these days $60 for a game sounds basically crazy, when there are literally hundreds of high quality games out there for a much smaller price - even on console. In 2014, $60 for a game is a little insane."

 

Chmielarz left People Can Fly in August 2012, just after Epic Games acquired the company. His new studio, The Astronauts, is in full development on its enigmatic debut project, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, and it's clear that the company's creative and commercial direction is informed by Chmielarz's experiences in the rarefied world of mega-publishers and blockbuster launches.

 

DeadSpace.jpg.jpg
 

"Look at Dead Space," he says. "I'm a big fan of Dead Space, I've read all of the books and comics and everything. But for some reason, instead of keeping expectations at 2 or 3 million copies sold and setting an appropriate budget for that, EA wanted it to be another Call of Duty - unless it sells 5 million it's dead. That could be a profitable series, but only if you're smart about the budget and the content."

 

And Chmielarz believes that this need to turn every successful IP into an cross-platform, transmedia behemoth is leaving money on the table. He understands the value of huge annualised franchises like Assassin's Creed, but in chasing that ideal the industry's biggest and most influential publishers have lost sight of how to create and maintain a mid-sized hit. I mention Paramount Pictures' Paranormal Activity series, which has now produced five films, all of them huge hits with massive audiences, all of them made for a similarly small budget. It displays a more nuanced understanding of the relationship between investment and return than most AAA game companies seem to possess.

 

"It's interesting that you mention that, because I researched the same thing and I agree with you 100 per cent," he says. "They [the film studios] don't try to turn every successful horror film into Raiders of the Lost Ark, or that level of popularity. They're very conscious about the budget, and the amount of money they make on Insidious, or The Conjuring, or Mama, it's very profitable for them. It's not amateurish and made by people who don't know what they're doing. They're just focused and they're smart and they're thriving. That's what needed to happen with Dead Space."

 

Chmielarz is quick to dismiss the notion that he has turned against the idea of AAA games, or that there is no creativity evident in the top tier of the industry. He throws up Rockstar's Red Dead Redemption as an example of just how innovative and immersive a blockbuster game can be, or Naughty Dog's The Last of Us, or even MachineGames' Wolfenstein: The New Order, which he was playing and enjoying until the early hours of the morning before our interview.

 

The problem with the AAA world is not the games; the problem is the structure of assumptions and arbitrary targets that surrounds them. The AAA industry and its audience are hung up on outdated notions of price, length and perceived value that funnel a wide variety of good ideas towards the same basic set of objectives. It's why otherwise smart and precise experiences like Bioshock Infinite and The Last of Us are brimming with combat set-pieces and multiplayer modes.

 

Gotta tick those boxes. Gotta justify that $60 price-point. And here's the rub: in a digital world, whether AAA or indie, those restrictions should be irrelevant.

 

"There is a necessity to add filler in AAA games, whether it be collectibles or one more wave of enemies," Chmielarz says. "It's unfortunate, and it's also proof that the world is insane. Because you have players demanding that games are long, but then you look at the data and see that not even half of those people see even half of the game. There's clearly something wrong there, right? 70 or 80 per cent of people never finish the game. That's insanity, right?

 

"But I think that's connected to the price, and there we go again. Lower prices would allow us to stop thinking about filler for our games, and start focusing on making the experience just right. You have to live with the fact that some players will complain no matter what, but I think that when your game is tight, and the story you want to tell is told exactly the way you want, I think the effect is way more powerful than anyone complaining that they didn't get 100 hours of entertainment for their €20.

 

"That's exactly what we're doing with The Vanishing of Ethan Carter."

 

http://www.gamesindu...a-little-insane




#2 spenser.d

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Posted 31 May 2014 - 01:21

Solid article and I agree for the most part, and wouldn't mind cheaper games :p

 

I find that, for the most part, I get my money's worth with most games that I pay $60 for, but a lot of times they're franchises that I know I'll enjoy, or things that have been highly rated.

 

And there's a reason EA keeps trying for the next COD - when they get a game like that, even few and far inbetween, the ROI is insane, even despite wasting time and effort on things that aren't the next COD (many of which they probably still make some money on). It's like TV networks (at least in the US) right now - they'll drop shows after 6 episodes if the ratings aren't there (even though it could be a hit if they let it develop longer) because they're a dime a dozen and when they do find a hit, they'll bank on the ad revenue. I definitely agree that it's insane, but that's what it is. I'm glad there's people like him doing what he's doing.



#3 neoadorable

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Posted 31 May 2014 - 01:58

Bulletstorm is a masterpiece and so will always respect what they have to say and fair points. But to be also fair I don't mind the $60 pricepoint. I don't love it as not rich, but realize people need to make money and eat. Sure, if games were $40 or equivalent in other currencies then I believe it would be fairer, but calling $60 insane is not justified, and to me sounds like inviting less appealing models like F2P etc.



#4 Enron

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Posted 31 May 2014 - 02:03

$60 works for me. Games were $60 in the 80s too, so with inflation I'd say they've gone down in price. I remember paying $80 for some Super Nintendo games.

 

When you consider you get 40 hours+ of enjoyment out of a $60 game, I think that's a bargain compared to a $15 movie that is good for 2 hours.

 

Plus it's not like these $60 games don't go down in price drastically after a couple of months.



#5 trooper11

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Posted 31 May 2014 - 15:37

One part that popped out at me was when he said that he realizes now that gamers expect a $60 game to have $200 worth of 'value'.

So he feels that gamer expectations are a little out of line sometimes, along with pricing itself.

I have certainly see some of this when people talk about multiplayer only or single player only games that still cost $60. Some people simply do not accept such games as 'complete' and refuse to pay $60 for something like that. Then when such games are priced cheaper at the start, some people write them off, thinking that lower prices mean inferior quality.

Regarding the pricing issue itself, I would love to see more games that don't hit $60, but I'm also not against that being the top price. If I feel the game has enough value, then its fine with me. I think the big thing is that developers/publishers need to think long and hard about the value of their game and price it accordingly. We don't see enough variation in pricing that should be reflecting the varied levels of value each game can offer. There are plenty of games that could start at $40, $45, and $50 and do very well.

Heck, KI is only $20 and it has done pretty darn well. Fighting games are a genre that show how varied pricing is a good thing. SF4 may be a great fighting game, but I don't see the $60 value, $40 would be a much better start.

#6 Thrackerzod

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Posted 31 May 2014 - 15:38

Those Steam sales and Humble bundles sure have spoiled us haven't they. :laugh:



#7 +Phouchg

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Posted 31 May 2014 - 15:56

I've no problem with that. I can't afford them, being a citizen of a crapsack, but I've no problem with that at all. I realize the ever-increasing investment of all kinds that's being put into them, even if the end result is not always that great... like with all things, really. Sales are nice, of course, but have, unfortunately, descended into abysmal sense of entitlement.



#8 neoadorable

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Posted 01 June 2014 - 16:34

I've no problem with that. I can't afford them, being a citizen of a crapsack, but I've no problem with that at all. I realize the ever-increasing investment of all kinds that's being put into them, even if the end result is not always that great... like with all things, really. Sales are nice, of course, but have, unfortunately, descended into abysmal sense of entitlement.

 

Very well said. And as trooper said, games are excellent value for money - for the most part.

 

$60 works for me. Games were $60 in the 80s too, so with inflation I'd say they've gone down in price. I remember paying $80 for some Super Nintendo games.

 

When you consider you get 40 hours+ of enjoyment out of a $60 game, I think that's a bargain compared to a $15 movie that is good for 2 hours.

 

Plus it's not like these $60 games don't go down in price drastically after a couple of months.

 

Precisely, other media charge us so much more. Games are just excellent value, but there have always been those that didn't want to pay while still wanting to play. I can understand, it's normal, but not something to encourage.