Time passes, ambition grows, the need to keep up with the current standard of graphics and sound is ever-present and all of these things force development costs ever higher, to say nothing of licensing fees and all the other miscellaneous factors that affect the price of making a game in the modern era. These costs have risen exponentially since the inception of this generation with reports pegging Gran Turismo 5 at $80 million, Grand Theft Auto IV at $100 million and Modern Warfare 3 in excess of $200 million. Six years ago, we would hardly have considered it possible for a game to cost as much as a blockbuster film, but times change.
Perhaps that’s overstating the issue. After all, not every game achieves the same heights of exorbitance. Nevertheless developers and publishers are always on the look out for ways to recoup their losses and save money. From adding competitive and co-operative play to tick boxes, to utilising online passes for used games or adding optional subscription fees, a la, Call of Duty: Elite or Battlefield Premium; it is all to bolster the bottom line. One thing that I’ve noticed as this generation has passed is that more developers and publishers are relying on the sharing or iteration of core technologies, rather than simply starting over with every game, which has more commonly been the case in the past.
Sony has their ICE team housed at Naughty Dog, which creates the low level technology that is shared among first party studios; EA seems intent on spreading the use of DICE’s Frostbite 2 engine; Capcom created the MT Framework early on and has since used it for almost all of their internally developed projects and Epic’s Unreal 3 has been almost ubiquitous for third parties. Most recently, the word is that Konami could very well be looking into using Kojima Productions’ FOX Engine to power more of their projects going forward. There are more examples than this to be found, but the prevalence of this practice makes it quite clear that it will continue into the looming next generation.
Besides, some of these engines are purported to be scalable to a next generation standard, while others already have their next iterations waiting in the wings. What this means, in a nutshell, is that the development experience accumulated in the past few years will not go to waste as the same basic structures will be built upon. It gives a running leap to the next generation, meaning that early turnover of new IPs and sequels could adhere to the same schedule that they currently do. That won’t be taken well by some, who insist that yearly entries ultimately detract from the quality of a series, but many will embrace the idea.
However, in stark contrast to the companies listed above, there are Activision and Ubisoft. Activision uses a number of different engines for their games, both licensed and internally created (or a blend of the two in the case of their Call of Duty framework), while the latter company seems to use a different engine for each of their franchises with very few exceptions. Granted, these are two of the biggest publishers in the business and can get away with these practises simply due to the immense capital at their disposal, but both of these companies are also the ones driving the trend of annualisation and thus make better use for each individual engine. Some independent developers also take this route, such as Insomniac, Remedy and Platinum, but these are absolutely in the minority.
It seems that we are ever more frequently reading news about the closure of smaller studios, both independent and those under a publisher’s umbrella. Many of these can be attributed at least in part to the high cost of development and an inability to make adequate returns, with the most prominent example of recent times being Big Huge Games, which elected to use a proprietary engine for their debut title, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. It only serves to highlight that it is a danger to do so. When factoring in the ready prevalence of these widespread engines, it seems ever more apparent that they will be the safe route for the next generation. The reality is that we will have to wait before we can say for certain, but one cannot deny the likelihood, especially if the need to keep up with the pushing of graphical boundaries continues.