Starfield’s Delay Proves Modern Game Development Is Unsustainable
To the surprise of nobody, Starfield recently got delayed, along with Redfall. I'm not entirely sure of my maths, but I think that makes for the 7,391st game delay of this year. The way we make games is currently unsustainable, and yet we go on trying to sustain it. Elden Ring has been christened as the greatest game of all time, here to change the face of gaming forever, but maybe it should instead be a turning point. It took nearly five years to make Elden Ring, and most other major games have similar timeframes. We have to reach a point soon where we realise it just isn't worth it.
The Last of Us Part 2 was met with critical acclaim when it came out, but little of the fervour was dedicated to the smooth t-shirt physics as Ellie dresses her wound, or the realistic flow of the rope in her hands. The most obsessive fans pointed to it as evidence of the game's greatness, but did anyone actually care? Did anyone feel their time spent with the game – around 20 hours, not that long for a game with a six-year development cycle and a budget of over $100 million without marketing – was richer because of how Ellie's clothes moved? Was anyone more deeply affected by the tragedy of Arthur Morgan in Red Dead Redemption 2 (eight years, $500 million including marketing) because the horse balls got smaller in the cold?
When I was a kid, my favourite series was Tomb Raider. It was my favourite game of 1996. And 1997. And 1998. For the record, I'm talking about three different games here, because that's how games used to work. There were also Tomb Raiders in 1999 and 2000, although these were eclipsed by two different Spyro games as my favourite titles. Even in the mid '00s, we had yearly Tomb Raiders between '06-'08. The most recent trilogy came out inside a healthy five years, but now it's four years later and we have no idea what's happening with it. Tomb Raider is just an example – think of how often we used to get GTA games, and then wither to dust when you realise the last one came out nine years ago.
These new games are always bigger, but are they really always better? Are we not just too dazzled by the technical prowess to critically evaluate the game as a game? In the world of cinema, the best films, the most expensive films, and the most spectacular films are often clearly distinct categories. In games, they blur into one. They all mean the same. But should they? Is it really that impressive that a game that costs $150 million and takes more than a decade to make on superior technology looks smoother than a game from 20 years ago if the older game is more fun, or more inventive, or has more to say?
Of course, older games rarely had things of substance to say, but I think that is less because of development cycles, intense crunch, and the rush to be bigger bigger bigger, and more to do with the fact the industry is now more inclusive and more mature, making for a wider array of voices and perspectives. We can continue to have this progress without shrinking horse balls and in fact, considering the impact of crunch and multi-year development cycles often leads to talent leaving the industry, this progress might come faster without it.
Nobody is actually impressed by the realistic sway of grass, the raytraced reflections in sunglasses, the real-time reactions of dust underfoot. We might be impressed by it as a novelty, as we were with the 3D effects in Journey To The Centre Of The Earth, but it's rarely why we like any given video game. It's a waste of time and effort, and it will only get worse. The tradition goes that development costs and times have doubled between generations, which means a game like Red Dead Redemption 2 would take 16 years to make and cost a billion dollars. Does anybody really want that for the sake of better horse balls?
Starfield's delay in and of itself is not a big deal. We haven't seen that much of it so a delay is to be expected, and it has become commonplace in the industry. A delayed game is eventually good etc. Starfield's delay does leave a major hole in 2022's second half, but the much broader problem is that games are going to keep getting bigger, keep getting delayed, and I'm not convinced they're going to keep getting better. And I'm not sure how the problem gets fixed.
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