a16z’s thesis isn’t quite right


There are people who say that Narrative-driven single player games are dead. Yes, there may be good narrative-driven indie titles, although the great spectacles of the 1990s and 2000s seem to have gone.

I’m saying this, in part because I intend Total Rendition to be such spectacle. It is still some mileage away from that, because Schizotypy Games is undercapitalised, which in plain English means it doesn’t have enough money to hire the necessary talent and acquire the necessary equipment (i.e. rigs and software) to realise its goals (yet). Of course, I anticipate that some people will counter that I supposedly lack talent and that this why investors are reluctant to pour money into Schizotypy Games. Why then, does it also happen to narrative-driven gaming heavyweights?

Even if I am maximally generous to Gamergate and suppose that the Gamergaters were critics of game journalism, overlooking Wikipedia’s current editorial policy on the matter (then again, Andrew Keen says Wikipedia sucks, his commentary being lately very relevant for game developers, due to Roblox), even then, Gamergate would still miss the point. Game journalists can only do that much damage.

“The more things change, the more they stay the same”

I stopped paying attention to game journalists after this HaakuGaming fella gave a premature “review”, which followed the disappointment that was (remember that one? A full 7 years before Gamergate!) Kane & Lynch: Dead Men. The publishers of the latter apparently bought a BAFTA and a couple of positive reviews. Nobody was fooled by corrupt gaming journalists back then. In other words, corrupt gaming journalism can only damage gaming if we invest it with undue authority. On the other hand, Schizotypy Games’ mission is to bring you the most badass narrative-driven games. To deliver in respect to this mission, it is also a publisher, because we cannot turn to the other publishers (and especially not T2 Games) to fund production of our titles.

Amy Hennig, the creator of the Uncharted series, claimed that the pitch for large scale narrative-driven games falls onto deaf ears. Unfortunately, I speak from experience (from speaking to investors) that her claims are not at all without merit. Actually, she is bang on. It is what the large publishers think as well, and they act the part. But why are the large publishers giving up on large scale narrative driven games in the tradition of Deus Ex, Half-Life and Metal Gear Solid? Simple really, because these publishers answer to shareholders, who are investors. And frankly, many investors have given up on narrative-driven gaming. And this is where we run into trouble.

Cue Andreessen Horowitz, who quite bluntly stated:

Today’s best games are continually updated online services whose players form an integral part of the game through multiplayer and user-generated content. These “games-as-a-service” have become rich, interactive social networks whose in-game player friendships rival those made in person. 

The game they don’t want you to play!

Stating competition-driven gaming has obsoleted Narrative-driven single player games is an act of cultural vandalism. Narrative-driven single player games are able to offer sharper political and cultural commentary. Can you imagine Elon Musk taking to Twitter to protest lockdown with a Fortnite avatar? Or any other billionaire for that matter? Likewise, GTA Online misses the satirical points the GTA series made itself famous for. It’s not that Fortnite or PUBG are evil nor that its players are dumbasses. Rather, these titles address different needs than narrative-driven games, a factor investors are unable to see. Hopefully, that will be changing soon.

Total Rendition is already pissing people off, despite it has yet to be completed. Total Rendition already has its own Jack Thompsons, and they are clamouring for the project to fail before it is even completed, based on what little has been revealed yet! Those folks are the “they” in Total Rendition’s tagline. Clearly, we are doing something right. Multiplayer games have nothing on Narrative-driven single player games in that regard. But the thing is, a16z’s attitude is a common one. I’m singling out a16z, exactly because it so illustrative of what their competitors are thinking as well.

Though perhaps good business? It is what Dave Thier of Forbes seems to think. Not necessarily. Hollywood still offers movies as “packaged entertainment”, as Andreessen Horowitz sneeringly puts it. Likewise, live football hasn’t obsoleted television dramas. Both are made with cameras and broadcasted in the same manner, technologically speaking. However, developers of narrative-driven games may still learn lessons. First, graphics technology has improved, yet so have expectations from players increased. Therefore, more manpower will have to be assigned to 3D art. On other hand, video game engines may now easily be acquired from third parties, so costs can be cut on software engineering.

Battle Royale with the big bois…

Many of the large established publishers and developers are institutionally no longer capable of changing to this drastically altered workflow. Ironically enough, the switch from narrative-driven to competitive-driven was easy to make for large publisher-developers. The thing is that they didn’t has to change that much organisationally. For instance, the software engineers working on the engines could simply be reassigned to netcode and payment systems. To keep narrative-driven games profitable while upholding artistic integrity of gameplaywrights (i.e. writer-designers) requires such drastic reorganisation that most large developers are unable to accede to. One exception is CD Projekt Red, but we all know their story.

Yet, as far as Cyberpunk 2077 is concerned, I have to come to CD Projekt Red’s defence here. Schizotypy Games and CD Projekt have very similar views on what we aim to offer gamers (but radically different views on how we aim to get there). Anyway, had they timed the release of Cyberpunk 2077 any time later, CD Projekt (yes, the parent company of CD Projekt Red) could have been forced to close their doors. Maybe they were indebted to investors and banks. Perhaps they were about to run out of runway, even if we factor in gog.com, in part for the very reasons just mentioned. Perhaps they should have been more blunt that Cyberpunk 2077 was an Early Access type project, as it might have garnered them more understanding from players.

“By gamers, for gamers”

Quite frankly, Early Access exists because it may not be possible for large-scale narrative-driven gaming to exist otherwise in 2023. That is, except for the very largest of publishers. This is for several reasons; a competition-driven game with microtransactions brings a lot of cash to a publisher. This is attractive to investors and keeps a company from going bankrupt. Investors nowadays also want hard data before they invest in something. Finally, both narrative-driven games and battle royale-style games require a development house to hire the same skillsets, though in differing quantities for each working area. The latter means that there is a competition between the two for resource allocation from (in very large companies like Ubisoft, Konami or EA; management teams answering to) investors.

The fact that even Hideo Kojima, Ken Levine and Amy Hennig have lost out at some point in these internal political struggles of office politics we never read about, suggests that the production strategy for narrative-driven games needs to change. Kojima certainly realised that when he made Death Stranding. Then again, his route is certainly not an option for the new and upcoming gameplaywrights. They are stifled by an “indie” scene, in turn beset by a tall-poppy mentality (and I disapprovingly cite one talk given by fellow Dutchman Rami Ismail), on one hand, and short-sighted investors and the avaricious publishers they enable on the other.

It is fair to say microtransactions have destroyed narrative ambition within most of the large studios. And right now, all that investors see is simply that Battle Royale-style games have a better cost-to-profit ratio than narrative-driven games. Even though both are broadly using the same nuts and bolts (at least, from an investor’s perspective). Thus, for investors, narrative-driven games are currently a non-starter. It is up to game developers and players to rebuild the market for narrative-driven games from ground zero. Interplay’s slogan of “by gamers, for gamers” has never been more relevant.

See also

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