What Respawn and Titanfall can teach the industry about next-gen development

Opinion

It’s amazing what you can put together when you’re leaving the developer and publisher of some of the most successful first-person shooters in the industry’s history.

The deal struck by Jason West and Vince Zampella when they left both Infinity Ward and Activision to create Respawn and signed on with EA to publish what would become Titanfall will likely never be detailed in public, but EA was hungry to take ground back from Activision and this gave them a very public win. It’s rare to see a developer with this much power in the negotiation phase.

The game that was made with that power is interesting for many reason. Titanfall hints at a very interesting future for next-generation gaming, especially if it becomes as large a hit as everyone is expecting.

Running lean to create the game you want

The first interesting fact is that there are no microtransactions. This detail, sadly, has become news in the modern gaming industry, and it's even sweeter due to the fact the one-time use "Burn Cards" of Titanfall even provide the perfect vector for someone to ram consumer-hostile monetization into the game.

Instead you earn these cards in the game, they provide no long-term benefit, and the game’s economy seems to be completely closed. Many next-gen games seem willing to test the boundaries of what can be sold to the player, making Titanfall's ability to turn down the extra revenue stream even more impressive.

It helps that Respawn is a relatively small team for the type of game they’re trying to make. There are around 60 people working at Respawn, which is a far cry from the massive, world-spanning teams of other games of this stature. Titanfall wasn’t cheap to create, but in the world of AAA the budget most likely felt like a bargain.

It’s easier to be generous with your time and content when you operate without the massive overhead of so many other AAA studios, and so far it seems as if those savings will benefit the player rather than be used as an excuse maximize the profit margin.

This lack of microtransactions and ability to run lean is also due to the game’s design; there is no recognizable single-player campaign. There are no scripted moments, no thrill-ride style offline portion of the game that we’re used to from Battlefield and Call of Duty titles.

Titanfall was designed from the ground up to be played online with other people, and even the marketing focuses on the sort of organic events and setpieces that arise when you play online versus the highly orchestrated and linear moments that make up the bulk of marketing for most high-profile shooters. Adding campaign-like elements into the multiplayer core of the game and only creating one strong, focused product instead of discrete multiplayer and single-player modes saved them time, money and resources.

Titanfall isn’t the only game going down this path, as the PlayStation 4 exclusive The Order 1888 lacks multiplayer. It will be an action-adventure / shooter that only features a single-player campaign, which is the other, no less valid, side of this coin. This approach lowers budgets, allows the team to create the game they want instead of filling up checkboxes and may also decrease the need for aggressive monetization.

While many publishers focus on what they can do to bring in more money to deal with rising budgets, and that approach usually leads to in-game stores, others seem to wisely focus on making less game, and focusing their attention and budget on what will make the core audience of the game happy.

What this means

Titanfall is a game with focus and a voice; there is little evidence that marketing pressure had anything to do with its design or execution. Even the decision to make the game exclusive to a single console (Bluepoint is handling development for the Xbox 360 version) simplified development: The potential sales on the PlayStation 4 turned into a guaranteed check from Microsoft, and this in turn allowed the development team to focus on the Xbox One and PC versions of the game.

There are no scripted moments, no thrill-ride style offline portion of the game that we’re used to from Battlefield and Call of Duty titles.

This move may have annoyed PlayStation 4 owners who were interested in playing Titanfall, but it opens the door for increasingly advantageous negotiations for the sequel. Either Microsoft will have to pay what would likely be a higher price for exclusivity again, or EA and Respawn take advantage of the pent up demand for the game on the PlayStation 4 and the enhanced name recognition that comes from a successful first game in a franchise.

Titanfall, with its focused play, console exclusivity and lack of in-game purchases bucks EA's trend of bloated, sometimes functional games filled with items and advantages to buy. It's the anti-Dungeon Keeper Mobile. A success of this nature could help other publishers repeat this strategy, and that would be a very good thing for players.

Infinity Ward created Call of Duty, and the first-person shooter industry has been chasing that success ever since. The common phrase in Hollywood is that no one knows what they're doing, but so far Titanfall proves that Zampella and team know exactly how to take a look around, react to the current industry and create something that shoves the genre forward. Everyone creating a first-person shooter has a new puck to skate towards.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, Polygon as an organization.

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