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Opinion: XCOMs prove AAA game development is high-risk gambling

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Making games is hard. Making AAA games is close to impossible.

The world of AAA development revolves around big risks and potentially big rewards. It is not an investment for publishers, so much as a gamble. The more money they put on the table, the more they can potentially make. A hit game can make hundreds of millions. The biggest hit games make closer to billions.

Considering the height of the stakes, publishers keep their secrets close to the vest for fear of impacting public reception of the final products. Getting a look at how the sausage is made is extremely rare. Rarer still is an opportunity to get such a look inside the development of two separate, but connected games.

This week, we got that opportunity, with the publishing of our second deep feature on the two modern takes on the XCOM franchise.

Chris Plante has the story on the development of The Bureau: XCOM Declassified. It begins just prior to the start of work on the game, in 2006, offering a perspective on the creation of Take-Two's publishing arm, 2K Games, and how that led to the creation of a game using the XCOM intellectual property (IP).

[I]n 1998, Take-Two purchased BMG Interactive. BMG had just released DMA Design's Grand Theft Auto, a minor hit on the PC.

In 2001, the same team, under the name Rockstar Games, released Grand Theft Auto 3. The game, the first open-world crime simulator, was a colossal financial success; the series would go on to make both Rockstar and Take-Two very wealthy over the course of multiple sequels.

As a result, in the mid-2000s, Take-Two was suddenly flush with cash. Brant and his board had a plan to essentially recreate what had worked to make them rich to begin with. They'd buy some of the industry's best talent and fund them — with minimal input — to create massive hits.

Between 2005 and 2006, Take-Two Interactive spent over $80 million to acquire and construct a suite of developers, among them, Irrational Games in Boston and Firaxis Games in Baltimore.

What follows is a tale of creative risks, abject failures, concept redirects, personnel layoffs, political machinations and frenzied attempts to create a compelling work of art under often excruciating circumstances. It is a remarkable, yet remarkably ordinary story of AAA game development.

Remarkable because of its absurdity, such as this description of an original prototype:

One pitch imagined Earth post-invasion and full of resistance fighters. The intention was to create scenarios in which humans were outclassed, outmatched and outsized.

A source describes one storyboard pitch in which a hero — who resembled Foo Fighters lead singer Dave Grohl — placed boomboxes on plinths in a city square, inspiring humans to rise up against their alien overlords.

Yet ordinary because this sort of thing happens all the time in games development.

By very virtue of the fact that the teams can be so large (and spread out between multiple continents) and the budgets so large (single-digit millions of dollars for "simple" games, and triple-digit millions for some AAA titles), the logistics of managing a video game production alone can make creating such a game as complex — if not more complex than — any project in the world. With the possible exception of NSA data collection. Or rocket launches. (Although some commercial space ventures actually cost less than some AAA games.)

This very complexity, though, is what can open up to the door to dizzyingly creative accomplishments. Modern AAA games can be outright astounding, technologically, and can engage the hearts and imaginations of people around the world. This is no small part due to how brilliant they can look and how exciting they can be to play, with both visual brilliance and pulse-pounding, "cinematic" excitement being among the more expensive aspects of game production.

Yet this complexity comes at a cost more ephemeral than the dollar amount. It also comes at a cost of certainty.

With so many moving parts, by the time a game has been finished there's no guarantee it will be any good or even what it was intended to be in the first place. The recent rise in popularity of so-called "indie" games, created by small teams and led by auteurs, has perpetuated the myth of the modern AAA game as being developed along similar lines. And marketing teams love nothing more than to wheel out studio heads and creative directors to keep this myth alive.

There's no guarantee a game will be any good or even what it was intended to be in the first place

With this model, a single creative driver pushes a game from concept through execution, knowing (to some degree) what it will be and how it will be made, seeing (sometimes literally) the players' experience in his/her head and working to perfect that vision.

Rare is the AAA studio that can be profitably driven by the creator auteur and survive. 2K's own Irrational serves as the exception proving the rule. Ken Levine has become a legendary figure in game development circles, not just for his remarkably diverse background and compelling creative vision, but also owing to the fact that he has twice now driven a AAA project to completion without seeming to compromise his own intentions.

Chris Plante's recent profile of the creator paints a picture of a man who knows he's bucking a trend, but just doesn't care. Nor does it appear, in my opinion, he gives too much thought to Irrational's growing reputation for burnout culture and his own public image as an uncompromising diva.

The success of BioShock and BioShock Infinite notwithstanding, the reality in AAA is that games are designed by teams, not auteurs, and those teams often change — sometimes dissolving entirely and reconstituting — throughout the course of development. It is not at all uncommon for a AAA game to radically change over the course of its making, or even for the creative leaders on the project to rotate or depart.

This is the process we see in action throughout the development of The Bureau, and it's made worse by the forced collaboration between two teams divided by five time zones and the largest ocean on the planet. When The Bureau comes stumbling toward the finish line, you almost expect it will not be well-received. And if the current Metacritic average for the game is any indication, it hasn't been. (Though Polygon's own reviewer gave it a 7 out of 10.)

The tale of The Bureau's development becomes truly amazing, however, when compared to the development of its "sister game," XCOM: Enemy Unknown.

Polygon was given an in-depth look at the development of XCOM: Enemy Unknown last year, as well as a profile of its lead developer, Jake Solomon, which I wrote myself.

In that story we learn that Jake Solomon had been a fan of the original XCOM as a young man, and then lobbied hard to make it Firaxis' next game after he was hired. When he was finally given the chance to build a small team and actually make the game, he failed. Spectacularly. Twice.

"It was a pretty big setback," Solomon says. "It was a pretty big failure. That wasn't the end of it, either. ... You have this big team of developers who you love, who you shake hands with, who trust you and give you all this time and passion to work on these ideas of yours, and then you've got this company that's relying on this big title, and then you've got all these people at the publisher, and they basically are all looking at you."

Solomon's plane had taken off. His passengers were sitting behind him. The plane was on fire.

Looking back on the vertical slice now, Greg Foertsch can't believe how terrible it was.

"It was so bad," Foertsch says. "We made the '94 game now ... It just didn't feel right. We changed the movements and all that. Going back now, I just don't remember it — when I played it the first time around — being quite as painful."
Solomon admits now that the game he had envisioned was overly complicated.

"It's hard to even describe now," Solomon says. "I don't know what I was thinking. It was the original game, and then over the top of that I had put ... soldier abilities ... a cover system ... new alien abilities ... new weapons. It was ... incredibly complicated — not complex. Complex is fun, complicated is bad. This was a very complicated game. It was more complicated than the original."

Over the course of almost a decade Firaxis tried and tried again to make their version of XCOM into something worth selling, and that they eventually succeeded owes as much to that studio's time-honed talent and ability to engineer logistical success as it does to Solomon and team's raw creative ability.

But the success of XCOM: Enemy Unknown is also due to a rare element in the games industry: A patient and supportive publisher. Ironically, probably the same factor is responsible for much of The Bureau's failures.

In both cases, 2K invested money and time in a creative team and trusted in that team's vision. In the case of XCOM: Enemy Unknown, the gamble paid off, big time. The game has a Metacritic average of 90 across all platforms and has already received one release of DLC (an expansion, which will be standalone on consoles and downloadable on PC, was recently announced). Sources also suggest a sequel seems likely.

On the other hand, there's The Bureau. It remains to be seen what will become of this game, and whether or not it will live longer than it takes for existing copies of the game to slink towards the bargain bin, but the future looks considerably less bright for it in spite of the fact that its development can hardly be said to be radically different than its sister game's.

The combined picture both of these stories present is one of the immense complexity of developing AAA games, and the fact that even with the best intentions, the most competent game makers and a proper budget, there's no guarantee of making a great game. Rather, when it happens, it can be serendipity as much as anything else.

Yet in 2K we see an unusual publisher in today's industry, one seemingly willing to take bold risks and invest in creative challenges rather than prune back creativity to focus on sure things.

Sometimes this commitment to taking artistic risks crashes and burns, as illustrated in the story of the critically lauded, but commercially challenged Spec Ops: The Line. Here, too, 2K Games invested in a team of creators with a vision of making the shooter into something approaching art.

Aftermath_800

At one point, the game's developer, Yager, argued that in order to remain true to the story, the main character had to die. This would preclude publisher 2K from eventually making a sequel to the game, which many publishers consider a prerequisite before investing in new, or rebooted IP. But to Yager's surprise, 2K went along. The publisher was committed to allowing the developer the creative freedom it wanted in order to make the game 2K had asked for.

The degree to which 2K and Yager succeeded in making art with Spec Ops may be up for debate, but it's unquestionably a welcome development to find in 2K a publisher ready and willing to take such risks.

In 2K we see an unusual publisher, one seemingly willing to take bold risks

The flip side is that nothing is certain in entertainment, and less so in taking creative risks than with playing it safe and churning out sequels to established brands. Publisher 2K has been pouring dollars into its creative teams, allowing them the freedom to take those creative risks.

In the case of the two XCOMs, we see the risks inherent in this approach, and the absolute lack of certainty that comes with playing to win the high-stakes game of AAA hit-making.