Can one day have too many big video game releases? Today alone, we will see an underrated franchise get its big shot; iconic manga characters collide in a bizarre crossover event; a long-in-development sequel finally reach store shelves; a pseudo-sequel repurpose one of last year’s best-selling games; a semi-launch for one of the biggest gambles in the history of Electronic Arts; and a heavy, free expansion for one of the year’s best games. Not only are some of the biggest games of 2019 dropping all at once, they each represent different trends that, collectively, are shaping the future of big-budget game development.
To process the sheer curiosity of this day, I’ve broken down each game’s trend. When you need a break from all these games, this piece will give you an idea of how the successes and failures of this day could shape the months and years to come.
Metro Exodus is caught in a war for the wallets of PC gamers
Metro Exodus is the third entry in a series of single-player, story-driven action games set in Russia after a nuclear apocalypse. It’s available on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, and Windows PC ... via the Epic Games Store. The latter signed an exclusivity deal with the game’s publisher, preventing it from appearing on Steam and other PC digital marketplaces until 2020 — unless you happened to pre-order the game on Steam ahead of the deal.
Exodus is one of many timed exclusives on the Epic Games Store. Epic is leveraging exclusives to entice newcomers to install the platform on their computer and create active user profiles. Some players have cried foul, claiming they’ve been forced to buy and play a game through a service that doesn’t have the functionality they’re accustomed to. Other critics speculate that competition in the marketplace — Steam has never had a true rival of its scale — could lead to better prices and deals for players, along with better revenue shares for game makers. Still others fear that intense pricing competition might force game makers to cut their price tags too low, too quickly.
Crackdown 3 hints at Microsoft’s plan to be the Netflix of games
Crackdown 3 is the long-in-development continuation of Microsoft’s open-world franchise about supercops that leap small buildings and throw cars like they’re paper airplanes. It’s a perfectly adequate follow-up to the 2007 original, though it lacks many of the trappings of a big-budget open-world game in 2019. It’s the video game equivalent of the disposable movies and TV shows I find myself watching on Netflix when I get exhausted scrolling through the catalog.
As such, it’s a perfect advertisement for Microsoft’s Xbox Game Pass subscription service. While Epic and Valve compete over traditional storefronts, Microsoft has been quietly collecting millions of subscribers with its Netflix-for-games program. It currently has a library of over 100 games, and every new release published by Microsoft appears on the service on launch day.
In an essay on what Crackdown 3 signals for the future of the publisher, I wrote about how Game Pass could inform the projects of the company’s newly acquired studios:
Last summer, Microsoft acquired five new studios. Three of those teams are best known for making creative but deliberately scoped games: Ninja Theory with Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, Undead Labs with State of Decay, and Compulsion Games with We Happy Few. Initially, I assumed Microsoft needed more talent to deliver new games in its established brands and launch a few more big AAA properties. But now I suspect the company acquired these studios with the expectation that they will continue to do what they do best: Make medium-size games with a few creative hooks that last a weekend or maybe a week, before making room for what’s next. With ambitions scaled back from AAA, the teams might make more games more regularly, creating a Netflix-style cadence on Game Pass.
Resident Evil 2’s free expansion shows the unique range of video game remakes
2019’s Resident Evil 2, a top-to-bottom remake of the 1998 zombie horror game of the same name, continues the ongoing trend of experimentation with the concept of revamping, remastering, and rethinking older games. Unlike classic films, which can be watched just as easily as modern films, classic video games can be a challenge to revisit. They often lack the quality-of-life tweaks that have been universally adopted over the years, like save points and player-controlled cameras. As a result, each remake and remaster seems to be unique: Some simply emulate the original game, others add graphical polish, and a few fully rethink how the game works. The 2019 version Resident Evil 2 is more focused on capturing the feeling of the original, rather than on being a perfect recreation.
But the free expansion, “The Ghost Survivors,” goes a step further, telling alternate-reality stories about three characters that die in the original campaign. This time they survive, and they kill a ton of zombies. The add-on trades the slow-paced horror of the main campaign for explosive action and hundreds of headshots. These free expansions — a means to keep players engaged with games post-release, rather the trading them in at GameStop — allow developers to play with the assumptions of popular franchises, without contradicting the story and mood of the core game. The Far Cry series is notorious for this sort of experimentation, albeit with paid DLC. For Far Cry 5 DLC, the developers added zombies, aliens, and a time-traveling trip to Vietnam.
Far Cry New Dawn shows how publishers make the most of humongous investments
Speaking of Far Cry, Ubisoft has released Far Cry New Dawn, which is neither a full AAA game nor an expansion to Far Cry 5. It costs $39.99 and repurposes much of the open world of its predecessor, except now the landscape and its people have been changed by a nuclear strike.
Big open-world games cost a tremendous amount of time, talent, and money to make. Ubisoft, more than most companies, makes the most of its work by reusing designs or even entire worlds to fill the gaps between major releases. The publisher previously dropped Far Cry Primal between Far Cry 4 and Far Cry 5. To avoid franchise fatigue, these midcycle games tend to be a little more playful and personality-driven.
Other publishers are finding their own ways to build upon their huge open worlds. Rockstar turned the worlds of Grand Theft Auto 5 and Red Dead Redemption 2 into online variations of those games that stand entirely separate from the single-player campaigns. As open-world games get both bigger and more detailed, it will become increasingly challenging for game makers to treat them as disposable objects, built for one game then abandoned for the next.
Anthem wants to be our forever game
Technically, Anthem launches on Feb. 15, like the rest of these games. Except it’s only available to PC gamers with subscriptions to EA’s Origin Access Premier service. PC and Xbox One owners with EA Access or Origin Access Basic subscription can play for 10 hours, beginning today. And everybody else can play the full game on all platforms on Feb. 22. This is the new normal for living games, also known as games as a service. Like Destiny 2 and the upcoming The Division 2, Anthem is a big online multiplayer game meant to consume hundreds of hours from each player, with regular updates to maintain interest.
There’s a theme through many of today’s trends: How can game publishers keep their players engaged for as long as possible and spending money on incremental purchases? Conceptually, games like Anthem borrow from the MMO trend of the mid-2000s, when publishers wanted to create the next World of Warcraft. But these games have a lower barrier of entry, both in the time it takes to master the game and the cost — Anthem doesn’t require a subscription fee like so many MMOs did.
Anthem will compete against another game from EA that is even more accessible: Apex Legends. A battle royale game from the studio behind the Titanfall series, Apex Legends is free-to-play and will soon feature the seasonal structure that has made Fortnite a pop culture phenomenon.
In 2019, publishers aren’t merely fighting for money — they’re fighting for time.