In some ways, it feels like more video games are coming out than ever before. Yet in another way, around which so many of the loudest and most expensive sides of the video game industry are built, 2022 has been a drought like no other.
If you mean small platformers on Switch or city builders on Steam or weird horror adventures on itch.io, then it’s been a stellar year. If you go by volume, there are more video games to play today, on more platforms, than ever before. As busy as the schedule is with smaller and even mid-tier games, a look at the 2022 blockbuster release schedule was dire reading.
What is a “Big Game”?
I use the term as shorthand to describe a successful, standalone video game release, which is usually funded by a major publisher and has a level of hype/awareness you can’t miss. Think Call of Duty, Halo, God of War, Zelda, that kind of game. The big ones! You know what I’m talking about!
It’s easy to forget, as comfortable with its routines as we are, how much this industry still revolves around this timeline, blissfully unaware (or unwilling to accept) that it’s not 2003 anymore. timing and volume of AAA game releases have been the lifeblood of everything from major events like E3 and development schedules to sales periods and retail channels until when the authors of Video game websites like this could take a vacation. (until recently it was never in October or November, it would be too busy!)
Over the past few years, what was once a stream of high-profile releases has slowed down to a trickle, and in 2022 it was more like a slow drip. But the framework around these games, which has settled like a scaffolding that no one knows or wants to dismantle, is still there. Huge swathes of the video game industry have spent the year echoing around it, lonely footsteps echoing in a cavernous, empty church. 2022 hasn’t been a standout year for his big games. It was a year marked by their absence.
Of course, some came out. They always have and they always will. elderberry ring, God of the war, Horizona redesign Call of Duty. But what else? Just 4 or 5 years ago, the year would be full big, expensive releases from major publishers. Especially now, during holiday seasons filled with the kind of games that begged you to pre-order them with big posters at a GameStop, it would clog an E3 press conference. In 2022, you could hear a pin drop for whole months at a time.
Most people’s first response would probably be the pandemic. Its impact has screwed up development schedules around the world, and while some games have been rushed through the middle of it, others have been delayed for months or even years to recover from the chaos of having to sending entire studios home during the worst. A lot of games that should have come out now didn’t. leading to one hell of a traffic jam in early 2023.
But I don’t think that’s the right answer. This lockdown is temporary and masks broader trends that the pandemic has only exacerbated. The truth is, the AAA landscape has been shrinking for years. Everything has become too big, too expensive. The math is simple: games take longer to make and require more developers to make them, so we get less.
And even then, not all of these great releases are New. Publishers are so risk-averse in the modern age that remakes are now big business, with companies clearly preferring the safe money to be made restoring a tried-and-true classic rather than trying something original. So yeah, the year also saw major releases like The last of usa game that… was released in 2013 and had already been remastered once before.
Add in an ongoing obsession with turning the few releases we get into a live-service experience, with publishers hoping to sell content for them years after release, and you can see not only how we ended up in this AAA drought, but why it will will only get worse (or at least weirder) in the years to come. Assassin’s Creed lead the charge here; what was once a flagship series that came out every 1-2 years is about to become a platform in itselfbut it is also visible everywhere since Call of Duty’s persistent war zone at from Fortnite seasons. The big games are no longer just out; those who are will never leave.
Yet despite all this change, this scaffolding, the hype and marketing structures erected to shroud the AAA business model remain, even as the very thing they are built around begins to crumble. Look at GameStop, formerly a store that sold boxed versions of video games, now an NFT clearinghouse and placeholder for meme stocks. Watch major trade shows like E3, whose bread and butter – major reveals and huge press conferences –evolved and downsized. These vestiges of the old world remain, but the sand on which they are built begins to fade.
I want to be clear now and say that unless you’re running E3 or working at GameStop, that’s not a bad thing! The smaller games rule, the mid-tier games rule, the smaller studios and more nimble publishers rule, the phone games rule and millions of people (and millions more every year) are very happy to play video games every day in a way that doesn’t involve spending $70 on a box that says “PlayStation 5 Exclusive” on it.
But for anyone involved in that squeaky framework, or even emotionally invested in the idea of standalone AAA game releases – people still write down E3 press conference times in their journals, I’m looking at you – it must be a troubling time. Because if 2022 may seem like a sterile year for successful video games:
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