Friday, April 22, 2022
This could go horribly wrong
Making a triple A video game costs a lot of money. And you need to spend nearly all of that money before the game can first be played by people who could tell you whether it is actually any good. So game developers are constantly looking at how well other games are doing, trying to identify the "secret sauce" of success, and applying it to their own games. That can ruin a whole genre, like all the games who thought they could copy World of Warcraft's success and create the "WoW Killer", but only managed to stifle all creativity and kill the MMORPG genre in a flood of WoW clones.
It is only April, but the video game of the year is probably already determined: Elden Ring. It sold 12 million copies in the first 4 weeks, putting it into a rather small club of best-selling open-world games ever. It is easy to imagine the CEO of some major video game company rushing into the office of his creative director and demanding "make me a game like Elden Ring!". I'm afraid we are in for a lot of pain, because "making a game like Elden Ring" could easily go horribly wrong!
A lot of memes have been made since the release of Elden Ring comparing it to typical Ubisoft open world games. There is definitively some truth to the idea that an Ubisoft-style open world game (not all of them are actually made by Ubisoft) tends to give the player too much information, thus lessening the joy of discovery. However, just imagine any one of these games that you played, and try to mentally subtract all this information, the quest markers, the mini-map, the HUD, and all that: Does this simple subtraction turn that game into a master piece? It obviously does not. So while it is easy to identify some features that less good games have that Elden Ring doesn't, it is a lot harder to identify the "secret sauce" features that Elden Ring has that makes it such a successful game. And no, difficulty isn't it either. The less successful games wouldn't have gotten any better if they had been made brutally hard and no choice of difficulty level given.
The other big problem is that "10 out of 10" scores suggest a perfect game without flaws. That is not the case. Elden Ring is a deeply flawed game, but one which has a certain appeal to a large number of gamers to a degree that these gamers are more than willing to overlook these flaws. If a lesser game would turn up with less genius, but the exact same set of flaws that Elden Ring has, critics would completely rip that game for its flaws.
The final problem is history, or you could call it lineage. Elden Ring works *because* of its history as a Dark Souls game. If Ubisoft had released the exactly same game under the name Assassin's Creek: Lands Between, the reception would have been very different. There are aspects of Elden Ring which are objectively speaking painful, but if you approach the game expecting exactly that pain in advance, these hurt a lot less.
I think in order to create a new open world game with a big success, you would need to study a set of successful open world games, including at least Elden Ring, Breath of the Wild, Red Dead Redemption 2, and Skyrim. And even that would not be a success guarantee. But if you only take Elden Ring as a template to make the next multi-million player game, the result more likely than not would be a complete disaster.