A Whole New Game: Independent AAA

Today’s video game industry seems more homogenized than ever. Now, almost every big budget game is required to have an open world with multiplayer, downloadable content, and invasive microtransactions stapled onto it with no regard to player satisfaction. As more games seek larger revenues, the future of AAA video games looks bleak. But one game may have set a precedent that will change the market for the better.

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice was released on August 8th, 2017 for PC and PlayStation 4. According to its developer Ninja Theory, it’s a cinematic psychological horror action-adventure game based on Celtic and Norse Mythology. That kind of subject matter isn’t something commonly seen in the market. It can be seen as risky and doomed to fail as it doesn’t play it safe. But Hellblade isn’t like other AAA games.

gamePrior to Hellblade, Ninja Theory developed Heavenly Sword and DmC: Devil May Cry along with other games of generally high quality. What sets Hellblade apart from Ninja Theory’s previous projects is that it’s self-published. Before, Ninja Theory relied on large publishers like Namco-Bandai and Capcom for marketing and distribution. But with Hellblade, they’ve done everything independently.

Independent games have been around since the beginning of commercial video games. But the independent market didn’t get to where it is today until the rise of digital distribution. Services like Steam and GOG have allowed almost anyone to self-publish their games and have a chance at commercial success. Most indie games are developed by small teams with relatively small budgets. But Hellblade is different as it was developed by an established studio with a budget more comparable to that of games released my major publishers.

Ninja Theory describes Hellblade as being Independent AAA. According to their website, an Independent AAA game is a game of AAA quality but with the more focused game design, lower price point and open development process that defines indie games. Hellblade has taken this philosophy head on. It’s single player only, released for just $30, and heavily focuses on mental health issues. This is all unheard of with AAA games from major publishers. Without independence, none of the risks Hellblade made would’ve been possible.

Despite being one game in a vast ocean, Hellblade may have created waves that will alter the future of AAA gaming. If other major non-subsidiary development studios see Hellblade as a success, they may choose to follow Ninja Theory’s footprints. This would allow for complete creative control of their own intellectual properties. They could choose to charge however much they wish. Bloated downloadable content and microtransactions forced in by publishers could no longer infect their projects. If Hellblade sets this precedent, a new age of high budget independent games could be on the horizon.

gameAAA games from the major publishers aren’t going away anytime soon. Neither is all of the nonsense we associate with them. The AAA market continues to be lucrative enough for them to remain unaffected. But major development studios no longer have to be reliant on publishers. The internet is now powerful enough for a prominent developer to market and finance a game on their own.

The recent closure of Visceral Games by EA shows that now may be the time for developers that can become independent to make the move. Hopefully, Hellblade can give some the confidence to release their own Independent AAA games.

-Andrew Levesque

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