I’ve spent the last little while looking at the reviews I have written so far in 2015, as well as looking at my Steam Curator list and the spreadsheet I keep that tracks UK game release dates. I’ve been doing this because that’s just the kind of thing you do while you’re watching a Canucks game and it’s intermission and you need to fill a 15-minute gap in your life. Doing all of these things, one thought keeps popping up in my head. It’s a thought I (very) ineloquently expressed via 140 characters on Twitter last week, and it’s something I want to expand on in greater detail here; namely that in the first (almost) three months of 2015, smaller games are absolutely destroying AAA games in terms of quality.

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This is a broad generalisation of course. There have been good big games (Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker, Dragon Ball: Xenoverse) and bad small games (Raven’s Cry, Warhammer Quest), but it works for the majority of games I’ve played so far this year. I’m also going to exclude Nintendo from the following discussion (Captain Toad mention aside), because Nintendo operate in a unique space where they can pretty much do whatever they damn well please and it seems to work for them.

Let’s look at the big games we’ve gotten so far in 2015. Probably the best of the bunch was also the first; Dying Light. Dying Light isn’t necessarily a bad game, in fact it does have a couple of good things going for it. Its world and level design are top notch, and the parkour adds a fantastic element of navigation to the game. The trouble is that each good thing about the game goes hand in hand with something bad. The story, dialogue and characters are poor and the combat is repetitive and uninteresting. All in all the whole thing averaged out to…well, average.

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It’s a similar story with the majority of this years AAA games. The Order: 1886, while a tremendous graphical achievement, is a glorified PS4 tech demo. The game is nothing more than a glorified advertisement for the potential graphical power of its platform, and even then the game isn’t a true showcase of the PS4’s power, the graphics hidden behind a capped framerate, baffling aspect ratio and more motion blur than your average episode of The Flash. Evolve has some good ideas about online multiplayer, but utterly fails to properly execute them. The games intense bursts of excellence buried under mountains of repetitive monotony and boring grind.

Contrast this with the smaller games we’ve gotten in 2015. Sunless Sea is a fantastic exploration and survival game with great writing, plenty moments of intensity and is a game that knows the value of your time, always ensuring that what’s waiting on the horizon is worth finding. Grow Home is a great experiment in procedural animation while also offering a game worth playing, with exploration full of wonder and charm. Hand of Fate is a brilliant mashup of genres that never should have been able to work together, but is pulled of brilliantly, and gives players a game that hasn’t quite been seen before. Ori and the Blind Forest, as I mentioned in my review, is one of the best current generation gaming experiences you can get.

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You can see the differences in these three paragraphs. While the majority of bigger games released so far in 2015 have been lacklustre, the smaller games have been excellent. My biggest concern with AAA gaming at the moment is that they feel like they’re stagnating. There’s very little innovation or progress being made year on year, or between releases. The easiest example of this comes from my best friends over at Ubisoft.

Last year they released a tidal wave of open world games consisting of entirely different genres; we had the stealth, first-person shooter, action and driving open world games. Yet somehow, despite these games being different genres (open world itself isn’t a genre) there were so few differences between them all. Looking back on Watch Dogs, Assassin’s Creed: Unity, Far Cry 4 and The Crew they all kind of blur together into one blob of copy/paste game design (except Unity, which stands out for being colossally broken at launch).

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As an aside, what makes these game releases even harder to stomach is that in 2014 Ubisoft also showed that it has the capacity to do things differently, to create games that not only deviate from their worn out formula, but are actually pretty good to boot. I am of course talking about Valiant Hearts and Child of Light (and you can throw in Ubisoft Reflections’ Grow Home). It’s absolutely maddening that this company can push the same game out four times in one year with a different genre stapled to it, bore the crap out of everyone who is sick of playing the same damn game over and over and over, yet have the talent to produce games like Valiant Hearts.

These Ubisoft titles, which I’ll refer to as the Ubisoft 4, paint a clear picture of one of the biggest things wrong with AAA games right now; they’re trying to be too many different things all at once. We saw this concept taken to its ridiculous extreme when Resident Evil 6 literally tried to appease fans of survival horror, third person action games and punching zombies all at the same time, failing spectacularly in the process. Far Cry 4, for example, is an open world, first-person shooter with RPG skill progression, exploration focused collectibles, crafting, wilderness survival, that is trying to tell an adult and mature story while still retaining the goofy, stoner humour of the previous game.

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Before anyone accuses me of having a chip on my shoulder against AAA games (which I do), there are sparse examples of how AAA games are trying to avoid stagnation. Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor borrows gameplay elements quite liberally from other games; the combat system of Rocksteady’s Arkham specifically. It’s made by developers who understand what makes Arkham’s combat work and fits it extremely well into their own game. But Shadow of Mordor also brings the Nemesis System, which was the first actually next-gen gameplay mechanic I can recall. Alien Isolation (my friend Katie’s favourite game of last year) also brings a familiar but excellent first-person survival horror mechanic, then adds the unpredictable AI of the Alien into the mix.

But there aren’t many AAA games that are trying to mix things up. In fact it feels like most big publishers are simply content to coast along on brand recognition alone. And why shouldn’t they? Familiarity and an assault of aggressive marketing is what sells games to the masses. Just take a look at last weeks UK retail chart and you can see clearly that the most enduring games in that list are the likes of the Ubisoft 4, Call of Duty, Fifa, Destiny, etc. In fact Call of Duty is a franchise that hasn’t provided an ounce of innovation, or even changed up its core gameplay in any way, for years, and it remains one of the best selling games year on year.

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But Call of Duty’s sales are trending down with each iteration. Eventually the bottom is going to fall out of these games on yearly release schedules, that are essentially offering the same gameplay experience year after year. And I’m not necessarily ragging on Call of Duty, Advanced Warfare was a decent game, if nothing spectacular. The series can still boast probably the best first-person shooting mechanics in the genre. But when I can make the jump from Modern Warfare 3 to Advanced Warfare, a gap of three years and three games, and find that the only discernible differences are jetpacks and Kevin Spacey, maybe it’s time to actually start to at least think about mixing things up a bit.

I remember a wonderful time when AAA games were a hotbed for innovation. They had to be, in the 80’s, 90’s and early 00’s there wasn’t an indie scene to speak of. And it was glorious. Different games could exist within the same genre or even the same series and still be vastly different from one another. Hell, AAA games in general just used to be a lot more interesting back then. Now, as the industry has expanded, everything is starting to become hemogenised – ask yourself if a game like Majora’s Mask could be made and released as a AAA game today. The answer is, of course, not a chance in hell. It’s too inaccessible, too difficult to mass market and just simply too different.

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Luckily it’s not all doom and gloom for the games industry, because we have a thriving indie scene, which is setting itself up as the antithesis of everything I just described in AAA games. Indie games are blazing a trail of originality and creativity, releasing games that are infused with the obvious passion of the developers that work on them. AAA games sometimes feel as though their existence is solely based on making money, with more emphasis put on ensuring the Game Genre Checklist(tm) is complete for their chosen genre. “Oh so you’re an RPG are you? Let’s consult the checklist and make sure you meet the pointless feature requirements to qualify.”

Imagine a world where AAA games didn’t feel the need to conform to the “minimum requirements” of their chosen genre. Imagine if Alien Isolation’s campaign wasn’t needlessly padded out to hit an imaginary minimum play time. Imagine if Dragon: Age Inquisition didn’t feel the need to scatter fifty hours of pointless grinding, collectibles and crafting. Imagine if just one of the Ubisoft 4 didn’t require you to scale/unlock bloody towers to reveal the next section of map, littered with an overwhelming amount of redundant “activities” that add absolutely nothing to the games.

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There’s a reason I can make a list like the “8 indie games you should support in 2015” or “10 indie games you need to play” while feeling no need to make a similar list for bigger releases. Indie games are just more exciting. Nine times out of ten, once you’ve seen the first gameplay trailer or reveal for a AAA game you know exactly what you’ll be getting. Hell sometimes you just need the developer or publisher to tell you what genre they consider if and you’ll be able to predict with some accuracy how it’ll play (sometimes all you need is the bloody name). I could do a “12 first person shooters that look okay” list and struggle to find games that look different from one another. Some of those FPS’ will be good, some will be okay, some will be God awful, none will break the mould.

In a way it’s almost comparing apples to oranges. AAA games and indie games are generally different types of games, aiming for different types of experiences and at different markets. However both are still games. Is it a coincidence that 2014 is generally considered a fairly poor year for game releases, the same year that produced comparatively few stand out indie games? Of course less good indie games means less good games in general, but this dearth of high quality indies only served to highlight how average the AAA space has become. Not that AAA helped itself by imploding with the release of far too many broken, unfinished, unplayable games.

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In the end good video games are good video games. If you release a good game I’ll play the heck out of it and if you release a bad game I’ll probably still play it, but I won’t be afraid to point out why it’s bad. It doesn’t matter where the game comes from, how many people worked on it or what size its budget was. There’s a reason I talk a lot about Ubisoft on this website. For all the Ubisoft 4 type games they release they’re also responsible for excellent smaller games such as Grow Home, Valiant Hearts and Child of Light. It’s almost like an abusive relationship at this point. From my Grow Home review:

“If the copy/paste games of Ubisoft’s main catalogue is the price to pay for smaller, more thoughtful experiments such as Grow Home, then it’s a price I am more than willing to pay.”

I just want to play good games. And what I’m fast noticing more and more is that those good games are coming from the indie space, and less so from the traditional publishers and developers. It’s a shame, because with the ridiculous amounts of cash thrown at certain games, there should be higher quality results. AAA could learn a lot from the current indie scene, and I hope that they do, because if you combined indie style development with the obvious talent and astronomical budgets at many AAA developers, imagine what kind of games we could end up with.

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