Triple threat

Yesterday, one of the creative directors of Halo 4 spoke to Kotaku about his departure from 343 Industries blaming a lack of interest in the project. Ryan Payton, who previously worked on the amazing Metal Gear Solid 4, joined Microsoft’s purpose built Halo studio to work on the fiction and story development for the new trilogy of games, starting with Halo 4. However, instead of thriving on the potential storytelling opportunities in the universe of Halo, Payton grew bored of what he was apart of. But he isn’t bitter:

“I had a great run at Microsoft. I don’t regret one day of it. But after a few years, there came a point where I wasn’t creatively excited about the project anymore.”

Does that mean Halo 4 won’t be any good? Of course not. No one can be sure of how it will play beyond the fact it’ll be a first-person shooter but from the sounds of it, Payton wanted to make a Halo game unlike anything we’ve seen before.

“The Halo I wanted to build was fundamentally different and I don’t think I had built enough credibility to see such a crazy endeavor through.”

Payton’s time at 343 Industries was spent as a narrative director working closely alongside Frank O’Conner and the rest of the creative team focussing on the story. His work at Kojima Productions on MGS4 gave him what he calls “a crash course on AAA game development,” readying him for the big budget world of Halo. It transpired that such a world just wasn’t for Payton and when watching his buddy Jake Kazdal work on the upcoming Skulls of the Shogun, he began to question whether or not triple-A games are right for him. So rather than continue with his position at 343 Industries, Payton has left to form his own studio, Camouflaj, and is in the process of designing two games.

The breaking of this story came on the same day as Ninja Theory co-founder Tameem Antoniades told GamesIndustry.biz that triple-A games are fundamentally bad for the industry and unhealthy for future development.

“If you’re paying that much [to develop a game], you don’t want to take chances. You want everything to be there, all the feature sets. You want it to be a known experience, guaranteed fun.”

With budget spiralling out of control and millions upon millions poured into a project, the pressure is on to make something that will sell exceptionally well. That means, as Antoniades points out, the risk and experimentation plays second fiddle to, say, building an online multiplayer component with perks. That’s why indie games and smaller titles are pushing the boundaries of video game entertainment and if it works well enough for them, triple-A studios have a reason to follow. But it must be crushing for any creative to work down a check-list of features and giving precedence to a tired mechanic over innovation. What is a little ironic is the actual gameplay elements of Heavenly Sword and Enslaved, two Ninja Theory games, weren’t amazingly innovative and felt as if they were produced under committee. The story and digital acting were however but you did have to fight in order to get to the best bits. At the moment, the studio is hard at work on a reboot for Devil May Cry and have already gathered a fair amount of controversy by challenging the pre-conceived idea of how its lead, Dante, should look. I wonder if similar risks will be seen in-game too.

So what’s going on with triple-A games? They used to be the epitome of game design and what many aspired to be a part of. Sales of said games still range in the millions and profits are good but talk of them being a safe bet and subsequently uninspired is becoming louder and louder. Both Payton and Antondiades may be less than happy with the triple-A development scene but Take-Two and Ubisoft are believe that anything less just isn’t profitable and therefore not worth the time to make. And it’s comments like these which drive the idea of big budget games being little more than a milking of a market, not the furthering of an industry. But the reality is, it really might just be too expensive to make a game and for it not to attempt to sit in the triple-A category gathering triple-A sales. At least not for disc-based console releases as the Limbos, Angry Birds and Minecrafts of the world are doing just fine in the relatively low cost area of digital downloadables.

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