The Price Of Middle-Budget Games


In every discussion about the status of creativity among the biggest console video games, the near obliteration of middle-budget or “AA” games comes up. People keep saying “why don’t publishers make some games with lower budgets to diversify or mitigate the risk?”

Meanwhile, I’m seeing some criticisms of the graphics in the first episode of Resident Evil Revelations 2 — Capcom’s episodic spin-off, and wondering if this is the price of lower budgets for games these days. There are actually quite a few examples of recent “middle-budget” games on consoles, but not enough to where each one escapes criticism for being mid-budget.

Since around 2006 we’ve heard of a ton of studios that today’s AAA budgets basically killed: a studio that’s been around for multiple console generations basically getting sunk by a single $50 million game that “only” sold 2 million copies. At the same time games like Assassin’s CreedFar Cry, or Crysis are getting less and less creatively risky because each one doesn’t want to be that $50 million failure. A lot of these franchises and genres in previous times didn’t depend on selling 5 million copies because they didn’t cost as much to make. It’s a main reason most Japanese developers haven’t been able to keep up in the console space.

I think a lot of developers have confirmed one of the most expensive parts of making games these days is hiring enough artists to generate enough stuff for the game environments to make proper use of today’s hardware. The most successful games like Call of Duty tend to have the most impressive range of textures and the most voice acting if you examine them.

I guess games like Revelations 2 represent the opposite end of the spectrum (or the middle of it if you count indie games). Despite running on the same engine, the environments in Revelations 2 look somewhat more bare than the likes of Resident Evil 6. In a lot of ways it looks more similar to the first Revelations on the 3DS. It’s not hard to guess this is because it’s a $25 episodic game. Isn’t that what some people want more of? Its lower budget supposedly allows Capcom to venture a bit back towards the older gameplay systems the original Resident Evil fans want. Those fans can’t expect Revelations 2 to look just as good as (or better than) RE6.

I think a big part of the issue is, there are far fewer mid-budget games in the retail space today than say, the PS2 era. Plus back then technology didn’t allow for as big a visual divide between Halo 2 and Silent Hill 3. Now people who bought PS4s expect every retail game to look as good as Far Cry 4… but also want more risk and creativity.

Another 3D action shooter with realistic but simplistic graphics that made me think of this push and pull is Interstellar Marines. It runs on a modern graphics engine (Unity), but in terms of textures and overall use of color, its environments remind me of the original Deus Ex or Halo: Combat Evolved. It sort of looks like early 2000’s art assets dropped into a modern lighting engine. Fortunately Interstellar Marines heavily leverages that lighting engine.

The common issue with those games is they try to depict realistic (or somewhat realistic environments). The Yakuza series on PS3 has faced similar criticism. I’ve seen reviews point out how its art assets don’t quite measure up to Uncharted, and how most of its dialogue is text-only.

A lot of lower-budget full retail console games these days seem to dodge the criticism through sheer quality of art direction or using cartoonish graphics which seem to be less costly. When you think about it fighting games are perfect for this kind of thing, and they’re one of the only old genres to survive today’s game industry intact while survival horror games are getting turned into shooters. When you think about it, the prominence of niche Japanese fighting games like French Bread’s recent Under Night: In-Birth on the PS3 is pretty incredible. You’ve got games like Persona 4 Arena with huge 30-hour story modes that are literally visual novels — still images and text.

The best example of middle-budget console game production these days is probably the Souls series. The games get a lot of attention but sales-wise they’re still pretty niche, and those niche sales are enough for From Software. That’s possibly because they don’t spend a whole lot on bleeding-edge graphics and put sparse voice acting in the games. Yet, people don’t notice this very often, mostly because the Souls games have fantastic art direction. Every once a while before a new entry comes out people will express disappointment that they don’t use fancy lighting effects, they have low-quality character models (characters’ mouths don’t even move in any Souls game!), or don’t animate as smoothly as Nathan Drake. All those faults are probably part of the reason From Software can afford to be as creative as it is.

In fact Atlus has probably been the best publisher in recent years when it comes to reigning in budgets and maintaining healthy niche audiences. After a generation of several PS2 games, Atlus has only released Catherine for the PS3 and is just now about to follow up with Persona 5. The former contains basically one well-polished environment, a bunch of cut scenes, and some simple-looking block puzzles. P5 seems to be the game that will expand on this from a technology standpoint while still maintaining anime graphics that don’t exactly warrant the CryEngine.


  • EA got another one.
  • Bartkira seems to be coming along.
  • The PS2 is 15 years old. For its 10th anniversary way back on 1up I made a post about it that I think still applies. I might fish it out one day.
  • A pretty huge ArmA 3 update just dropped.
  • Apparently production just started on the new Luther episodes.
  • So someone just discovered an entire new lost civilization in the Honduran rainforest.
  • Good article on why the “historically accurate” argument concerning diversity in video games is often a load of crap.
  • So wait, did Dragon Age Inquisition not have mouse look until now?
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