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February 5, 2014

Are Big Budgets Ruining Storytelling?

Time for me to reveal a big secret about myself: I like video games.

I’m one of those people who believe that video games can be art, and by extension make for a unique medium bursting with potential.  I’m not the only one who feels the same way -- but on the flip side, the fact that I hold games in such high esteem just makes all the problems and failures sting that much more.  

I know it’s a little early to start with the doom-and-gloom toward the new consoles on the block, but cripes a la mode, neither Sony nor Microsoft have come even close to justifying an upgrade, what with titles like Ryse and Knack.  To be fair, the Wii U also had and still has problems, but right now I’m convinced that the console that’s actually interested in delivering good games will do so long before its rivals.

(Side note: have you played The Wonderful 101 yet?  You should.  Because it’s dope.)


Console woes aside -- but only to an extent -- it seems like there are diminishing returns on the amount of money put into a game and the actual quality of it.  Halo: Reach may have made something like $220 million dollars in one day to justify its likely sky-high budget, but a rock had more personality than the entire cast put together.  The same applies even more so to Halo 4, no doubt; Microsoft said that it is (or was, at the time) its most expensive game, but it tossed out all attempts at quality for so-so gameplay (with a multiplayer suite that, IIRC, wasn't well-received by all the fans), Master Chief glorification, and visuals at once pointlessly elaborate and depressingly bland. 

It’s a symbol of the triple-A games regime: sure, they might -- emphasis on might these days -- make their money back, but they’re pumping so much money into it that all the talent and creativity gets shoved off the edge of a cliff.  It’s a real problem…but it seems like no matter where I look, money issues are a problem for almost every medium.  Video games and movies are the chief examples, but I suspect there are others.  I suspect there are problems running through every corner of the entertainment industry -- the industry responsible for giving us much-needed stories -- and things have just as much potential to get worse as they do to get better.

So pardon my apocalyptic pondering, but I’m curious to see what you guys think about the subject.  Based on your experiences (with any given medium/your medium of choice), do you think that big budgets are doing more harm to media and storytelling than good?  Feel free to weigh in on that subject at your leisure.  I’ll reserve my thoughts for now, but I will say this much: I’m glad that indie games are finding a place in the gaming world, but I can only imagine how much good they could do if they had the resources of a bigger production.  If Atlus and the Persona Team had the big bucks of the Call of Duty team, I’d like to think they could make a game of reality-shattering quality…and ensure that thousands of gamers perpetually stay at full mast.  That said, you don’t need a million dollars to come up with a good story.  It helps realize it when/if it’s time to go audiovisual, but what’s important is the vision and the will to realize it.  Everything else is just gravy.

Aw, snap!  Kamen Rider W reference!  Now, count up your --

Ahem.  Anyway, I’ll leave the rest up to you.  Got an opinion?  Feel free to weigh in.  Just watch those wallets along the way, all right?  Ready, set, comment!


  1. Silly blogger. You only need look at the epic trilogy of double dragon games for the only plot ever needed.

    Double Dragon: You kidnapped my girlfriend, now you must pay. (Bonus fun fact: Billy and Jimmy fight to the death over her at the end. Saucy.)
    Double Dragon II: You killed my girlfriend, now you must pay. (Spoilers: Oh never mind, she was just sleeping. S'cool. Last boss was a jerk anyway.)
    Double Dragon III: You kidnapped my girlfriend again brainwashed her and made her try to kill me. Now you must pay again and... she... must pay?

    Ok math time. Now replace girlfriend with the variable X. Pay with Y and Kidnapped with Z.

    "You (Z) my (X) now you must (Y)."

    80% of triple A games have one of these plots or some variation thereof.

  2. Since I was raised with an extremely frugal mother, who often lovingly mocks my expensive hobbies (someone's gonna only steal my stuff b/c nothing else in the house is worth as much, she'll get some retirement bucks off selling my stuff etc), I have some standards. It baffles me when one places so much money on a glass cannon that will be expensive to replace. It bothers me more when said cannon can't fire anything worth a nanosecond of energy to fire a neuron. That's why I don't care if a game or movie looks pretty, if that's all that's going for it, I'll just walk away and not invest in the product.

    I think the main problem though is putting too much faith in "safe" avenues. Why are people complaining about remakes and sequels? They are quick easy bucks off of stale ideas, or even good ones only brought down by its successors. But these films keep getting made, so clearly a profit is being made. A similar logic applies to the military shooter phase we're still trapped in. So it's a strange world where unoriginality is scorned, but earns a ton of cash anyway, thus allowing more investment and cash in unoriginality, only for the budget to be so massive that sales demand must be high to compensate. Either the film bombs or it succeeds, it doesn't matter: the makers will find an excuse to salvage the garbage and start the unoriginality cycle again. If it bombs, they'll wait a few years until the storm calms down, like the recent Texas Chainsaw Massacre flicks. If it succeeds, at least two more sequels will be planned... like Transformers.

    Yeah. It just sucks to be a consumer when you want bold new ideas, but the rest of the world demands otherwise. The joys of free choice and capitalism.

  3. Ah, I've heard about that big twist at the end of the first Double Dragon. I suppose that really is the only way it could end, isn't it? I should probably keep that in mind in the event that my brother and I traverse the streets in search of a missing lady friend. I'll have to start carrying around caltrops once we close in on her.

    All right, let's give your formula a try (though how depressing is it that it can be pared down to a formula?). We'll use Gears of War. That's a fine whipping boy if there ever was one.

    Let's see here. You RUINED my PLANET now you must DIE. Hmmm. Interesting.


  4. Oh god, you just reminded me that the RoboCop remake is a thing that's happening -- and if I know my brother (himself a RoboCop fan/consumer of questionable standards), he's going to want to see it. With me. Oh, I only hope it's not as bad as I think it's going to be.

    But my hopes have been dashed before. So...shit.

    But yes, safe avenues? That's a problem. And it's a problem created by these big budgets as well as perpetuated by them...nightmarish a scenario as that sounds. I'd like to think that even in the case of something as heinous as the Transformers movies, they pump more money and more spectacle into it because of high (well, high-ish) expectations. More explosions! More battles! More orange and blue! They can't go any lower than the previous step, so I guess in a way they need those budgets.

    "But these films keep getting made, so clearly a profit is being made."

    And that's the thing that scares me. The bigwigs behind game development have been talking about turning games into a "service", and we've already seen that on a small-scale -- DLC -- and a large scale -- the Xbox One debacle. So I wonder: is it really that far-fetched to assume that big budgets are just trying to get consumers running on the hamster wheel? Blind them with spectacle, and features, and safe avenues to gain their loyalty? And because of that, maybe the guys behind these business decisions are putting themselves on a wheel of their own?

    I guess the only thing we can say for sure is that every big industry is silly. They don't even have the decency to stage giant robot coliseum battles to the death with Robosaurus clones.

  5. There was this very intersting article on Cracked about the madness inherent in the current state of the videogame industry and its business plan which, as it turns out is the worst plan ever.


    Now I would hate to sound alarming, but video games appear to be reaching some sort of singularity of crap, where expensive mediocrity is piled upon expensive mediocrity to the point where it might take one (count it, 1) triple-A commercial flop to bring the whole system tumbling down. Argubly, it is not going to be as bad as the epic videogame crash of the 80's, but it's bound to happen.

  6. You're probably right there. Pretty much everyone acknowledges that SOMETHING is going to happen, but the idea is that things will fragment enough so that the industry will be -- IIRC -- smaller and more focused. Indies will probably be okay, for one thing.

    My guess (based on what I've heard elsewhere) is that something is going to happen in this newly-started console generation. The idea with the new consoles -- the PS4 especially, thanks to lessons learned from the PS3 -- and some of the new engines is that they're supposed to make development smarter and more efficient, and that would make things easier as well as cheaper. It sounds airtight...until you hear about devs saying that they're going to have to spend more time and more effort into making damn near everything (we need the most realistic chair-breaking physics ever, RIGHT NAO!), and turning game after game into an open-world sandbox just like GTA 5 just because...well, that's what you do with more processing power, right? And it worked for GTA, so it'll work for us!

    Long story short, the industry is full of big dumb silly heads. That Cracked article had it right -- we're in serious need of change. SERIOUS need.

  7. The worst part is that these changes wouldn't have been so hard to make 2 or 3 years ago, before things went out of hand with the next-gen wars (oh my god, I am 28 years old and I still mention franchise clashes as 'wars' what am I doing with my life?). By that time, games COULD have been made for less and even some of the ridiculously expensive ones could have been easily contained, in the interest of ensuring the developer's survival.

    Budgets exploded 3 years ago, just before the economy went to shit. Right now, the 'graphix warz' bullshit reminds me a lot of nuclear stockpiling in the cold war: each side is just pouring money into gaining an edge over the other, which becomes immediately obsolete sometimes even during development.

    The circle can't be broken now, not unless indie games start breaking into the market and somehow become hugely popular, forcing the bigger companies to make a change in direction. Other than that, I don't really see a way out of this.

  8. Yeah, I think that the Big Three -- Sony especially, from what I've heard -- are all trying to work with making indie devs/games into a platform on their respective systems. So that's good, at least. That said, the bigger companies have already started making changes in direction...by trying to find ways to gouge out and control gamers, and turning games into "services". DLC, microtransactions, free-to-play shenanigans...and let us not speak of Final Fantasy: All the Bravest, a game so relentless in its quest for consumer dollars that sites made PSAs telling people not to touch it.

    I'd like to think, or at least hope, that Nintendo's going to make it out all right. (Totally not biased!) The Wii U's not in a good place right now, sure, but even if the Big N's reportedly feeling the sting of HD development costs, at least they're jumping into that pit of spikes A) long after everyone else has, B) with a war chest stocked from the ass-kicking of the Wii AND the continued successes of the 3DS, and C) while everyone else jumps into ANOTHER pit of spikes with eighth-generation development costs/demands. Only this time, the pit of spikes is also on fire.

    You know, Bob "MovieBob" Chipman had some insights on this subject, too. If you haven't seen some of his stuff before, you should probably start now. Like, right now. Here's one to get you started.

    Be wary, though. You might want to have some tissues nearby when you watch it.


  9. I can really see your points and I liked Moviebob's points, but I have to admit, I never was a fan of those unnecessary 'post-review' sketches and Moviebob's was the cingiest I've seen. Still, if you try to look past his Nintendo-bias, he makes a few darn good points.

  10. Yeah, MovieBob's sketches aren't exactly what I'd call "high quality", and he does acknowledge in other videos that they're not exactly good OR popular. But, I don't know, it just seems like there's a certain charm to them. Hard to say if that's intentional or not, but hey. It's got distinctly-husky ninjas making up the better part of its cast, so I'd call that a win.

    I'd definitely sift through some of his other stuff if you get the chance. His videos on The Escapist have all of the good points and none of the sketches, so there's that. Also, his Boston accent flares up every now and then, and when it does, the comments section has a field day.

  11. There was a good point brought up on Superhero Rewind that smaller budgets force you to work inside a smaller box, but what is inside that box is tighter, and more concise, because of it.

    It almost seems that big budgets have too big of a box because there are so many things they can do, and are expected to do, that pulling off any one thing well seems like you MUST cut out some of your box. As such, you get an Avengers movie that is mostly:

    "Wow, holy crap, look at all these characters on the screen at the same time!" *enter big theme music and slow motion of Captain America and Thor fighting side by side*

    "Yeah, but what about story telling? I mean, what about that Captain America scene where he is making yet another cliched reference to America and Nazi Germany (cringe), or the hap-hazard story line of Black Widow erasing the red from her ledger (get that bitch off the screen I want to see someone with powers), or the complete lack of any character arch or real story like...."

    "Shut up, did you see those explosions? OMFG, it was too funny when Hulk hit Thor...and look, we have five characters on the screen together!!! We ain't got time for your stupid questions about logic and story."

    "Five Characters, there are six..."

    "No one cares about the dude with arrows..."

    Michael Bay movies of the best example of the big budget vs story telling problem. It's not that I think Michael Bay would be capable of producing a decent story if forced to work with a small budget, but his movies are the perfect example of the type of movies that get the big bucks pumped behind them.

    Better get some hot model to show some skin while some robots blow up to justify this budget!!!

  12. Fair point on the "smaller box". I mean, I'm pretty sure the saying goes "less is more", not "more is more, so add in some explosions!" But maybe I'm remembering that wrong.

    I guess the consequence of all the big spending -- at least in the games sector -- is that the indie side of things is thriving because the big guys can't get their act together...and when they do, it runs the risk of being a shallow mess. So this semi-shift in the balance of power is something to be thankful for, but...I don't know. it kind of feels like the minds behind indie games deserve better. Give the right people a bigger box, and they'll make rainbows and unicorns and race cars burst out of them, I bet.

    I would say more about others (Michael Bay), but even daring to think about that makes me run the risk of a soul-crushing existential crisis. I saw Dark of the Moon. I've suffered enough.