Skyrim and the “10-year game”

This is an ice cold take, but the gaming industry as it stands is reaching the limit of its sustanability and Skyrim is a prime example. In an environment where Skyrim has come out on everything but baby monitors and the market is flooded with HD remakes like Kingdoms of Amalur: Re-Reckoning and all of Square’s offerings, it’s starting to feel like the industry needs to cash in on whatever it can. And the reason is because it’s probably true.

The 10-year game

Skyrim isn’t special. Not in the sense we’re talking about here. Just like the reason Chuck E. Cheese ended up with Helen Henny as a permanent character, the reason for its longevity is that’s just what was in place when the bottom fell out. If it had happened sooner, Oblivion would have served the purpose just as well. Mods are the game’s lifeblood and in that regard nothing separates Skyrim from its predecessor that couldn’t have been patched in if there’d been a need for it. Bethesda’s only claims of credit in Skyrim continuing to make them money are making its dev tools freely available as they had before and offering the Creator Club on consoles, which they hadn’t. As long as others continue to make them content for free, and especially if they continue to get a cut of the payoff for those free efforts, porting the game they already have to whatever will run it will remain financially sound. The hard part was done years ago and ports are easier than they’ve ever been with consoles becoming increasingly alike in hardware. You don’t "make" a 10-year game. You make a game and if you’re incredibly fortunate that blesses you with 10 years of interest. Pretending otherwise is pure hubris. Seriously, how many 10-hour shooters with online multiplayer are ghost towns 3 months after launch? How many MMOs were absolutely crushed by WoW? You can set out with grandiose plans of making a game that goes down in the annals of history, but you don’t control what everyone else is making and something can come out of nowhere that makes your game a footnote. Longevity in games is determined by a combination of quality, content, timing, and luck. Maybe a little pedigree, too, but don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Skyrim managed to win the lottery by having all of those, in no small part due to fan willingness to keep the content flowing and fix quality issues to their liking. And people rarely talk about it now, but Oblivion had the same thing. Bethesda made a bit of DLC, ultimately released Knights of the Nine as basically a new faction quest line, and only then finally threw in with Shivering Isles as a full expansion. But fans made tons of mods including followers, werewolves, and dismemberment that ultimately made their way into Skyrim. They also made significant progress on the ambitious Elsweyr the Deserts of Anequina, which is an expansion in its own right. They made gorgeous animated weapons, capes with real physics, alchemical ingredients for pitcher plants (which had none as an oversight), mods to add a variety of wildlife like "Alive Waters," weapons to enhance Unarmed combat, balance tweaks, graphical fixes and improvements galore, body replacers, texture replacers, weather enhancements, and basically everything you could possibly need to send the most powerful machines of the day screaming for mercy to deliver a world that was as realistic as you could possibly hope for. This only ever came to an end because Skyrim came out and essentially restarted the process by shifting fan attention away from Oblivion. When TES6 comes out, it will do the same to Skyrim. An Elder Scrolls game will last as long as fan creator attention. Fan creator attention will last for as long as The Elder Scrolls manages to not suck so hard that people don’t think it’s worth salvaging and Bethesda has the good sense to keep putting out their own development tools for free to let fans do the dev work for them. In that regard, no game in the series is inherently a 10-year game. Every game simply lasts until the next one comes out, at least from Oblivion onward. (Maybe Morrowind onward, though given the much lesser modding effort for Morrowind, I’d hazard that its larger contributions were simply that modding was possible and it offered things people wanted to put back into Oblivion to get the party started.)

The reason Skyrim has been so important to Bethesda as essentially free money (at least up until the Microsoft acquisition) is because Bethesda is at a size where in the current environment, they’d otherwise have to settle for making smaller games for a lower price. Bethesda isn’t in that business (essentially no one is) and having Skyrim printing money allows them to work on other big games like Fallout, Starfield, and eventually their next Elder Scrolls game. TES Online is a bit different because a) it’s outsourced to ZeniMax and 2) an MMO rarely is anything but self-sustaining. With the fall of WoW, that might be a little less true as interest scatters a bit more, but a game is a massive beast and an MMO is the most massive of all between regular content updates, patches, balance tweaks, and the cost of running a server or more likely several with as close to 100% uptime as possible. But overall, Bethesda can’t actually manage more than 1 or 2 games in the pipeline at once, and as game development grows ever more intensive and expensive to fill the rapidly advancing hardware, having something to keep the lights on is essential. Development of a game takes on the order of 5-7 years as of the PS3 era. Games have been in the works long enough to span into a new generation for literal decades. We’re getting Starfield before TES6 because they made a calculated move based on Skyrim keeping everyone’s attention. Skyrim is the gift that keeps on giving and that’s WHY the official word is that Starfield was a "now or never." They can’t rely on TES6 necessarily being the next Skyrim, because the future is always uncertain, but they have Skyrim now and it’s trending strong, which means they get to put one of the 2 series that’s their bread and butter on hold to start a third. Having Skyrim means they get to sustain on something without having to do the gaming equivalent of emergency commissions (if you know any artists, you know what I mean). Every Skyrim port is a low-risk endeavor that doesn’t require a lot of resources and keeps the money flowing the way a varied portfolio used to.

The flood of remakes

But since the industry has painted itself into a corner by not making mid-range budget titles and thus consumers not knowing what to make of one when they see it, the other solution is a remaster, which is where the likes of Square’s PS1 remasters, Amalur, and Dead Space come in, because you really do have a prime choice at this point. Digitally distributing PS1 games worked well for the Sony side for years through PSN on PS3 and even "PS2 on PS4" allowed a small smattering of that library to be re-sold with less effort than a new game, though clocking in at only 51 out of the PS2’s massive library, it’s clear the financial incentive didn’t really pan out. But the PS1 has a good library and plenty of nostalgia to work with. The good thing for studios is the bar has been set pretty low for a PS1 remaster because nearly anything is an improvement on what a modern display would otherwise show and Square has made bank on either using the PC versions as a base or simply redoing them in Unity. People have complained, mind you, and I’m one of them, but that doesn’t stop fans from buying them, myself included. On the other side of the divide, PS3 remasters are an excellent opportunity because while the PS3 lacks the same fidelity as the current generation, all of the same techniques in use now were in use then. Gaming largely was matured into its current form by the time the PS3 came around, including the 16:9 screen ratio, which is (as proven by the nightmare of FFX|X-2 Remaster) one of the biggest hurdles to porting a game due to all the seams being revealed by expanding the viewable area. It was already HD, which means remastering it doesn’t take anything more than better textures and, if you’re really ambitious, a higher poly count that you rig for the same animations. Now, granted, the art is the biggest cost and effort in a game other than advertising. It’s not like these remasters are being crapped out for free. At the same time, even advertising can take a back seat on the second go-around because all you have to do is announce it, then announce a release date, then throw some ads up once pre-orders go live, because the fans and games media are going to take care of the rest for you. The best advertising is by word of mouth and you’re going to get plenty of it on any game it makes sense to remaster in the first place. Nobody is remastering Ninjabread Man. These are games people already know and love and will be willing to shell out for to see prettier and not on a console with 3 inches of dust on the top.

If anything, really, the real tragedy is that PS2 games are a harder sell for remasters because they generally don’t look completely terrible (and in most cases the remasters look demonstrably worse because the PS2 was actually really good at alpha blending where newer consoles aren’t) and they’re simply more work to ensure that you’re not seeing things you’re not supposed to in in-engine cutscenes, though given the plummeting cost of storage by the PS2 era, it’s likely you actually have the original assets to at least re-render the pre-rendered cutscenes for widescreen. Which is good! Always better when you can add information to the sides rather than having to choose what to subtract from the top and/or bottom! But overall PS2 remasters are in a really awkward position and probably always will be. And it certainly doesn’t help that some of them have aged much better graphically than they have in the writing department because of dated references and problematic language and situations that were always considered offensive, but were very prevalent at the time because that was what passed for humor and was the point.

The source of the problem

Ultimately, this problem is one years in the making and it comes from putting pencil-pushers in charge of creative works. Everyone has been copying each other’s homework trying to chase the same audience of "everyone" for so long that it’s all ultimately for no one and franchises sell more on brand loyalty than any difference in features. The corporations have been tasked with infinite skyrocketing growth and are afraid of risk or trying to target a specific market segment, so nothing brings anything truly new anymore. It’s not just your 10-hour shooters that all look the same; it’s Square Enix adamantly chasing the action RPG and ironically having to work out how not to leave their massive turn-based core fanbase behind for the one thing they can’t F up being a sure sell; it’s the bevy of arena-based shooters all chasing the Overwatch market; it’s shooters going open-world even though they’re filled with nothing and lack direction. It’s Final Fantasy XIII trying to chase a Western market that would have preferred a Japanese game in the first place and becoming one of the most heavily derided titles of the series and trying to refine that for two more games and set Lightning up as a multiversal character and the core fanbase wanting NONE of it. All of this while funneling millions into rendering characters down to their nose hair because graphics are the only way anyone knows how to sell anything and the market has been conditioned to drool over graphics as a Pavlovian response. The whole thing has been obviously unsustainable for years and we’re seeing an industry flailing in its last efforts to stay afloat because their business model relies on every game they make growing to fill the container of new consoles that have more processing power than any reasonable effort could ever use just because it’s expected at this point. Nothing is wrong with the PS4 Pro or even really the PS4. Both are astonishingly powerful machines, but the PS5 is just so much more powerful than that it’s hard to even describe. Technology is advancing so rapidly each new generation puts the supercomputers of the last generation to shame, and make no mistake, you’re absolutely dealing with supercomputers. Police already were using the PS3 for password cracking and the most powerful supercomputer of the time was basically 100 of them strapped together because that’s literally what the Cell processor was designed for. PS3 server farms were a literal thing and only 8 were needed for astrophysics simulations. And yet every generation developers strive to use every last bit of the hardware capacity, which is, in short, expensive for many reasons. And that’s before just as much or more money is thrown into advertising. It’s getting to a point where games are being considered failures after selling millions of units and garnering critical acclaim because budgets are so overblown the break-even point is approaching more sales than there are PEOPLE in the world.

The entire thing is slowly falling apart before our eyes like a rusted-out truck on the highway and the solution to their need to keep selling what they know sells for minimal effort is to literally keep selling things they know sold before with a new coat of paint or on a new system or hacked together into VR. Making anything actually new is expensive and it’s risky. And any failure at all is enough to put most studios under. But pencil-pushers know what sold before and like a toddler with one joke, they’re going to keep repeating it until everyone is finally sick of it. The more noise they make with it, the more likely it is to get everyone’s attention. Because ultimately they don’t want your money; they want ALL the money, because that’s ultimately what shareholders demand. They’re chasing a limit that’s fast approaching as wealth is consolidated in the pockets of the ultra-rich. Make no mistake; adjusted for inflation, the $60 game we got comfortable with is the cheapest games have ever been and the $70 game this generation (or $60 PS4 game with a $10 PS5 upgrade, we see you, Sony) is just adjusting that cost for inflation. Only inflation is decidedly not the same as purchasing power, because that $70 is less and less in our pockets as time goes on with a minimum wage that should be nearly $30 if properly adjusted and the fight for $15 meeting harsh resistance. They’re tasked with parting us all from more and more money we don’t have to get fat bonuses for record profits, but they’re doing it under a single business model that’s like going all in at the poker table on a big hand. They aren’t playing any smaller hands with fewer chips where all the experimentation and innovation used to happen.

So what is the solution?

Cheaper games with smaller budgets. No, seriously, this is nothing new. The studios knew this like a decade ago and some of them tried creating "indie" studios to shore up their numbers, and while that’s quietly faded, megacorps haven’t been shy about buying up indie studios or really even large studios in the worst industry consolidation we’ve seen in decades. Indie games can make back their budget easily and indie studios are being snapped up early to bleed and later gut and/or discard. But the industry knows full well that indie is succeeding where they aren’t and is trying to incorporate that into their own business model to stay afloat, even if they have zero idea how to manage it. Those smaller games are essential to the industry’s survival and the industry is well aware of it.

Case in point, when you look at why Square Enix is able to be so successful, it’s because they’re one of the few major companies with a diverse portfolio, having put smaller, more experimental games on handheld systems like the 3DS and cell phones for better or worse, while still putting out big games for high prices, and while they’ve just cut loose some studios for underperforming, Square as a whole is still afloat. Square has been in an open marriage with Sony for years, but when they deny rumors of a merger, I believe them, because Square has always been one to bring something out for the new upstart system in town, whether that was the WonderSwan or OUYA, and really how they started with PlayStation in the first place. Square Enix isn’t in a position as both a developer and publisher that they need or really want someone to bail them out. As Sony and Microsoft gobble up the rest of the industry, Square Enix is probably going to be one of the last ones standing specifically because they’re one of the last ones creating smaller games at lower prices. Even if that includes a lot of remasters and remakes (there’s not a decade since the original release of Final Fantasy in 1987 that it hasn’t been re-released somehow), that also includes a lot of original content like the Bravely Default series.

The pencil-pushers have been chasing all the money in the world for so long that they’re not satisfied with anything like a "moderate success" or "niche title" anymore. Even the "niche" stuff like Soulslikes are hitting a broader market and if any of the indie offerings manage enough success to garner AAA attention, we’re liable to see more of them, just like we ended up with Returnal from the success of indie Roguelikes.