It’s the end of an era – of two eras, in fact. At this moment, you can walk into a game shop or pop over to your preferred online retailer, and buy, actually buy with real money, both Final Fantasy XV (which started development in 2006) and The Last Guardian (work on which commenced in 2007). Two of the longest-running development processes, and indeed longest-running jokes, in the industry have finally come to a close. Unlike previous marathon dev cycles like Duke Nukem Forever (started in 1997, launched in 2011) and Daikatana (whose three-year development time now looks positively reasonable by comparison, despite being two years longer than planned), these epic stories even seem to have a happy ending, with both games being largely well-received.
It’s not just the end of an era because these titles have finally been released, though. It’s also the end of an era because in many ways, The Last Guardian and Final Fantasy XV are relics of an earlier time. The whole manner in which they’ve been developed and created is a hangover from a previous decade, preserved in amber by their stubborn, years-long refusal to be finished and wrangled onto a Blu-ray disc. With their release, coincidentally within days of one another, it’s not only the saga of their individual development processes that draws to a close; they are the last of their kind. Unless you’re some kind of Half-Life 3 truther, there are no more of these epic, bizarre, oft-delayed beasts that we’re waiting for. The curtain has fallen on 2000s game development.
The significance of this derives from the fact that these beasts from an earlier era show up just how much the industry has changed and moved on in the time since they were announced. The mid-2000s structures that created these games and that permitted them to turn into sprawling, decade-long and monstrously expensive development morasses are, for the most part, gone. We shall not see their like again, not least because an industry in which many companies have skirted bankruptcy due to this kind of project has changed precisely in order to prevent this from happening again.
“The notion of the all-controlling auteur sitting at the head of a gigantic, phenomenally expensive development project is very much one from the 2000s”
The influences that have changed the industry have come from various places. Engagement with the world of mobile and social games has been a major force for change – not just because publishers are making mobile titles, but because they’re learning from how mobile games are made. They’ve seen how risk can be lowered – not eliminated, but lowered – by back-loading much of the development process; treating game creation not as something that finishes when the game launches, but something that continues long afterwards, with the game already generating revenue even as the team continues to build it, informed by genuine user feedback and data about player activity. That paradigm is central to mobile, and it’s now the beating heart of the “AAA+” games that combine AAA production values and aesthetics with Software as a Service (SaaS) principles to keep players engaged for months or even years.
On a more fine-grained level, game companies have also been influenced – albeit by no means uniformly – by new approaches to software development and business organisation largely pioneered in the US start-up scene. It’s becoming increasingly common to hear developers talk about their processes in terms that originated in Silicon Valley; lean start-ups, agile development, scrums and stand-ups. Some of the concepts being adopted are buzzword bingo; others are solid, valuable ideas that are helping teams to communicate, to rapidly prototype and iterate on ideas, and perhaps most crucially, to identify things that aren’t working earlier in the process than was possible before. No one concept is a panacea to development hell, but each of them, implemented wisely, is another strand in the safety net that’s been woven to prevent projects and studios from repeating the mistakes of the past.
One outcome of all of this has been a subtle but important change to the notion of the “auteur”. The Last Guardian’s Fumito Ueda undoubtedly falls into that category; Final Fantasy XV’s Tetsuya Nomura is perhaps a more questionable figure, but from a management perspective the label fits. The notion of the all-controlling auteur sitting at the head of a gigantic, phenomenally expensive development project is very much one from the 2000s, however. Hideo Kojima’s acrimonious break-up with Konami came largely because the company no longer wanted an auteur figure spending tens of millions of dollars on risky, five- or six-year long development cycles. The new breed of auteur which has emerged in the intervening years is no less talented, but far more focused, capable of delivering games regularly, on time and on budget, recognising this as being as much a part of their job as the implementation of their singular vision. Consider, for example, that just about the entire extraordinary career of Hidetaka Miyazaki (the whole Souls series and Bloodborne) has taken place while Ueda and Nomura struggled to get a single game out the door.
“The age of the auteur is not over…but the role has changed, and it’s impossible to imagine any company tolerating a development process like Final Fantasy XV’s or The Last Guardian’s in this day and age”
It’s not that there’s no room in the industry for big, impressive games, or for the creatives who dream them up. The age of the auteur is not over – Kojima, after all, had companies falling over themselves to fund his new studio after his departure from Konami – but the role has changed, and it’s impossible to imagine any company tolerating a development process like Final Fantasy XV’s or The Last Guardian’s in this day and age. Sony, which publishes The Last Guardian and is bankrolling Kojima’s new studio, is likely to be the most liberal publisher with regard to its handling of creatives; it recognises that the value of having a high-profile auteur working on PS4-exclusive software goes far beyond the question of how many copies their games will sell. (Which, given that Hideo Kojima appears to be spending Sony’s money on an utterly impenetrable head-wrecker whose primary theme thus far is “my best mates hold babies for some reason”, is just as well. It’ll still probably sell five million copies, though.)
So enjoy Final Fantasy XV and The Last Guardian (I’ll get around to them eventually, but I finally cracked and picked up Persona 5 last week – incidentally, that’s a series that has had three magnificent instalments released in the time since Final Fantasy XV started development – so I doubt I’ll get around to them this side of the new year), and marvel at the strange, winding and terribly long pathway that brought them to us. Enjoy it all the more because it’s almost certainly the last time we’ll see something like this happen – and that’s a very good thing, for games and for the industry. The excesses of the 2000s are no way to build a sustainable industry or, really, to make good games. With the launch of Final Fantasy XV and The Last Guardian, we can finally shut the door on that chapter of our history.