Big budget gaming presents a challenge for newcomers

Some of the most hyped console games aren’t friendly to newcomers. Games like God of War: Ragnorok, Elden Ring, and Apex Legends are sales and critical juggernauts, but they can be a steep climb for those with slower reflexes or less free time. Big studios would benefit from diversification – more genres, shorter playtimes, less twitchy action – yet remain as conservative as ever in their approach.

Big budget games tend to fall into two camps: open ended, multiplayer games as a service (Destiny 2, Apex Legends, FIFA 23) or long running action adventure narratives (God of War: Ragnorok, The Last of Us: Part II). The former demands practice and knowledge of the latest meta to stay competitive, and the latter often takes 25 or more hours to complete. Gamers with less time and attention have an either or proposition: we stick to AAA behemoths like Elden Ring for an extended period or take more comfortable, varied pacing with smaller indie games.

Suggesting it’s hard to juggle Destiny 2 runs alongside a small indie puzzler may sound ridiculous. However, a long break from the action can mean forgetting side characters or critical action mechanics. That game complexity can add pressure to mainline content. Given their long length, spaced out over shorter gaming sessions, a single game can be a multi week, if not multi month, commitment. Monotony can set in.

I often bypass big titles entirely to avoid feeling “locked into” a sprawling single release. I’d rather play shorter games across a broad set of genres, often with less buzz, lower OpenCritic scores, and smaller budgets. So for this holiday, God of War: Ragnorok is a non-starter. For the same time commitment, I’d instead start and finish survival horror Signalis, point and click adventure Return to Monkey Island, mystery survivalist Somerville, and toy for a while with Vampire Survivors.

I’m confident there are gamers in a similar situation, ready to open their wallets to something different. So why won’t the biggest studios cater more to us?

Deeply entrenched studio conservatism remains a challenge. With beefier gaming hardware and the evolution of genres, AAA game budgets have skyrocketed. This, in turn, puts increasing pressure to stick with the game mechanics and genres that are proven hits. In this sequel and franchise heavy atmosphere, momentum expands on what came before: better graphics, longer game lengths, and more complex gameplay.

Look at how The Last of Us evolved from its 2013 PS3 debut to the sequel on PS4 seven years later. Part II’s story runs double the length. Enemy AI is far smarter under more open combat areas, requiring extra player ingenuity and faster decision making.

Granted, more immersive action and complex plotting are significant improvements. PlayStation Studios would also argue new accessibility and difficulty settings make the journey easier for those that want to experience the story. Nevertheless, those new to PlayStation or with less time on their hands run into the same challenge: 25 hours to see a story’s end, more enemy types to juggle, and more RPG-like upgrades to manage.

Cynically, I also wonder if the largest studios look to mobile platforms as the logical endpoint for slightly more casual gamers like me. Phone and tablet gaming is the fastest growing part of the gaming industry; studios like Insomniac and Playground probably see me shifting to a free-to-play phone game rather than a smaller passion project they might generate.

Finally, industry veterans underestimate how much gaming’s signature feature – interactivity – transforms a player’s approach to time and difficulty. Because the controller drives the narrative, gaming is forever a “lean forward” activity in a world of mostly “lean back” entertainment alternatives. That difference can turn twenty or thirty hours of relaxing on the couch into a slog.

Entrenched studio habits can be hard to break, but gaming’s biggest studios taking chances on smaller, nonfranchise entertainment has enormous potential. At a suitable investment and budget, such endeavors can be profitable and, given the studios’ pedigree and high visibility, bring new console players into the fold. Obsidian Studios’ Pentiment is the template that comes to mind: thirteen developers, niche adventure plotting, and low key Microsoft marketing. I suspect the game will succeed on many levels: profitable, a buzzed about critical favorite (86 on OpenCritic), and bring new players into the Xbox ecosystem that may have associated the brand with just Halo and Forza.

Is Pentiment a one off? Or will this be the start of many big studio passion projects? For the sake of the larger gaming industry, I’m hoping it’s the latter.