James Stephanie Sterling
Where Did All The BioShocks Go?
Did you play that new BioShock game? The hot new game that everyone's talking about? What do you mean all we have this generation are remasters?
Let's talk about that. Not yet though. First, let's talk about the current state of the industry before openly wondering what became of the series Irrational Games built.
The realm of “AAA” videogames is a slimeslick hellscape of depravity and decadence, but every now and then good things can still happen within the confines of its wretched territory. While this generation has been saturated beyond repair by desperate live service cash grabs and an endless stream of open world games full of nebulous busywork, we have seen - particularly this year - a number of encouragingly well made and offbeat titles crawling out from under the rubble of a devastated and confused industry.
More importantly, in a world where almost all videogames sell “below expectations” due to absurd investor promises and unrealistic sales projections, these titles are actually performing incredibly well. So well in fact that for the first time in a long time, genuinely good games are not being unfairly paraded around as disappointments by their publishers.
Capcom is especially notorious for claiming its games sell below expectations due to ridiculous sales predictions that such games couldn’t hope to match. Resident Evil 7, below expectations. Dead Rising 4, below expectations. Marvel vs. Capcom Infinite, below expectations. Monster Hunter Stories, below expectations. You know the drill by now.
When Resident Evil 2 released and it turned out to be fucking excellent, I was expecting and dreading the usual investor call, the usual rundown, the usual contrived story of a critically and commercially successful game still managing to disappoint its publisher.
But that didn’t happen. Resident Evil 2 has instead been hitting milestone after milestone. As of March, the impressive re-imagining of a horror classic had shifted 4 million copies worldwide. Three million of those sales were accrued in its first week alone. This puts it well within the performance of the Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry franchises, and it's been Capcom’s second most successful Steam launch behind Monster Hunter: World.
By all accounts, Capcom is crowing about this success, not diminishing it as a letdown. It's predicted the game will match pace with Resident Evil 7, which is both reasonable and sensible rather than utterly fucking stupid like most publisher predictions.
Another company that has been known to voice dissatisfaction with wildly popular games is - of course - Activision Blizzard. Let’s not forget that Black Ops 4 made $500 million in just three days but that wasn’t quite as much as the last Black Ops made so investors panicked and a wildly successful game now has the reputation of a failure.
When Activision was named as the publisher of From Software’s Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, there were many reasons to be worried. Activision is, after all, the company that put microtransactions and gambling into a remaster of a game that had none, and resold the DLC for it with a price hike. Activision Blizzard is total fucking scum, and yet they allowed Sekiro to just be a good honest From Software game, releasing it to critical acclaim and impressive sales.
But I did indeed fear that it would be the same story as usual - Sekiro Performs Below Expectations. For once, a grim prediction I made about the industry turned out to not come true, however, and I couldn’t be happier.
Sekiro cleared two million sales in ten days and is on track to be From’s best performing game. Amazingly, Activision is actually happy with it!
Company COO Collister Johnson beamed about the success of the game, saying, “[Our first quarter] saw the highly successful release of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, the result of Activision’s approach to selectively partnering with high-quality developers to leverage our publishing and marketing scale and expertise. We couldn’t be more pleased with the collaboration, execution, and response to FromSoftware’s critically acclaimed title from gaming communities worldwide.”
Activision giving itself a pat on the back for its own "expertise" in the matter is a little galling considering the rest of the company's output, but this is nonetheless encouraging to see!
The stellar success of these games, and the fact their publishers aren’t complaining, is a most welcome bright spot in a generation overshadowed by reprehensible business practices and the systematic deliberate degradation of game quality committed by a saddening number of reckless, greed-fueled companies.
That the positivity has come from two publishers notorious for depressing forecasts and deflating assessments only adds to the sweet flavor of success.
It’s worth noting these two games are not "live services" at all. They’re not even multiplayer games in any way. They are both single-player experiences taking place in carefully constructed environments rather than open worlds full of repetitive menial tasks masquerading as gameplay. They’re straightforward, honest to goodness videogames without tacked on bullshit, aggressive persistent monetization, or contrived online requirements.
They’re just good fucking videogames, and it seems as if the market is still wide open for good fucking videogames. Who knew?
Who knew that in the videogame industry, videogames could still sell really well. Not services, not "recurrent user spending" bollocks, but just frigging videogames. Made by videogame developers, sold by videogame publishers, to videogame players who play videogames on their machines built to play videogames when the people who buy videogames want to play videogames.
Something something videogames.
It’s pretty obvious that major “AAA” publishers have embraced the "live service" model to a near ubiquitous degree, abandoning varied and unique user experiences for a whole bunch of sandbox looter shooters and similar bollocks. It's not like these services and open world games are inherently bad, but when they’re produced to the near exclusion of anything else in the mainstream space, said space becomes boring, lifeless, and sickeningly cynical.
Have you ever sat there and thought to yourself, “Wow, we are almost at the end of this console generation and we haven’t had a single new BioShock game?" Just think about that for a moment if you haven’t.
One of the biggest fucking games of last gen, one of the most memorable, evocative, and marketable intellectual properties in recent games history, and yet for an entire generation, for nigh on six fucking years, 2K Games just hasn’t been bothered with it, choosing instead to focus primarily on microtransaction-led experiences which are a lot harder to justify with the BioShock IP. It’s difficult to add microtransactions and loot boxes to a game like BioShock without fundamentally wrecking the experience and indirectly demonstrating many of the series’ themes pertaining to unchecked industry, so 2K appeared to simply stop giving a fuck.
I mean seriously think about it. Isn’t that just bloody weird to imagine? A game that played a huge part in defining an entire console generation just… fucking… gone. If a game can’t be mangled and twisted to generate “recurrent user spending” then it’s abandoned.
With this in mind, it’s impressive and laudable that Gearbox Software managed to somehow get 2K to back off that shit with Borderlands 3. While there will be some monetization, and while Gearbox head Randy Pitchford keeps causing kerfuffles, I have to praise Gearbox as a studio for championing the fact that Borderlands would stop being Borderlands if it started segregating its famously abundant loot drops into premium tiers or gated off the good stuff behind horrendous fucking loot boxes.
Few series are as primed, ripened, and ready for excessive monetary parasitism than Borderlands, and for a publisher as predatory as 2K Games, the restraint is surprising. I like to think their executives have turned blue from the strain it takes, knowing how much cash they're theoretically leaving on the table.
The “live service” market is already collapsing under the weight of its own bullshit, as pundits like myself warned years ago. There are too many of them, and they’re often so shoddily produced they’re reducing faith in the industry. High profile embarrassments like Anthem and Fallout 76, as well as outright disasters including Boss Key Studios’ entire output demonstrate there’s little room in the market left for half-baked cash grabs.
The success of this year’s solo, story-driven experiences demonstrates that those publishers with a diverse portfolio of games will fair a lot better than companies who went all-in on one single type of product, which even an idiot could tell you is ill-advised myopia at the best of bloody times.
The industry loves to pretend huge sectors of the game buying public don’t exist. Single-player games are dead, they claim. Horror games don’t sell, they claim. Nobody wants turn-based strategy anymore, they claim. Major publishers have attempted to push narratives like this for as long as I’ve been doing my job, and I’ve done my job for a long-ass time. It’s all propaganda, it’s all bullshit. The people who love single-player games have always been there, it’s just harder to squeeze more money out of customers who expect to simply buy and play a videogame like normal.
I think it should be seen as unsurprising when single-player games are seen performing well. The audience for those types of experiences never went away, they were just deliberately ignored by an industry that didn’t see appealing to them as worth the effort.
Of COURSE Resident Evil 2 sold fucking well. We haven’t had a Resident Evil that felt quite like this in years! OF COURSE Sekiro sold well. From’s output has consistently demonstrated people are hungry for challenging, atmospheric, primarily solo adventures to the utter ignorance of most mainstream game publishers.
And may I just say bless Focus Home Interactive’s output of late, they're one of the few true producers of classic mid-tier games left. Remember when we had a mid-tier? Not quite “AAA”, but not really indie? Focus has been giving us games like Vampyr which is a little janky but nonetheless charming as fuck.
Their recent release, A Plague Tale: Innocence is bloody terrific and I cannot praise it enough. My feelings toward that game echo what I’ve said here - A Plague Tale is the kind of game I was starving for. Something narratively intriguing with a moody atmosphere and genuinely unsettling horror elements. Where far bigger publishers with more resources and a greater incentive to diversify have totally failed me, Focus has been putting out some Grade-A B-list videogames.
It’s the kind of concept put forth by Ninja Theory when creating the critically acclaimed Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. Ninja Theory called it an “indie AAA”, others call it a “AA” game. I think both are insulting to Hellblade, because evoking the pathetic mess that is the “AAA” industry is unfair to a title like Hellblade, or Vampyr, or Plague Tale. These are earnest games that put the experience first and the money a distant second. That’s not “AAA”, which I still maintain is an attitudinal, not a financial, designation.
It is the attitude of the “AAA” game to prey upon its audience, it is the attitude of the “AAA” game to separate and paywall its content and to falsify a sense of value by willfully devaluing the base product. I’m digressing into a tangent, but the point is these middle shelf games are still out there, they’re still succeeding on their own terms, and their creativity, their variety, only serves to show how shamelessly single-minded and tunnel-sighted the so-called “AAA” industry has become.
Unfortunately, no amount of evidence will change the minds of the executives milking "live services" for all they're worth, because like I say, "AAA" is an attitude of unrestrained greed where it's not enough to just make money. They want to make all the money, and there's just not enough opportunity to bleed single-player, linear, story-driven games dry. There's no way to make unreasonable amounts of money from them, and just making a lot of money isn't fucking good enough.
And that's where all the BioShocks went.