Microsoft's secretive The Initiative team is working alongside Gears developer The Coalition on the world's first AAAA game. This could get really, really messy for Microsoft.
If there's one thing I learned from Jason Schreier's book Blood, Sweat and Pixels it's that making games is a near-impossible feat at the best of times. It doesn't matter how big your budget is, or how big your team is; throwing endless cash and talent at a project doesn't mean anything will happen. Plans of mice and men often go awry, and this is extremely apt for games development, which often leads to cancellations, years' of wasted work, and outright closures of big studios (like Visceral Games, for example).
NOTE: One thing I want to get out of the way right now is that this isn't a jab at Microsoft. If Sony were doing something like this, I'd express similar skepticism. But how Sony and Microsoft handle gaming are very different. Sony is all-in on gaming, and Microsoft sees gaming as a side-business at best.
So the more I hear about ambitious new so-called AAAA game studios like The Initiative, the more skeptical I become. It sounds like it could end up being a big expensive mess for Microsoft to clean up in the long run, not unlike cancellations of games like Fable Legends and the closure of Lionhead--but on a much, much bigger scale. It's worth saying that all mention of 'AAAA' has been removed on The Initiative's website. The term was originally used in a job listing, and right now The Initiative has 11 open positions. None of them call the project a AAAA game.
Right now Microsoft is ramping up for something big. No one knows exactly what The Initiative is working on, only that it's super ambitious. The studio has been recruiting top-tier talent for quite some time now, and just recently added 13 new seasoned game development veterans to its ranks.
Hiring new devs is nothing new. It has to happen for any game to be made. It's also pretty normal for game studios to want to hire talented devs. This isn't out of the ordinary. What is out of the ordinary, however, is the celebrated scope of The Initiative's project.
Here's a collection of the new hires, as per The Initiative studio head Darrell Gallagher:
- Justin Perez - Prev. system designer, Respawn
- Daniel Steamer - Prev. senior technical designer, Crystal Dynamics
- Francisco Aisa Garcia - Prev. gameplay programmer, Naughty Dog
- Kurt Loudy - Prev. id software, Doom Eternal AI/boss design
- Christine Thompson - Prev. narrative lead, Bungie
- Fabian Elmers - Character artist, Magic Leap
- Remi Lacoste - Game director, Crystal Dynamics
- Richard Burns - Prev. lead UI artist, Playground Games
- Sylvia Chambers - Prev. contract animator at Naughty Dog
- Jonathan Chavez - Prev. associate producer, Treyarch
- Joey Tan - Prev. creative director, Ginkgo
- Elaina Scott - Prev. animator, CoSA VFX
- Jon Lew - Prev. senior gameplay engineer, Sledgehammer Games
One thing I want to get straight is that I don't think making a big new studio is a bad idea. I don't think hiring talented developers is a bad idea. And most certainly, I don't think it's a bad idea for Microsoft to want to make big new games.
But the reality is that these things are not simple at all. The reality is The Initiative may not be making a new game, but a new platform of sorts, and hopefully it's not becoming bigger than they can handle.
Game dev projects have a history of starting off as great targeted ideas and then become massive, unwieldy clubs that no one can pick up.
It all depends on management and the scope of the game. From what we've heard, the game will be huge. Right now Xbox Game Studios is made up of a handful of big AAA studios and smaller-scale indie studios who are in turn making smaller scale games. For every massive hit like Halo: Infinite there's a few smaller games like Grounded, Psychonauts 2, and Wasteland 3.
I'm curious how The Initiative's game fits into this space. If it is indeed a AAAA game, it could transcend these norms and demand a whole other segment to itself.
As the game gets bigger, as the team gets bigger, the project becomes harder to manage. The amount of sub-teams increases and lines of communication can get crossed. That's what happened with BioWare on games like Dragon Age: Inquisition, which required the use of Frostbite, a games engine primarily made for first-person shooters. That's also what happened with Mass Effect: Andromeda and Anthem. It happened with Bungie while working on Destiny, as the teams were working on their own disparate parts that didn't exactly mesh well in the long run.
That's not to say The Initiative will be instantly doomed to repeat this mistakes just because it's forming a big company and making a big game. But it does mean it's not immune to these endemic problems either.
Let's also remember Microsoft doesn't care all that much about gaming. Yes, it's willing to invest in games, and yes, it's willing to spend on new hardware. But one thing it's not necessarily willing to do is waste a whole bunch of money.
Gaming isn't it's own thing at Microsoft. Gaming folds into the company's subscription/service-first business model. Microsoft's first-party games are built with Game Pass and services in mind, so expect monetization/online gaming/gameplay looks and other similar hooks designed around GaaS-style models. We've seen it with Gears 5, we've seen it with Sea of Thieves, and we'll see it in Halo: Infinite, which will be monetized with microtransactions, have free-to-play multiplayer, and also have a huge RPG-esque campaign playground for near-infinite gaming.
This trend will continue with The Initiative's project, and one job listing for an lead online engineer strongly hints the game will be online-based.
This is to be expected. Xbox revenues generated $11.57 billion in 2019, accounting for roughly ~10% of Microsoft's total earnings. This is par for the course. Xbox isn't a big driver for revenues or earnings, but instead another cog in Microsoft's well-oiled subscription-driven machine.
Do I think The Initiative's project will fail? There's really not enough info yet to make a determination. Do I expect it to fail? Of course not. Do I think it could be dangerous to bite off more than you can chew when it comes to games development? Absolutely.
Let's hope the team knows what it's doing--and based on the talent involved, they likely do.
- > NEXT STORY: Halo: Infinite: no 2022 delay, 343i confirms Xbox One version in dev
- < PREVIOUS STORY: Black Ops Cold War probably won't have free PS5, XSX upgrades