I've been thinking about Cyberpunk 2077 and the way it was marketed. Why do they keep selling games on qualities those games don't actually have? Wouldn't it make more sense to just make the game they're selling, if that's what people want?
I used to think it came from an incapacity on the part of modern developers to make games with the depth of choice and realism you'd see in the old troika/bioware/interplay stuff. But then I realized, it's not like the methodology of that stuff is secret. You can break those games apart and see what they do; for instance, the way the main faction of VTMB press-gangs you into service, and it's only later that you can break away and join the anarchist group, makes all the factions feel much more real and less tailored to your role as a player.
It's not complicated, and developers could easily see this sort of thing. You'd expect, if "quality" was the top concern, that once one game figured this stuff out, others would follow. But then you get the Far Cry 4 "both sides are bad in exactly symmetric ways and your decision between the two of them produces symmetrical results" model everywhere. This shows that quality isn't the top concern, and that games must be sold on something else– namely, accessibility to casual players.
The Skyrim problem, on the other hand, is the opposite of this. The sheer breadth of content on hand in that game is what made it a hit, and it's super casual-accessible. But nobody has ANY idea how to do it, because the effort threshold is so insane. Even Nintendo had to cut huge corners in their Skyrim clone, and while BotW was big, it lacks the staying power which gave Bethesda not only Skyrim, but the inertia behind Fallout 4. It's simply too difficult to make a game that big.
With this in mind, it's clear what devs like those behind Cyberpunk and the Outer Worlds are doing. They're conning the hardcore fans of the old choice/depth/realism games like VTMB, Baldur's Gate, Fallout, etc for preemptive critical acclaim, and the fans of Skyrim for mass appeal. They then fail to deliver on either, but in the meantime they've moved enough units to make up the difference.
I think the hard truth of it is that it all comes down to economics. I don't think the "depth games" of the late 90's/early 2000's ever ACTUALLY made enough money to justify their production in the long term, much less moving the industry in that direction. With inflating budgets over the years, that's only gonna be more true. The audience is too niche; I think the devs were able to curry investment in that brief window by saying "If we just keep making these games which are WAY higher quality, eventually the audience will adjust their tastes and we'll dominate the market". But it never panned out; there were only ever like, 12 of these games at most, in the end, and as the market began to expand in the early 2000's, they started doing worse, not better.
Quality in the sense of critical acclaim only increases sales up to a point; when you get into real "art" territory AT ALL, it becomes devastating to the bottom line because it alienates people that don't really give a shit. This is especially noticeable in games, which require such a huge investment of resources from both the player and the developer.
Indie games provide a slight reprieve from this– Disco Elysium and Pathologic 2 both capture the depth of the older games. But they miss the relative polish, the production values, and the general competence than you can only achieve by essentially defrauding your investors in a manner that only succeeded in a very narrow period of time. They're even more niche, because they lack corporate oversight, and consequently trade a lot of basic appeal for artistic integrity in a way that misses the sweet spot that leads people to replay VtMB or Planescape Torment or Fallout again and again.
As for a game that recaptures Skyrim, I think that publishers genuinely would like to make one; but I think the method for that is lost, or rather, it was an insane confluence of circumstance that produced it in the first place.
In the end, they can't make the game everyone wants, and they won't make the game their core audience wants. So they pretend they're doing both, and ensure they hit their sales targets by doing neither
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