The recent release of Red Dead Redemption 2 entailed a subsequent hoopla regarding the reportedly abhorrent working conditions in Rockstar Games. Just after that, the disappointing beta of Fallout 76 and its game-breaking flaws added more fuel to the AAA dumpster fire. While the debates on how to solve the various problems in the AAA space are still ongoing, I would like to prompt more focus on a different and often overlooked facet of the games industry.
This topic tends to bring up tirades about money-hungry, games-illiterate, morally-corrupt investors and executives driving the games industry further into the ground, but I wish to divert the discussion to a more positive route.
A recent episode of the Co-optional Podcast—wherein they talked about the difficulties with unionizing video game developers—gave me the idea for this blog post on why gamers should look more into the titles being released by mid-tier publishers—the B Team.
NOTE: Yes, it’s another rant about AAA publishers. Hang tight.
My Points Against the AAA Games Establishment
First of all, let’s get this out of the way. I’ll list down (and whine about) what I think are the reasons why we should slow down with giving our money to AAA companies to play their over-budgeted blockbuster titles.
Whenever a games company either goes public or becomes dominated by primarily business people, they get unrealistic expectations due to the constant need to post higher numbers in each quarter. Despite a game selling well, it’s never good enough for them. Steve Jobs once talked about why some successful companies eventually fail, giving a particular reason behind it.
The gist of the video is that over time, a successful company becomes run less by product development people—those who got the company there—and more by sales and marketing people—those who keep the money rolling in. Guess what’s happening in Apple right now, especially with Stevie being six feet under for seven years now.
It may be a bit different with games companies, but the fact that selling games becomes a bigger priority than making good games is why publishers like Blizzard would ever think about making a mobile Diablo game and actually make its announcement the centerpiece of this year’s BlizzCon after months of hype, then get surprised when it’s met by near-universal disdain.
To combat this, some AAA companies go on an acquisition spree, putting previously outstanding studios under their thumb only to axe them later once they’ve milked whatever they could from them. Perhaps it would’ve been fine if these companies were selling white goods, but things aren’t as simple when dealing with creative products.
There’s all this talk about video games being art, but they would then not be treated with the same level of attention as a Wilhelm de Kooning (I think Fortnite may be the Interchange of video games). Pardon me, that’s just a brain fart.
Let’s then get back to the sweatshop-like working conditions for game developers that has been brought up again recently. If you’re aware of the history of labor unions—all the trouble it took for workers all around the world to unionize and the drawbacks it entailed once unions became powerful entities in their own right—then you may understand why it may be necessary for this industry as well, yet also know it may hurt smaller indie developers to some extent.
Then again, just about every creative industry that gets big tends to have such poor working conditions, despite (and most likely because) of all the money rolling in. With employees being worked to the bone for long hours with less pay than they deserve, frequent meddling throughout the development process, over-the-top sales expectations in incredibly short time frames, and merciless disposal of them once they’ve been squeezed of every last bit of juice, what you really have is waste amid a lot of mediocre and creatively bankrupt work meant only for profit.
Some gems tend to come out of that machine, and what gems they are. But gems lying amid a huge pile of shit will still tend to stink.
Why Root for the B Team?
Look at all the amazing games released by double-A and B companies over the years—those sleeper hits and underrated masterpieces. Despite critical acclaim, they don’t get as much attention as a release from AAA publishers due to their clout and massive marketing budgets.
But just because Shadow Tactics didn’t have a TV commercial like Destiny 2, that doesn’t mean the former is inferior to the latter (quite the opposite, actually).
I’m sure most gamers reading this know about these mid-tier games, but I’d like to give them more attention. Gems and modern day masterpieces are abound among these titles, so they deserve every bit of extra attention they can get.
When AAA blockbusters like Red Dead Redemption 2, Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, or so on, they get hyperbolic praise in games media, further helping their mainstream prominence. Most B team stalwarts, no matter how lauded they are by gamers, rarely get such public exposure.
There are some that break through every now and then like Hotline Miami, FTL: Faster Than Light, and Undertale. While they’re far from being anomalies, their fame usually comes from overwhelming adulation and even memeification by fans online.
This was certainly the case for Undertale, and only then did mainstream games media pick up on the phenomenon (at least from what I saw during the height of its popularity).
B is for “Brilliant”
With that said, I’d like to list suggestions for mid-tier companies whose games you should check out. They have impressive libraries, catering to different kinds of gamers with different tastes.
Focus Home Interactive has been consistent with the quality of their games, and the last couple of years have been pretty good for them. They came out with Vampyr and Call of Cthulhu this year, both of which I can recommend. Other titles from them I like are the Styx series, Space Run, Contrast, Magrunner: Dark Pulse, a few of Telltale Games’ releases, the Wargame series, and Frogwares’ Sherlock Holmes series.
Daedalic Entertainment is on this list primarily for Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun. Their library isn’t as big and diverse as the other companies on this list, but they do have some interesting titles like the Dark Eye series, the Deponia series, and The Franz Kafka Videogame. While most of them are adventure games, the titles they have that are outside that box are pretty good.
Paradox Interactive is mostly for hardcore strategy fans, but they’ve been acquiring properties in other genres and media in recent years. They now have White Wolf Publishing (purveyors of World of Darkness who are also in partnership with Focus Home Interactive) and Harebrained Schemes in their fold to bolster their library full of grand strategy and management games.
TinyBuild Games is a seven-year-old company that has only been publishing games for five years, but the resume looks quite alright thus far. The titles I recognize are Boid, Punch Club, and Party Hard. Despite not being as seasoned, they’ve been making some waves nonetheless and I think this company will only get better going forward.
Deep Silver can be hit or miss, in my opinion, due to its size. It had grown considerably after acquiring studios formerly of now-defunct THQ, which was both a good and a bad thing. Also, they published Mighty No. 9—Keiji Inafune’s prosperity project—and Ride to Hell: Retribution—a modern-day anti-classic. But they also published S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky, the Metro series, Wasteland 2, Kingdom Come: Deliverance, and many more.
THQ Nordic is the reason why Deep Silver should be given leeway. They acquired their parent company Koch Media for €121 million this year as a separate subsidiary. But even without them, their library isn’t that shabby either. They’re mostly known for the Alan Wake and Darksiders series, and they also released the This is the Police games. With their recent additions, they’re bound to get more good titles on their CV.
Devolver Digital is the biggest reason why you should be paying attention to the B team. I’m not saying they shit gold and diamonds, but they’re pretty damn close. Hotline Miami first comes to mind, and they’re certainly not a one-hit wonder. Shadow Warrior, Broforce, Not a Hero, Heavy Bullets, The Talos Principle, Gods Will Be Watching, Always Sometimes Monsters, Enter the Gungeon, Ruiner, and a whole lot more came from this apparent golden goose.
They also like to have fun in E3, which is certainly a plus.
There are some cases for playing AAA titles. If you’re into playing online multiplayer games, then there should be nothing wrong with fulfilling your daily quota of Overwatch, League of Legends, or Rainbow Six Siege.
Anticipated major releases like Red Dead Redemption 2 and DOOM Eternal are hard to resist, and I can’t blame you if you end up getting those. I’m looking forward to some of those titles myself. However, you must pick your battles, making sure you’ll commit and not just end up hoarding them away while you promise to yourself every now and then to play them when you’re free—which never happens.
If you do tend to clock in regular playing time, you might as well play some more War Thunder, World of Tanks, Warframe, or Path of Exile while you’re at it since the developers of those games have been doing a good job with them without cramming them full of “unethical” microtransactions.
As for the rest, especially with singleplayer and co-op games, try out some more B-titles. If you’re allergic to indie titles, then at least give the mid-tier publishers a shot. They tend to be more affordable and pack just as much goodness as AAA titles, if not more.
If your gaming experience is indeed a major part of your life, then perhaps it’s time to broaden your horizons and realize that “mid-tier” doesn’t mean “middle of the road.”
Have something to say? Do you agree or am I off-base? Did I miss a crucial detail or get something wrong? Please leave whatever reactions, questions, or suggestions you may have on the comment section below.
Also published on Medium.