Each generation of gaming is defined by something that happened commonly within it. The 16-bit generation will be remembered for the console wars between Nintendo and Sega, and the endless playground bickering that their corporate rivalry inspired. A few years later, the generation of the Playstation and Dreamcast ushered in the beginnings of 3D gaming and produced some of the franchises that we still know and love today.
Reflecting on this might lead you to wonder what this eighth generation of console gaming will be remembered for. Perhaps it’ll be remembered for the first forays into 4K gaming, and the delivery of the most powerful machines we’ve yet had. Possibly it’ll be the first tentative steps into VR. Sony winning the sales race due in part to Microsoft’s spectacularly awful handling of the Xbox One announcement. Or maybe, just maybe, it’ll be remembered for the sheer volume of remasters and remakes that publishers have been serving up.
Grand Theft Auto V. DMC: Devil May Cry. An assortment of Resident Evil games. Tomb Raider. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. Halo: The Master Chief Collection. Bioshock: The Collection. Metro: Redux. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim – Special Edition. All of these games have received the remaster treatment to varying degrees in the last couple of years – and this list is by no means exhaustive. Indeed, a quick glance into the downloadable game arena will quickly double or even treble the number of games that could be on this list.
Looking at that list, one thing is immediately obvious and that’s that it isn’t one particular publisher that’s driving the remaster phenomenon. While some are more involved than others, everyone from Rockstar to Bethesda to 343 Industries and Capcom is pushing old games, upcycled to take advantage of the raw power of the current generation of games consoles. And if everyone’s doing it, it must be right. Right?
Based on internet comments, it’s clear that gamers’ responses to remasters is mixed to say the least. Some of us embrace the chance to play a considerably prettier version of our favourite games – and the simple fact that GTA V remains in the top ten best-selling new games month after month after month proves that gamers don’t automatically perceive a remaster as being a bad thing, but maybe base their opinion on a slightly more complex set of factors. Gamers tend to view remasters as either a great thing or a profoundly negative one – with negative receptions often basing themselves on either the move being seen as a cynical cash grab or as a waste of the studio’s time when they could be working on “new games” instead.
So, with commercial success uncertain and the possibility of damage being done to their stock with the people who buy their games, what do publishers and developers get out of remastering old games? The answer is several different things – and they might not be what you’d expect.
We’ll take them one at a time.
First up, let’s address the most obvious one. Yes, there is an opportunity to make money. It’s as solid a reason as any. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again here – as much as gamers entertain the notion that their favourite studios exist for the sole purpose of entertaining them, that notion is patently false. Game studios are businesses with shareholders, commercial pressures, budgets, and quarterly profit statements. Making money for their shareholders is the reason for their continued existence, whether we like to accept that simple fact and factor it into our perception or not. A dormant franchise with a well-loved last entry is often the perfect opportunity for a remaster for a couple of reasons – firstly, because that franchise is already known and loved, marketing costs are potentially reduced. Secondly, the market is always evolving – with people moving into and out of a target demographic. Just because people who played the game the first time around aren’t necessarily interested in seeing an updated version, the word of mouth on social media and rose tinted articles in the gaming press is likely to drum up interest among those new gamers who would experience the game for the first time via an HD remaster.
Secondly, creating a remaster of an old game will almost certainly require less development resource than the creation of an entirely new game. If the remaster is produced internally, it doesn’t require as much resource as a new game, and if your internal development team is busy on new projects then it’s the kind of thing that can be farmed out to a third party with a comparatively low risk. The existence of the original game makes it straightforward to assess how successful their work has been.
Another aspect of development that HD remasters can offer is that they can allow developers to get an understanding of new technology more quickly and easily than they’d be able to when working on an entirely new game. A great example of this was Bethesda Game Studio’s development of Fallout 4 – which began in the early days of the current generation. At that time, the consoles were new – meaning their internal architecture and processes were still unfamiliar to development teams. If you cast your mind back to early Xbox 360 games in comparison to late ones – the difference in quality is mainly due to developers learning more and more effective ways of utilising the console’s hardware. Learning how to squeeze the most power out of new consoles is always the most contentious issue of a new generation arriving, so Bethesda began development of Fallout 4 by first porting their previous game The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim onto the new machines. This process formed a key part of the remastering process – the development effort to push the game across the finish line into a releasable state on the new machines was, by all accounts, minimal.
Completing this process on a familiar game however was massively beneficial to Bethesda – not only in giving them (yet another!) platform on which to sell their 2011 tour-de-force, but also in the experience of the new machines that their team gained from doing it. There seems to be little doubt that Fallout 4 was delivered more quickly and was a better game as a direct result of the effort they made at the start of the generation.
Bethesda aren’t alone in doing this – there’s a more current example in the decision of Rockstar to port their 2011 game LA Noire to current gen. Announced only a few weeks ago, the updated version of the game will boast 4K visuals on the Xbox One X. Not only that, the game will be the first one by Rockstar that will support VR, in the form of the HTC Vive version that was announced at the same time. This is where the real value will lie for Rockstar – the experience their team will have gained in going through the process of effectively rebuilding a game as a VR experience shows a previously unseen level of dedication to the new medium. The learning experience will be of almost as much value to the company as the sales of the new version of the game.
The choice of Rockstar to remaster LA Noire provides a fine opportunity though to present the final side of this argument – and that’s the value of remastering as a form of market testing.
Imagine, you’re a game developer. The last game in a particular series sold well, but it’s been a while. The buzz has died down, the players have moved on. Let’s say you’re maybe thinking about reviving the series. If only there was a way to find out how viable that franchise still is? Well, there is – and that’s to put out a remaster. If it sells well or is received well critically (or hopefully both!), then it’s likely that you can use the cold, hard metric of sales to gauge the size of the market for the game you’re still thinking about making in a way that market research could never really achieve with any degree of reliability. Spending a couple of million on a remake that doesn’t sell could save you millions by NOT starting the next installment of a series that no-one’s interested in any more. Alternatively, it could make that difficult investment decision that much easier to make – and drive some demand for your new game into the bargain by exposing it to a whole load of new potential players.
So there you have it. Like DLC and microtransactions, HD remasters are another new facet of gaming that’s arrived in the last few years and are likely to be here to stay. While some of them are no doubt cash grabs, it’s quite possible that there is more going on with regard to the reason for their existence than most of us consumers realise. Right or wrong? That’s for you to decide – preferably with your wallet.
What’s your stance on HD remasters? Have you picked any up? Are there any games that you’ve ONLY played the remaster of? Let us know in the comments below!