20 years on from its original release, Microsoft Studios has announced a remastering of the 1997 classic Age of Empires (AoE). This is obviously fantastic news, but while I very much look forward to seeing golden cataphracts charge through desert highlands in glorious 4K, this remastering provides me with an opportunity to highlight a deep seeded and growing issue within the gaming industry as a whole.
Generally speaking, remastering a game involves taking the old release and souping it up with modern graphics, interface and perhaps a few mechanical tweaks. This has become very popular amongst developers for several reasons:
- An existing and loyal community of ex/current players guarantees sales. This makes marketing cheaper. Distribution channels and partner firms are easier to secure with an existing and recognisable name.
- Development costs are as high as they’ve ever been for video games. Remastering existing games takes far less time, and therefore money, to be produced. This allows developers to continue extracting revenue from players (like me) who are guaranteed to buy simply for the nostalgia. Is this remastered AoE likely to be as good as the booming AoE2 HD? Probably not, but the momentum of the game’s initial release is still being felt today, which is why the remastering couldn’t have come at a better time.
- Making a game from scratch is a huge risk for any developer. Pouring time and money into a complete failure is devastating to even the biggest companies. The rise of indie games has been driven by the immense costs necessary to produce original IP. The bar has been set high for new generation platform releases. Perhaps too high.
- Backward compatibility – the ability to play old games on new platforms. A player whose original Xbox may have broken long ago wouldn’t be able to play Halo 1 without a remastered version built for modern platforms. When remastering games, developers usually also make them compatible across an expanded selection of platforms.
- In many cases, it’s genuinely what players are demanding at the moment.
The decision developers face is as follows: should they remaster, create a sequel, or create a new game from scratch? The AoE series is such a beautiful example of this dilemma because Microsoft has tasted both the bitter and the sweet side. The success of AoE1 was soon followed by Game of the Year AoE2, and its expansions at the turn of the century. Its 2005 sequel, AoE3 wasn’t as successful, so the franchise took a step backward to take a step forward. They remastered AoE2 several years ago and have continued to produce expansion pack material. The AoE2 community is booming today and exemplifies that unnecessary complexity and progress for the sake of progress is unhealthy for gaming development. I’m not, and I don’t think anyone is expecting the AoE1 remaster to become the powerhouse that AoE2 HD has become. I’m simply hoping for more than just shinier armour. Improvements in mechanics, tech tree bolsters and a few surprises here and there would really make this release sing. The new soundtrack teased is also a huge draw-card, as the AoE franchise has always had fantastic scores behind it.
From the reasons listed above, remastering a popular game is an economic no-brainer. Comparatively low cost of supply coupled with guaranteed demand allows full price discretion from developers and sure-fire profits. Developers can’t have it all though, and there are several drawbacks to remastering old titles:
- Stagnation of the series – rarely does remastered content enjoy the ongoing success of AoE2 HD. Without new life, players feel as though the franchise has lost life. Online communities can quickly collapse and the game falls into nostalgia. This is why Microsoft is still creating expansion packs for AoE2 HD. New content will always be the beating heart of a successful title. Refer to my previous discussion of diminishing marginal utility.
- Criticism from fanbase – unnecessary remasters can result in developers being labelled as creatively bland and lazy. Accusations of cash grabbing market tactics can severely hurt the reputation of major institutions, and with good reason.
- While remastering an existing title isn’t as laborious as creating one from scratch, or a sequel, it still takes time. Developers usually opt for sequels rather than remasters because of the inherent value in generating new content. Spending all their time on remasters is a professional version of living in the past. Only in instances of true classics and overwhelming player demand should remasters go ahead.
There is nothing quite like playing an old favourite with slick new graphics. The Halo Masterchief Collection allowed us to escape the Pillar of Autumn all over again. Tomb Raider’s remaster breathed life back into a timeless franchise. There is no reason not to love a remastered favourite, but the key, as always, is everything in moderation.