Remasters: The profitability of laziness

Monday, December 10, 2018 - 1:52pm

Shadow of Colossus

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Last month, I bought the newly remastered “Shadow of the Colossus” for PS4. It’s a classic game that I had never played, and the cheap price didn’t hit my wallet too hard. While browsing the ether of the Amazon game section, I noticed that many other older games were being remastered for the current generation of consoles. This trend of remastering old classics isn’t new, but it does prompt a discussion about why the game industry continues making remasters.

The first and most likely reason a publisher would tell a studio to remaster a game is for profit. Games, especially AAA titles, are expensive to make from scratch. After development, there are advertising costs, and if the game is multiplayer, there are online server upkeep costs. Altogether, a new game is typically a multi-million dollar investment which for some cash-starved publishers is not worth it. A remaster, on the other hand, is a safer bet. A studio can just revise old assets, clean up clunky animations and retexture environments since the majority of remasters are typically just graphical updates. This can all be done in a fraction of the time and cost it takes to make a new game.

Assuming a studio would only remaster a game that was previously a hit, advertising doesn’t have to be as extensive since the game can ride off its cult status. Given these trade-offs, it makes sense why studios remaster games. In some cases, remasters can actually benefit younger gamers who would probably never play old classics if they weren’t compatible with current consoles. For example, I would have never touched “Shadow of the Colossus” if it wasn’t available for PS4. The graphics are great and I’m glad that I get to experience a classic video game that influences titles coming out today, yet I sometimes get the feeling that remasters are bandages covering big problems within the industry.

The second — and hopefully unlikely — reason a publisher would tell a studio to remaster a game is lack of creativity. Due to remasters being mostly graphical updates, a studio doesn’t need to make new art or even new mechanics. In fact, some gamers prefer that studios maintain old mechanics to preserve the original experience, despite some games sorely needing reworks of outdated systems. These requests take off pressure, and if a studio’s current games are unsuccessful, a remaster can tap into gamers’s nostalgia and be a distraction for the bad content the studio is currently putting out.

This is precisely what Activision did with the “Call of Duty” franchise in 2016. That year the release of “Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare,” commonly regarded as one of the weakest titles in the franchise, was bundled with a remastered version of “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare,” which is considered by many to be the best in the franchise and the game that made “Call of Duty” mainstream. Additionally, the “Infinite Warfare” disc was required to access the remaster. It wasn’t until eight months later that a standalone remaster was available on the market.

Now, I’m not saying that remasters are bad. Games are investments and no publisher wants to take risks with their investment. In some cases, remasters are really good, in other cases, remasters are a bad cover-up. Maybe in the future, the game industry can walk a remaster middle ground, updating graphics but also implementing new mechanics and gameplay elements that give flavor to the remaster.

However, at what point do these additions become a new game itself? It is understandable why remasters are becoming more and more prevalent. But if gamers want the euphoric experiences they used to have with classic games, then they must let go of the past. Otherwise, studios won’t be incentivized to make anything new but just revive what they know.