From The Armchair: Goodbye Airtight

ArmchairWhat ho, chums.

I’ve recently returned from the mayhem that is the Glastonbury Festival of Contemporary Performing Arts, and three days on I’m still not fully recovered from the madness, a stubborn cold being the legacy of my dalliance with chaos. Needless to say, video games have been my salve in times of snot-filled hopelessness, with Mass Effect 2 continuing to act like a soothing balm. Albeit a balm dotted with awkward alien love triangles.

What with my battles through the Glastonbury mud and my extended aimless wanderings in Mass Effect, there’s little to report on the home gaming front, and the fact that it’s actually sunny outside for once means that gaming has necessarily been pushed down the agenda. Nevertheless, I’ve been keeping a restless eye on the gaming news, and I was saddened to read today of the closure of Airtight Games, developer of the recently released Murdered: Soul Suspect.

Looking back through the list of games released by Airtight, it’s fair to say that none reached blockbuster heights. If anything I’d class them as the ‘flawed gem’ studio: they produced a series of highly original games, but their products often had rough edges or poor implementation that stopped them from becoming truly great. Murdered is a case in point: while their contemporaries were churning out first-person shooters, Airtight decided to make a unique point and click adventure where you control a detective’s ghost. A brilliant idea (as Eurogamer said, “it feels a lot like the best game Dario Argento never made”), but the final product received mixed reviews thanks to some crude and frustrating implementation.

Murdered-Logo

I have a big soft spot for Airtight’s first game, Dark Void. It received fairly scathing reviews when it was released, but I actually found it a lot of fun. It takes place in an alternative 1930s and is very reminiscent of one of my favourite childhood movies, The Rocketeer, featuring a square-jawed comic-book hero with a jetpack. At the time, Airtight were keen to promote the game’s ‘vertical cover system’ (a cover system… but vertical), but frankly this was just a gimmick. The real joy in the game was the variable scale – flying through huge canyons, engaging in dog fights with your jetpack, then dropping seamlessly into a building and carrying on the fight hand to hand. It was that same sense of seamless transition that everyone got excited about in the No Man’s Sky trailer, but this was in 2010.

Sadly this sense of variable scale was only present on a couple of levels, and the whole game was a bit of a mixed bag with some glaring bugs. The rushed ending indicated that the studio’s ambition had vastly outstripped their time and resources, but nevertheless it was a fun game that left me thinking how truly astonishing it could have been with a bit of polish. The perfect definition of a flawed gem

I’m sad to see Airtight go – there aren’t that many studios who can point to such a varied and original roster of games. But I fear that studios such as Airtight are a dying breed – with the launch of the next-gen systems, the market is polarising between mega-studios producing safe, triple A games with ever bigger teams and tiny indie studios turning out cheap, novel games. The mid-range market is disappearing, and I for one will be sad to see it go.

Dark Void

5 Comments

  1. A class divide amongst games. Who thought it would ever come to this? Wouldn’t be surprised if one day the gap is so large that indie games and AAA games are considered two different types of entertainment.

    1. I think the games market is following the Hollywood trend, where blockbusters with big stars and big marketing hoover up all the money, and indie films can remain successful by being made on a shoestring, but mid-range films with no recognised stars will be the riskiest prospects. Murdered: Soul Suspect was a game that fell into that bracket, like Remember Me and dozens of similar games – they’re still fairly expensive to make, with large teams involved, but they don’t have the marketing budget or big-name franchise to really attract big sales. A mid-range game like that is much more of a risk than a blockbuster like Call of Duty – even if a next-gen Call of Duty cost 100 million dollars to make and ended up with ‘disappointing’ sales, it would still break even at least, which might not be the case for a mid-range game, even a very good one.

      Like you said, we’re seeing a split in the medium between mainstream and indie, and we will probably see gamers identifying themselves with one camp or the other.

      1. Everything you said is spot on. I forgot to mention in my original comment, but I really liked this post because of it treading the ‘forgotten’ group of developers.

        It is quite sad though. Some of the big developers nowadays started off as medium sized groups, and due to their successes, grew into something enormouse. RockStar for example.

        It seems impossible for anymore AAA companies to appear, as any companies below that title seem to be heading backwards to Kickstarter as a smaller sized group.

        I apologise for using Pounds Sterling in my next statement as it’s all I know. But currently our games are £39.99 to £49.99.

        Or indie games at £3.99+

        If Sony or Microsoft allowed some more freedom on pricing, we could have these medium companies releasing games as £19.99. A middle range price for middle range games. Unfortunately, as it stands, the developers would not break even due to the costs of publishing on consoles.

        All sad really 🙁

  2. I wonder whether we’ll see a resurgence in budget publishers to fill the gap? Original games priced at about £20 with the benefit of big teams but without the constraints of big blockbuster. I suppose Rebellion are already following this kind of model with the Sniper Elite series, which usually come out at lower prices than blockbuster games.

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