Nostalgia in the game industry is fueling a remaster and remake boom

The video game industry is coming up with clever ways to resell old products, from virtual reality ports to definitive collections and pixel remasters.

A screenshot of the remastered Grand Theft Auto III.

Grand Theft Auto: The Definitive Edition is just one of countless remasters video game publishers and developers have released this year.

Image: Rockstar

A growing pillar of the video game industry runs on nostalgia, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the market for remakes and remasters. Though the game's been plagued by bugs and performance issues, Rockstar last week released Grand Theft Auto: The Definitive Edition, a remastered trilogy of the PlayStation 2 era open-world games that helped define a generation of gaming in the 2000s.

That these Grand Theft Auto games were, until recently, widely available on almost every platform imaginable, from PC to smartphones to even Amazon's Fire OS, is besides the point. Gamers love to re-experience games from their childhood, and especially so if a developer puts in the extra work to update graphics and streamline in-game systems.

That's truer now than ever, partly because the primary population of gamers who grew up during the dawn of the console era happens to now be middle-aged adults with more disposable income. Those players in turn have become target customers for video game publishers looking to breathe new life into long-dormant products.

"What plays a huge role is that we now have generations of adults that grew up playing these games," gaming analytics firm Newzoo told Protocol. "The people that enjoyed these games as kids or teenagers are now adults with enough budget to purchase remastered games (or remakes), without giving it much second thought."

As is the case in Hollywood, the appetite for remasters and remakes has become a sizable and fast-growing segment in the video game industry. According to analyst firm Nielsen, digital revenue for the top video game remakes has nearly doubled between 2018 and 2020. In fact, some of the bestselling games in 2021 have been remakes or remasters. Nintendo's The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword HD was the bestselling game in the U.S. in July when it was released, and Super Mario 3D World, an enhanced version of a 2013 Nintendo 3DS game, was ranked fifth bestselling game of the year, according to NPD Group.

Countless others are in the pipeline, from EA's Dead Space remakes to the Final Fantasy pixel remaster series, and quite a few have seen huge success in the last few years, like the Mass Effect Legendary Edition and Capcom's Resident Evil 2 remake. Nintendo, too, just re-released graphically improved versions of Pokémon Diamond and Pearl for the Switch, while Bethesda re-released an anniversary edition of Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim for newer platforms earlier this month.

Sony in particular has invested heavily in remakes and remasters. It purchased longtime partner and remake developer Bluepoint, the studio behind its successful Demon's Souls and Shadow of the Colossus remakes, earlier this year. And since 2017, Sony has worked with support studios like Toys for Bob, Vicarious Visions and Iron Galaxy to remaster classics like Spyro the Dragon and Crash Bandicoot.

"Remakes succeed because individuals who played classic titles as children have continued to game as adults and have the disposable income to spend on nostalgia," wrote Carter Rogers, a principal analyst with Nielsen-owned SuperData, in an analysis of the video game remake market. "In the U.S., two in five (39%) console gamers are age 35 and older. U.S. console gamers with an income also earn an average of $58,000 per year." Rogers said that game makers have become experts at convincing "adult gamers to open up their wallets to re-experience cherished moments from their childhood."

There are quite a few other factors at play, too. It's not just that these games have reliable audiences who grew up with them, but also that developing all-new game franchises is expensive and risky. A brand-new game featuring characters and a virtual world players have never heard of might flop. It's far easier to rely on trusted brands and even easier to simply re-release an older game with slight alterations or additions. Given how many new games have been delayed well into next year and beyond due in part to the pandemic, publishers and developers are eager to cash in on their older catalogs.

"With the quality of today's development tools, remastering games is easier than ever for developers and publishers. The work required (and thus team size) is smaller than developing a completely new game," Newzoo said. "It is easier for publishers to market games that a significant portion of players are already familiar with than to market a new game based on newly developed IP, which is very helpful in today's competitive games market."

Additionally, there is a built-in deadline for the market for playing some old games, which often get left behind because the hardware that runs them becomes obsolete and hard to find. Thanks to technologies like cloud gaming and backwards compatibility, players are able to access software released in the last decade on newer hardware in ways they couldn't before. That means there is a large appetite for games released before 2013, but that appetite likely won't carry forward when last generation's games are considered classics but still easily purchasable and playable on native hardware, rather than having to, say, purchase a port on iOS.

"On console, this is really the first generation where Sony and Microsoft have made backwards compatibility the standard. So in time, this will affect people's desire to purchase remastered games from the PS4/Xbox One era for later consoles," Newzoo said. "But right now, the nostalgia is for games that were released well before the last generation, and that market will exist for another couple of years. That is also a factor [of] why we're seeing so many remasters now; this market isn't likely to be around forever."

That doesn't mean remasters will go away, though. Nintendo, which hasn't invested in backwards compatibility, still relies heavily on selling its fans access to older games, either as remasters, like with this year's Mario and Zelda releases, or by bundling them into its new Switch Online subscription platform. And the PC market, which isn't limited by hardware generations, still sees successful remasters like Blizzard's Diablo 2: Resurrected, which was released in September.

But there does come a moment when nostalgia won't be enough to trump the widespread access to older games through backwards compatibility, cloud gaming and ports to platforms like Android and iOS. And many of the biggest games today tend not to be fit for remasters because they're free-to-play, live service titles that exist perpetually for years on end.

Still, the game industry is resourceful when it comes to squeezing revenue out of older games. Just take the virtual reality port of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, one of the three games included in Rockstar's remastered trilogy that will soon be playable on the Oculus Quest 2.

"New consoles, PC components and hardware like VR also create new features and ways to experience older games," Newzoo said. "Recent examples are the Demon's Souls remake on PS5 and Resident Evil 4 VR for the Oculus Quest 2. What's more, game subscription services like Xbox Game Pass have also created a market for smaller one-and-done experiences, which are ripe for remakes in the future, too."

That means while we may not necessarily see remakes or remasters of newer Call of Duty games, Fortnite or Genshin Impact, there are always new technologies that will help keep older games alive — and profitable. "I believe nostalgia will always be a factor and there will always be some market for remastered or remade games," Newzoo added, "but the current market creates unique circumstances for remastered content to succeed, which is unlikely to be replicated soon."

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