Hi-Fi Rush has become the first unexpected smash hit of 2023. That’s no small feat in a year that’s supposed to see the release of games like Starfield, Spider-Man 2. Or even a month where a new Fire Emblem, a Dead Space remake, and a hotly anticipated exclusive in Forespoken all drop within a week of each other.
But more than its charming art-style reminiscent of Jet Set Radio or its Edgar Wright-inspired vibe that’s created an infectious wave of overwhelmingly positive impressions, Hi-Fi Rush can represent something else great in an industry still reeling from the ripple effects of the pandemic.
Hi-Fi Rush is a peek into what a more sustainable game industry can look like if bigger publishers embraced smaller, one-and-done games…or if they hadn’t helped kill them in the first place.
Part of what makes Hi-Fi Rush unique is it fills a void that only smaller, independent titles and Switch games have for nearly a decade. These kinds of games may have been considered bigger budget releases in the early 2000s, but are easily dwarfed by today’s biggest productions both in scope and budget.
These smaller games became less common in the last decade as some of gaming’s biggest successes, like Grand Theft Auto 5, Skyrim, and Destiny set the tone, and a monetization model for a newer generation. Many of the world’s biggest publishers were dead set on creating products with massive budgets in marketing and development. And as this trend took hold, smaller studios that were capable of making smaller games that gamers might find and play on a whim either folded or were bought up by publishers by the late 2000s and early 2010s.
While it's safe to say the big, triple-A releases we’ve grown accustomed to isn’t going anywhere, Hi-Fi Rush’s popularity, with a surprise release following zero marketing, is proof that there’s an appetite and audience for well-funded, masterfully crafted, mid-sized games.
Xbox Game Studios is probably the publisher best positioned to see how viable this model can be. Whether it was through necessity, considering how few non-sequel, big-budget first-party games dropped during the Xbox One’s life cycle, or a fortuitous stroke of luck, Game Pass has been a vehicle for reminding people small games can be successful too.
Last December, Squanch Games’ High On Life, a game that didn’t strive to be the next blocbuster, or overstay its welcome past what it did well, was the biggest Game Pass success of the year. (Squanch announced earlier this month that studio co-founder Justin Roiland has resigned from the company after 2020 charges of domestic abuse came to light in newly uncovered court documents. He is currently awaiting trial.)
Pentiment, Obsidian’s weird, but utterly delightful role playing adventure game, may have made less of a splash, but it was a critical success that found its audience without breaking the bank.
And now Hi-Fi Rush, a game that has garnered universal praise since its stealth release Wednesday, and after just two days, currently sits at number five on Steam’s top-selling games. No long, drawn-out preview cycle. Virtually zero marketing. Just a cool-looking game, executed well, and presented to enthusiasts, with word of mouth doing the rest. It’s probably fair to say it outshined the four other games that were showcased beside it.
There is an irony in Microsoft, one of the publishers arguably responsible for the trend of ballooning game development costs, is now leading the charge in creating a space for these smaller games to exist.
Compare these recent successes to what we’re seeing with Ubisoft, a company struggling to stay afloat after years of making big bets that didn’t quite pay off (not to mention more than a few other poor business decisions factored in).
Now, even Ubisoft, in its scramble to make a profit in the new year, is learning from their constant investment in the next, huge thing. Ubisoft Bordeaux Creative director Stéphane Boudon has made it abundantly clear that Assassin’s Creed Mirage, which started development as a DLC expansion for the absolute behemoth that was Valhalla, will scale back the franchise’s scope considerably in favor of something more aligned with the 2007 original.
It’s about time publishers and developers realize few titles can viably expect players to want to stick around for whatever post-release plan they have for the life cycle of a game, less alone pay for it cyclically.
There have been countless games, like Outriders, Fallout 76 and Final Fantasy: The First Solider, that have enjoyed a moment in the spotlight before seeing player counts drop off steadily as they return to Fortnite and Call of Duty. While success can be found in a small, but dedicated games-as-a-service audience (as we’ve seen with games like Destiny and Warframe), it's a risky venture to bet the house on the precarious shoulders of a not-so-captive audience who’s ready to revert back to the industry staples after a bad season pass or two. Just look at the heartbreaking fall off of Halo Infinite in 2022.
Compare the struggles Infinite’s had to that of Hi-Fi Rush; a cool-looking game with a ton of upfront buzz. It seems to be selling well, has likely had a positive impact on morale over at Tango Gameworks, and has built a ton of good will with players. And it didn’t have take a risk sinking tens of millions into a game meant to be the only thing gamers will engage with for years to come.
Kotaku’s Luke Plunkett said it best: Hi-Fi Rush is a Gamecube game. Or at least what we remember games from that generation feeling like. It’s as imaginative as it is impressive. It’s oozing creativity and personality, and probably most important, it's fun as hell. That’s not to say there’s no room for massive RPGs or open-world games. But maybe bringing back more PS2/Xbox/Gamecube-sized games isn’t such a bad idea. I know I’m sure as hell all for it.