Yeah I think that’s a good summary.
I’m not sure I entirely agree with this. AFAICT Underrail is utter trash, and that seems to be the result of the single dev being psychotically obsessed with “difficulty” and instead of making the game more playable as time went on, just ramping up the “difficulty” (which actually is just "how focused is your build and how well do you know/exploit the mechanics). I’m told I got on board too late and he’d carefully eliminated the broader builds that had worked, which seemed to be true. I didn’t see a lot of it because of this and what writing I did see wasn’t great - but then I was also unimpressed with Wasteland 2 and 3. They both seemed over the top, self-impressed, and like very far cries from FO1/2 in terms of quality. Wasteland 3 had a higher eye-roll per hour rate than any game I’d played since the 1990s. And I played most of the Borderlands games, which have an incredible e-rph.
With Vogel’s games, the only one I’ve played is Avadon, and the writing wasn’t as good at Obsidian or Bioware on a bad day, let alone at their best. You did say uniform, and it’s true that what I saw there was uniformly mediocre, rather than having some bits be extremely well-written and some bits be a morass of cliches, but sometimes with Bioware even the morasses of cliches can actually be pretty great.
This is in fact one of my major problems with “budget”, “indie” and “AA” RPGs. It absolutely should be possible to make a great CRPG on a small budget, as you say, but what I keep seeing is people failing at it in different ways, with Obsidian and Disco Elysium being the only clear exceptions. And Obsidian suffers because of their budgets, though we shall see if Microsoft ends that suffering. Even Pillars 2, which is excellent, is missing the density of content that can make a dungeon great in a lot of places (but it does do well overall).
What’s most striking to me is that most “budget” CRPGs are quite badly-written, where only Bethesda ones typically are in the AAA sphere. Larian are finally reaching barely-acceptable writing levels with BG3, but still not at “basic Obsidian” even. Wasteland 2/3 are, as noted, pretty terrible imho. Pathfinder Kingmaker, despite employing at least on AA/AAA writer, has pretty bad and incredibly inconsistent writing (ironically the stuff by Avellone is actually some of the weakest and has his trademark “the player character is a dumbass who isn’t allowed to say anything clever to the NPC” bullshit all over it - which has been an issue all the way back to Planescape). The Outer Worlds’ writing is never quite bad… but certainly pretty dry and uninvolving, for the most part. Lets not even start on Spiders’ games. I could go on. The character and scene writing at the very least in Bioware/CDPR games (and Obsidian’s better efforts) is clearly a tier above all that. Bethesda’s writing is pretty all-round bad in the FO games (though still above almost all the non-AAA devs), but despite weak character writing in the TES games, the story and plot writing there is remarkably astute. Like Skyrim prefigured the whole downfall of globalism and rise of ethnonationalism in a really disturbing way.
I had a very very long response which I deleted for the sake of sanity, but it’s not really graphics, and DAI doesn’t seem to have been exceptionally high-budget as games go. Actual budget is not known but is likely in the $40-60m range which is normal for an AAA game, as no comments have ever been made otherwise (and they usually are if a game hits $70m or more).
Graphics-wise they used a pre-built engine (that they didn’t want to use - Frostbite) and managed, unlike Andromeda, to save a ton of money and effort by importing much of their animation and skeletons and so on from DAO/DA2. So I’d imagine they spent a lot less than most games on that.
The big costs would have been assets (i.e. models, textures, sound, etc.) and content (i.e. maps, quests, non-main-gameplay-loop systems, etc.).
That’s what tends to eat the budget of AAA games. Assets are graphics in a sense, but I don’t think the assets were the big one for DAI, because they’re not actually that amazing. What is staggering about it is the sheer, unnecessary, wild amount of content. Content that proliferated so much it actually got in the way of the game, leading to the major gameplay issues people have with it, and making “generic” as you say, because it became so unfocused as a result of having so much content.
To be fair to DAI, this was because DA2 got BURNED TO THE FUCKING GROUND for not having enough content, by both critics and gamers. They weren’t entirely wrong, but it was a ridiculously exaggerated talking point used to bash DA2 (which in retrospect is pretty damn cool, just yeah, lacking in maps and enemy diversity).
So DAI was essentially an overreaction to criticism of DAI. And similar criticisms were levelled against ME2/3, note, which lead to some bad ideas on top of the basic bad ideas in Andromeda. Indeed the initial “No Man’s Sky” design of Andromeda may well have stemmed from endless whinging about how ME2/3 were all very well but lack of content/replayability (hah… I’ve played ME2 7 times…).
Anyway that’s where the money goes - assets and content. That’s why a relatively bland game in terms of gameplay/story like GTA V costs $147m to develop. Because you have a gigantic and hideously detailed city full of stuff. No-one knows the exact dev cost of Cyberpunk 2077, but the total dev/marketing cost is $313m (similar to GTAV’s total dev/marketing cost, but lower than that of say, Destiny 1, which was more like $500m). In 2077 you can really see it in the insane level of detail on the assets, like dirty floors where you can’t see the dirt pattern repeating, or the fact that it has 157 songs in it, all of them written for it, all of them pretty much radio quality (not just the stuff by Grimes/ASAP Rocky/Run The Jewels and people you’ve heard of, but also the stuff that’s like two obscure rappers/DJs from Miami and so on).