Amid a slow summer for AAA game releases, the window for smaller games to captivate the gaming public’s eye remains open, and Annapurna Interactive’s “Stray” has done just that.
Released Tuesday, the game has amassed an 84% score on Metacritic and has been praised for its clever use of a ginger-cat protagonist that embarks on a platforming adventure with a cyberpunk aesthetic, complete with a control scheme that enables players to have the cat meow at will across all gameplay and cutscenes.
“Stray” was in development for quite some time. Initially scooped up by Hollywood producer Megan Ellison’s video game publisher in 2016 after GIF images were tweeted out by developer BlueTwelve, the game was formally announced for PS4, PS5 and PC in 2020 and became Steam’s most wishlisted game ahead of its release.
But beyond the game’s unique premise is the far more unique role Annapurna continues to play in the games space.
Hollywood’s participation in the games space beyond IP licensing is quite spotty. Beyond Sony’s PlayStation empire, Warner Bros. Discovery remains the only real player in games on the Big Media side, with Disney, NBCUniversal and Paramount Global continuing to simply license IP out to a variety of mainstream publishers and their studio ensembles, though Disney has made a point to rebrand its Lucasfilm licenses as Lucasfilm Games in order to show more visible presence in the games space.
But because Sony Interactive Entertainment and Warner Bros. Games are geared more toward the AAA space, their game output is more sporadic and rife with delays than Annapurna’s steady churn of indie games that are consistently met with positive reviews, such as flagship 2017 game “What Remains of Edith Finch” 2018’s “Gone Home,” 2019’s “Outer Wilds” and “Neon White” last month.
“Stray” is bigger in scope than much of what Annapurna has published, so naturally delays were still part of its development cycle, but it’s clear that Annapurna Interactive has maintained a prolific energy in releasing games that has operated in stark contrast to the wider media focus on Annapurna as a whole.
Annapurna Pictures has had a tumultuous last few years rife with turbulence that preceded the pandemic. The company narrowly avoided Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2019 and sought to resolve more than $200 million in debt with the help of Oracle founder Larry Ellison, one of the world’s richest people who is also Annapurna founder, CEO Megan Ellison’s father and one of the world’s richest people.
And despite the company’s preexisting joint distribution pact with the now Amazon-owned MGM via United Artists Releasing, Annapurna has had to rely on its producing business and seek other studio partners as a result, such as Universal for “She Said,” a co-production with Brad Pitt’s Plan B Entertainment, as well as 20th Century for “Nightbitch,” an original Hulu film.
Megan Ellison isn’t alone in her status as a prominent Hollywood producer footing the bill for a gaming entity. Skydance New Media and Skydance Interactive are the gaming arms of “Top Gun: Maverick” producer Skydance Media, a company run by none other than David Ellison, Megan Ellison’s brother.
But unlike Annapurna, Skydance is focused on big IP partnerships with its Hollywood contemporaries for its games, having announced big “Star Wars” and Marvel games in development that are being spearheaded by “Uncharted” creator Amy Hennig.
Meanwhile, J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot Games is also working on a host of unannounced projects that will very likely be tied to major existing IP, with the help of key hires like Squanch Games co-founder Tanya Watson and Mike Booth of “Left 4 Dead” fame.
As massive as the gaming space is, consumer spend on content has been steadily trending downward toward pre-pandemic levels, per NPD Group tracking. This highlights the risks inherent with AAA game development, as the more time it takes to create such games, the longer it takes to earn revenue from game sales.
Catering to smaller and independent games is what allows Annapurna to maintain its prolific state. On top of that, “Stray” is selling for $30 as opposed to the new-game standard of $70 for AAA games upon the kick-off of the new console generation.
With a looming recession threatening to exacerbate the tightening of gamer budgets before bigger releases like “God of War: Ragnarök” and “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II” release in the fall, “Stray” is exactly the kind of stopgap game between such releases that can do well and has a good chance at doing so thanks to the lower price point.
As much as it makes sense for Hollywood companies to rely on Hollywood content for games, Skydance and Bad Robot are still largely unproven in the space, which can’t be said for Annapurna.