Posted by Rampant Coyote on July 19, 2011
Cristoph Harmann, president of 2K games, recently tried to explain about the rebooting of the X-Com franchise as something nothing like X-Com: ” The problem was that turn-based strategy games were no longer the hottest thing on planet Earth. But this is not just a commercial thing – strategy games are just not contemporary.”
Well, that explains why the last two Civilization games were total flops. And why Galactic Civilizations II made Stardock go bankrupt. And why we never saw Persona 4 on these shores after Persona 3 was such a weird turn-based niche product on an obsolete platform that barely sold in Japan.
Oh, wait. Sorry. Wrong reality. A reality where these mainstream(ish) studio heads like Cristoph Harmann and Matthew Findley live. They aren’t the only ones by a longshot. They are just the ones who aren’t afraid to publicly voice their opinions to the press in an attempt to woo “modern gamers” to their games by distancing themselves from the past. “We’re new, we’re hip, we know what you want,” they seem to be begging their audience.
It’s easy to heap a lot of nerdrage on these guys. I already have. Craig Stern of Sinister Design pretty much said what I’d say on the more recent matter. As the mainstream devs keep circling closer around
the toilet bowl a generic, unified genre, the indies are the ones out on the fringe making more interesting, unique (at least for this day and age) things. Please support ‘em.
While these guys definitely piss me off as an old-school gamer, I have to reluctantly agree that they are right on one level. If you are in the business of game development – as opposed to purely hobbyist stuff – you are making a game for others. You are serving your customers. You need to provide them what they want – even if they don’t really know what it is they want themselves.
So that’s a good thing. Trying to serve a wider group of people – that’s not a bad thing, either.
But… and there’s always a but… there are some problems with this.
First off – implying that your past customers and fans were either foolish, unworthy, or no longer relevant is a crap move. Trying to win over a larger audience by putting down a smaller one just plain sucks. And whether you intend to or not, pooping on the games they loved does just that. It’s basically saying, “Oh, you quaint provincial rubes who actually liked that stuff made by people who were before my time… I can’t believe you liked that crap, but I’m sure you’ll eventually come to realize that we’re right and you are wrong.”
Just a tip for PR guys. You know, for when you decide that you want to remake Sid Meier’s Civilization as a first-person shooter next.
Secondly – and perhaps more importantly, is this little note: Publishers don’t know what their customer wants.
They’ve got marketing data, sure. It may tell them who is buying their game. They can see how much of Game X is selling in comparison to Game Y. They may have conducted surveys. Some of the latest games that are connected to the Internet all the time provide a bunch of telemetry data telling them how long their game is being played, where players stopped to pick their nose or take a bathroom break, and all that critical knowledge that they are sure you don’t mind having them know about.
But really, all that data is a black box that tells them little about what’s going on inside the heads of 2 million players. It may give them some clues about player preferences with previous games. It may clue them into the level of success of their marketing campaigns. It may give them some great and valuable data about player choices given a particular set of circumstances. But it won’t tell them why. Not without a lot of work.
For a made-up example, maybe the telemetry tells them that players prefer to be on the red team in this game. And more interestingly, the players with the highest scores tended to be on the red team. Ah-hah! the designers and marketers may infer. Players prefer the color red. Red implies dynamism, action, and violence. And obviously, the better players all gravitated to red, as they have the higher scores. This means that hardcore gamers – their core demographic and their opinion leaders – also prefer red. Therefore, they decide, they must make games with more RED in them. The logos will be red. Maybe it will take place on Mars, the red planet. And there will be geysers of red blood. Bingo! And this becomes a dogma for the next five generations of games.
But the truth of the matter is that the red uniforms in the game were shaded very similarly to a lot of the repeated background textures, making them much harder for other players to see. This graphical flaw resulted in red team players tending to score more kills that blue team players. The players themselves rarely recognized that issue, but did recognize (if only subconsciously) that they did better when playing on the red team. Thus a situational graphical flaw becomes misinterpreted as a mandate from the customers.
On top of this, players themselves often don’t know what they want. I know I don’t. I’ve found myself sucked into games that I never thought I’d enjoy, and turned off by games that I expected to be favorites. I can express my preferences all day long. Like how I prefer turn-based combat in RPGs. Yep, that’s what I want. But you look at some of my favorite RPGs, and several of the top slots go to games that did not have turn-based combat. Baldur’s Gate 2, Ultima VII, Diablo 2, Ultima Underworld… Apparently I am lying to myself. Or my preference isn’t as strong as I think. Or something.
And even with the best telemetry, marketing research, focus testing, and surveys in the world, it’s really only decent at mapping out the known, not the unknown. Who would have predicted Minecraft‘s success? Certainly not its creator. And our entire industry was blindsided first by casual games, and then by social games. Why? Because they didn’t really understand what their potential customers really wanted. Thus they ceded the exploration of that frontier to independent companies, who in turn ate their lunch.
I read a lot of messages from fellow indies who are venturing into new styles of games, and the fear of the unknown is high. Will people like it? Will people buy it? Sometimes they do. Sometimes they don’t. Branching off from established game styles is tough even for indies – there’s a lot of safety even in mediocre but predictable sales.
And that’s really what it’s about – all this posturing by studio heads trying to establish themselves as kings of the mono-genre mountain. It’s about safety. They are trying to chart the optimal courses along well-established lands and seas in familiar territory. It’s in the name of the customer – or their best guesses as what the lowest-common-denominator customer might buy – but it’s really about trying to dominate the territory well within their comfort zone. It’s not about knowing what the customer wants, but knowing what they know the publisher can sell. It’s about safety.
Which really brings me back to stating the same point as Craig Stern: “By abandoning the rich diversity of game genres they once called home, the big studios have all but handed them to us.” I am so glad I discovered indie games many years ago. If it weren’t for the indies (and the reciprocal impact that indies have had on mainstream), I think I would have grown *gasp* somewhat bored of gaming by now.
Because they really aren’t making very much of what this gamer wants anymore.
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