Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

What Modern Gamers Want…

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.

Filed Under: Biz - Comments: 12 Comments to Read

  • Melissa said,

    Very well said. I know I resent being told that the games I like are “old fashioned.” I like turn-based games because I am not a 16-year-old kid with no serious responsibilities who isn’t likely to be called on to handle a bloody nose or an overflowing toilet. I like them even more when developers take the idea seriously and design a game that fits the concept. (And now that I have my comfy chair in the basement, I can go back to Persona 3 and 4…)

  • Andy_Panthro said,

    Comments about turn-based games always get me annoyed. There are many people that seem to parrot other people’s opinions, and I would suggest that perhaps there are just a lot of people that haven’t played a good turn-based game.

    I can’t imagine playing X-COM (or UFO: Enemy Unknown as it was known over in the UK) in real time, and never used that option in Apocalypse.

    I do hope that indie or other developers (Paradox in particular) can continue to produce games that suit people like me. Luckily, I have been well-served in the past few years, and there is more to come. Best of all is the lower prices, or indeed free games (Battle for Wesnoth for example!).

  • trudodyr said,

    Funny you should mention Paradox. A couple of months ago, I stumbled onto Europa Universalis 3. While I enjoyed the occasional round of Civilization, I never figured myself much of a strategy game lover. But this game has me hooked since, more than any other title in the last decade!
    Just goes to show the customer really doesn’t always know what he wants. But I do believe that in their buying decision, (some) customers value very highly the care and genuine interest of a developer in their game, be it apparent through faithfully patching it over long periods of time (like Paradox do, but Blizzard in the mainstream is also famous for) or blogging about the development process and taking all sorts of input throughout (like Frayed Knights here, and also Knights of the Chalice).
    With the steadily growing opportunities for user feedback and making public selected company processes, I believe this – the relationship between developer and interested gamers, potential buyers and of course existing customers – is something that can really be a boon for the indie community, as it is an area better suited to small, agile teams than sluggish behemoths with hundreds of employees.

  • McTeddy said,

    “On top of this, players themselves often don’t know what they want.”

    This is really the comment that resonates with me…

    Who the hell asked for recharging health and cover systems? NOBODY!

    A developer took their chances with a new system… and the consumers realized that they new system was even better*. They didn’t just blindly give their consumer what was demanded… they gave their consumer an amazing new flavor that was sure to win them over and, for better or worse, it did.

    I’m just glad that their is an indy community… because even if the mainstream industry ignores my desires… someone here might give me the kind of games I want to play.

    *Not my opinion… just stating that more people seem to like it.

  • Andy_Panthro said,

    I actually bought EU3 at about the same time as I bought Empire: Total War.

    Now, these are both strategy games, one with RTS combat and flashy graphics and the other far more detailed except for combat.

    I’ve played a couple of hours of Empire, but it was EU3 that pulled me in. I’ve sunk many, many hours into that game, and the scope of it is incredible. It’s like Civilization gone mad.

    I’d also like to pick up on what you mention about user feedback – and that’s the massive benefit of indie devs. I’m currently watching a couple of projects who have really taken the user feedback part on board to make a product that the fans will love.

    The first is Grim Dawn, an action-RPG based on the Titan Quest engine (and by some of the people that made TQ), who have drip fed info to people on the forums as well as asking for opinions on various tweaks or options that could be added to the game.

    The second is Xenonauts (The X-COM game we’ve all be waiting for?) where the game has been in a rather active beta stage for a while (pre-orders can become beta testers, and make various suggestions).

    This sort of community feedback gets people heavily involved in the game, makes them feel like it is being made for them. This in turn works really well for marketing, since you can get a very positive word-of-mouth thing going, which is much more effective for an indie than having to go for paid advertising. Of course courting the right sorts of websites (like Rock, Paper, Shotgun for example) to target the right demographics is important too.

  • Corwin said,

    Amen guys, amen. I totally agree with all of you. I LOVE TB games, but funnily enough, like Jay, one of my favourite games is not TB, but almost a shooter; the original System Shock.

  • LateWhiteRabbit said,

    Cristoph Harmann isn’t exactly wrong from his perspective. This is 2K games we are talking about – publishers of Red Dead Redemption, the GTA series, LA Noire, etc. They are used to spending many millions on game development and like-wise selling millions of copies. They really CAN’T afford to make something that won’t appeal to the widest possible demographic, because come Hell or high water, they will spend the GDP of a small nation to fund every game they publish. Failure isn’t an option for them – when you have hundreds of employees in multiple countries working on a game for 4,5, or in the case of LA Noire 7+ years, you can’t take a risk with genre or innovation. (Though LA Noire would seem to be an exception to this, “Trojan-horsing” a point-and-click mystery adventure game to the masses under the guise of a GTA-style game.)

    Stardock and Firaxis don’t spend near as much on development, and thus can have successful releases in more niche genres because they don’t have to sell as many copies to make that money back and start earning profit.

    Your budget really determines the risks you can take – let’s say you know that the best selling PC game in your genre sold 400,000 copies. Let’s say you know you will be asking $50 a copy and you’ll get to keep $25 of each sale after everyone else is paid off – publishers, stores, packaging, etc. Now you know that the absolute MOST you can earn in your genre of interest on this platform is $10 million dollars. But you also need to be realistic and realize you probably won’t get anywhere close to that. You pick a realistic goal instead like selling your game to at least 5-10% of that potential market. You have a number now. $500K or $1 million dollars. Now spend less than that to make the game and you are golden. If you earn more, great. If not, no worries, you factored in failure.

    Balancing a budget is so damn easy for households or individuals – why can’t countries or corporations get it right? Just don’t spend more than you bring in, and don’t count on winning the lottery for your retirement.
    A lot of the innovation and creativity we saw in the 8-bit and 16-bit eras was a result of small teams, small budgets, and small overhead. Companies could afford to have a few flops and still survive.

    Though it does seem funny we are complaining about a lack of innovation and deriding the new X-Com for not being the same as the old one in the same breath . . . .

    It all goes back to the fact we really DON’T know what we want – but we’ll know it when we see it!

  • Xian said,

    When I am playing a party based RPG, I prefer turn based combat. It’s near impossible to control each member real time, unless you give them orders beforehand and rely on the AI, a la Dragon Age. Single player games I usually prefer real time, though I have enjoyed many single player turn based games such as Fallout 1 & 2.

    The most recent turn based games I have played are the new King’s Bounty games. I thoroughly enjoyed those titles. In some ways they are similar to HOMM, but they are only turn based during combat, and there is no city building involved.

  • sascha said,

    All: +1

    Why does 2k take the X-COM Franchise anyway? If they wanted to make a different game they shouldn’t base it on old established classics and change the whole idea about them. Because companies like 2K don’t have any sense for innovation, that’s why!

  • Menigal said,

    Whenever I see a big developer make insane statements about how anyone not loving their generic genre is an out-of-touch relic it makes me less likely to buy anything from them again. Why do they think insulting long-time fans of a series or genre is a good marketting plan? Is it really just to pander to their fanatic fanboys, stirring up their hatred of anyone who doesn’t share their flavor of the month obsession?

    Imagine if all TV producers said “we realised that comedy is dead, and decided that our reboot of Red Dwarf should be a singing contest, because that’s what you want to see.” Congrats, big game developers. You’ve surpassed TV executives in the realms of marketting-minded stupidity. :p

  • Felix Pleșoianu said,

    “If you are in the business of game development – as opposed to purely hobbyist stuff – you are making a game for others.”

    Yeah… that’s why we get so much software — including games — with obvious bugs and ergonomic issues that even cursory usage by the developer would have caught. But they don’t use their own software. Why should they? It’s made for everyone else.

    Well, that’s stupid. The first major piece of software I wrote was so appreciated and useful in the company precisely because I was its first and heaviest user, and had to make it fast+easy to use, lest it drive me crazy. Nowadays I make games for fun, but the equation hasn’t changed: it’s because I make them for myself first — to surprise and challenge *me* — that they are good enough for other people as well. Not least because I couldn’t have held for so many rounds of beta-testing and bug-fixing if my own game bored me.

  • fluffyamoeba said,

    When they say “What modern gamers want…” they mean “What modern publishers want…”. And mainstream devs have to sell their product to the publishers *not gamers*.

    Also Baldur’s Gate is turn based :p