new challenger

I make games. I also play them. I talk about both activities here.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Defining Success

Derek has started a series of articles on fighting games. The first entry lists his top 5 most successful fighting games ever made. The original source material for this and the forthcoming articles dates back some years, and when I asked Derek how he defined “success” in his article, he told me that he didn’t remember. This got me thinking about my personal definition of success and videogames, as coming to terms with something I feel comfortable with as both a developer and a player has been very difficult for me over the years. My first definition of a successful game went something like this:

A successful videogame is one that satisfies my personal requirements for enjoyment.

I call this my naïve definition. For the general videogame public, this definition is reasonably functional. From the perspective of a consumer, games should strive to satisfy my needs, and if they do so, they have accomplished their mission. But this definition is woefully myopic when I position myself as a developer. Surely I can’t responsibly hope to satisfy one, two, or even a few thousand people. If fifty thousand people walk away from my games satisfied, even that is a horrible failure. The longer I’ve been in the industry, the more expensive games have gotten to produce, and to make enough money back to justify the investment made in development I now have to satisfy hundreds of thousands, and perhaps even millions of people. This realization led me to my second definition of videogame success:

A successful videogame is one that appeals to the broadest number of people possible.

I call this my pragmatic definition. From a business standpoint, this is an ideal definition of success, and undoubtedly it’s one that is held by a great many developers, but also probably by a great many people who sit in much larger offices and have much fancier cars than any developer has. I’m talking about the money men – the management and publishers that really drive this industry. The better my games sell, the better I appear in the eyes of the bigwigs, the more games I get to make – with bigger budgets, and better people, which leads to better sales, which leads to more stature in the eyes of the bigwigs, and on and on. But this definition began to eat at my soul a bit. After all, I don’t consider game gesign a job people take to pay the bills or to climb the corporate ladder; this is a job of passion and love. Developers dedicate more time and energy to their jobs than most people could possibly imagine. There’s a reason the average career span of a game developer is only 10 years – this shit is hard. Digesting this, I began to explore the realm of critical analysis, commonly known as game reviews. The games industry has its own vibrant system of critical commentary, and just like other entertainment media, the videogame review system even has its own review collation sites – my favorite is Gamerankings. Armed with this new tool of observation I came to yet another definition:

A successful videogame is one that gains wide critical acclaim.

In and of itself, I still maintain that this, my humanist definition, has merit. It might seem odd then, that I recently abandoned this definition with great relish. You see, my educational background is in Literature. Before I got around to game design, I was seriously considering a career in writing. I spent nearly two years of my college career taking nothing but literary critical analysis classes. I fell in love with both the subject matter of the analysis as well as the art of analysis itself. I began to understand how external the definition of what is “good” and what is “bad” can be. Unfortunately, and I don’t mean to reignite a debate on videogame journalism, but videogame reviews as an entity aren’t about objective analysis and worth quite yet. They’re about political machination and emotion. I came to this conclusion in the past year, and one game above all illustrated this to me rather clearly – Shadow of the Colossus.

Shadow of the Colossus is a game I’ve been looking forward to pretty much since the moment I completed ICO. Before even playing it, I would imagine how much I would love it, and what important work Fumita Ueda, Kanji Kaido, and the entire crew over there on Team ICO was doing. I felt that they were making the kind of games that the industry needed more of. And you know what? A lot of videogame reviewers were feeling the same things I was. They wanted Team ICO to succeed. They wanted Shadow of Colossus to serve as some sort of call-to-arms for the industry to make more esoteric experiences, to challenge art standards, to evoke emotional responses. The difference between me and those reviewers is that I’m not paid to review videogames – I’m a fan. The only thing that matters to me as a fan is my naïve definition, my personal requirements for enjoyment. These reviewers, in my view, let this investment of desire get to them, and it completely ruined their analytical perspective.

Playing Shadow of the Colossus revealed many things to me. The first was that Team ICO is not infallible. As a game, Shadow of the Colossus is not a masterpiece. Ueda is an animator by trade, and it’s obvious that subtle nuances communicated through motion are very important to him – more important than, say, how his game actually feels to play. In some cases, it works out. Climbing the colossi and killing them is exhilarating, and the information exchanged between motion on screen and the player’s awareness contributes to this. But sometimes it goes horribly wrong, as is the case with your horse Agro. Quite simply, Agro is a pain in the ass to ride. He doesn’t respond well enough to the player’s input – intentional, apparently, to communicate the free spirit of the horse. It’s hard to point him straight. He crashes into collision and ledges violently. And because you spend so much time on him – I would say at least 1/3 of the time you play the game – he sullies the experience. The game is worse because of Agro (there are also huge problems with actually tracking down the colossi, which exacerbates the Agro problem, but I’ll stick to shitting on Agro for now). Yet somehow, this was lost on reviewers, as they celebrated Shadow of the Colossus as a near-flawless landmark achievement in gaming.

I don’t think videogames are ready to rely just yet on their journalists to provide the kind of service that the literary community yields from theirs (although even the literary critics get pushed and pulled by politics every now and again). So what definition do I use to define success in gaming now? Well, it’s kind of an amalgamation of all these definitions:

A successful videogame is one that achieves a meaningful connection with its audience.

I call this my abstract definition. I don’t really have the intricacies of what it truly classifies all figured out, but somehow it makes sense to me, and that’s good enough for now. Maybe you all can help me come to grips with a formal meaning.

Thanks for reading.


  • At 4:26 PM, Blogger jchensor said…

    Whenever I try to judge what makes a game successful, I try very hard to view it from "the big picture" as much as possible. To me, a successful video game, as with all forms of media and art, is one that will stand the test of time. What will we remember decades from now?

    If we go back to the roots of gaming, the same games are brought up over and over and over again: Galaxians, Space Invaders, Asteroids, Pong, Pac-Man, Donkey Kong... THOSE are the successful games to me. They are making up the history of video games as beinggames that will always bereferred to from their time period. That is followed by the NES days of Legend of Zelda, Metroid, and Final Fantasy. And it'll continue with games like Metal Gear Solid and Symphonies of the Night during the PlayStation 1 era.

    This ignores all areas of critical review of the time, monetary accomplishments, and personal opinion. In fact, it is the most reflective of our culture as a whole. Here's a great example with movies: the year "A Beautiful Mind" won for Best Picture at the Oscars, it beat out Moulin Rouge! and The Fellowship of the Rings. I was pretty angry about it, because I felt the other two movies would abide by my qualifications of success: the ability to stand the test of time. And sure enough, people still talk about those two movies, but no one talks about "A Beautiful Mind" anymore.

    So as with such Oscar errors, I think basing video game success on anything that has too small of a timeframe (one year or even a few years) an inaccurate way to define success. I know we all want to deem games, right here and right now, as a success, but that can only be determined, IMO, after at least a decade. What will we remember from these years as the defining games? If we remember Katamari and Shadow of the Colossus from here on out, despite poor sales or a shitty horse, then their downsides are irrelevant: they were successful games. Star Wars has a ton of film flubs, but no one cares. If we still talk about those games 10 years later, we know they've made an impact and added themselves to the canon of gaming history.

  • At 11:26 AM, Anonymous Mihail said…

    Hi, Omar. Someone linked me to this post and it reminded me A LOT of a paper that I recently started writing.

    I uploaded it quickly while testing out the Google personal page feature:

    It's under "Video Games as an Art Form."

    Thanks for writing that out, though. I certainly agree with your points, but even if someone doesn't, it's a very interesting discussion topic.


    As for jchensor, what you say is interesting as well, but I don't agree with your use of anecdotal evidence. After all, people are still talking about and obsessing over LotR, while very few mention Casablanca, Citizen Kane, etc. Does that mean that the latter-mentioned movies haven't stood the test of time? Of course, they have -- it's what makes them classics. Pop culture can't be your only reference point. In fact, Omar's whole post deals with accepting MULTIPLE definitions of success.

  • At 6:30 PM, Blogger omar kendall said…


    Cool article. I actually like the idea of more videogame-centric awards for our ceremonies. A co-worker of mine attended the Spike TV Awards, and he was really annoyed that when the award for Cyber Vixen of the year (an award given to the hottest video game chick, I imagine) was handed out, it was given to the real life person upon which the character was based rather than the craftsman who actually created the game model.

    As for games as an art form - there are certain topics within this world of videogames that I'm scared to touch. Let's just say that that's one of them.

  • At 7:30 PM, Blogger jchensor said…

    Hey, Mihail.

    The only thing I can respond with is that I vehemently disagree with the fact that no one talks about Casablanca or Citizen Kane anymore. If you go to numerous film sites, these two films are always listed as at least in the top 25 film of all time. There are sites like They Shoot Pictures Don't They? that have those two movies listed in the top 25 films of all time. Another site is The Cinematheque which has both those films in the top 4 of all time. On IMDB, those two films are within the top 25 there as well. This hardly counts as "not talked about anymore."

    I'm not refering to Pop culture. I guess I'm referring more to the experts of these genres. Movie buffs will always refer to Citizen Kane and Casablanca, and they will continue to reference these movies for as long as films exist, I believe. I gave an example of LotR and Moulin Rouge! vs. A Beautiful Mind as a recent example... also because I firmly believe that, many many many many years from now, those two movies will still be in the minds of filmbuffs and filmgeeks, whereas A Beautiful Mind will be long and forgotten. So understand that when I say "Standing the test of time", that goes far beyond pop culture referencing


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