new challenger

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

Friday, July 14, 2006

The Best a Man Can Get

A few weeks ago I was with a group of friends about to get down with some sweet Super Turbo goodness (the one true Street Fighter 2), when someone pulled out a recent AAA-licensed videogame. I’m going to buck a trend of mine and not name the game – so don’t try to guess, and don’t bother to try to get me to spill. Suffice to say the game was from a major publisher, and was quite high profile, capitalizing on the public awareness of its product tie-in. I myself had seen screens and movies of the game in question before, and what I had seen did not particularly impress me. Nevertheless, I was enthused when some of us decided to take turns playing (the Super Turbo machine was undergoing repairs, so we had some time to kill). While waiting for my turn to play, I was treated to competent yet otherwise unimpressive graphics, and the current player expressed frustration at the game’s general play. Still, opinions can vary, and so I remained cautiously optimistic – I honestly wanted to give the game a fair shake.

My optimism was dashed against the rocks of mediocrity the moment my hands touched the controller.

This game is absolutely awful to control. With no exaggeration, it’s a chore to play. Flabbergasted in the middle of my play turn, I asked the room aloud why a developer would make these horrid control decisions intentionally. Eric (that’s right, I only play ST with top-tier developers) suggested simply, that perhaps these decisions were not intentional at all. Perhaps it was simple lack of skill on the part of the developer. He’s was right, of course. No sane developer would intentionally make their game so unwieldy, tedious, and frustrating – particularly one aimed so squarely at the mass market. With this revelation, though, a new question arose. Why would a publisher allow such a high profile game to rest in the hands of such an incapable developer (and before I appear to paint such a black-and-white picture, I do concede that it’s entirely possible the game was not given enough time by the powers that be to make the game as good as it should have been)? The answer is chillingly simple.

Videogames are generally only as good as they absolutely have to be.

I want you all to mull this over for a second. Many of you probably perceive games to be delightful little labors of love. After all, if you play games, there’s a better than average chance that you have a strong emotional attachment to at least one of them; it’s reasonable to imagine that love begets love. It would be ridiculous for me to try to convince you that all games are made devoid of any passion or love, and that’s not my aim. But make no mistake, games are a business first. If one day there’s no money to be made in the gaming business, you can be sure that videogames as you know it will cease to exist, passionate or otherwise. With big business comes careful calculation, planning, and risk management, and profitability comes before everything. Tragically, sometimes profitability comes before making the best product you can. Let’s face it, in life the best isn’t always the most popular – it’s public perception that rules the day. There are better sounding, more feature-rich mp3 players than the iPod, but that doesn’t stop it from being the undisputed king of portable music devices. There are cleaner burning, more abundantly available fuel sources than gasoline, yet fossil fuels are still the fuel de jour.

So what does this have to do with videogames? Well just like those other products, there are certain games that people will buy, regardless of their actual quality. Isn’t it kind of disconcerting that the lowest rated Madden in seven years is also the best-selling? Madden is far from being a bad game, but what happens when EA and Tiburon actually stop trying as hard, reassured by the fact that quality and sales are not directly proportional? One of my co-workers spoke to me recently regarding one of his past projects. The game was close to its release date, yet desperately behind in its schedule. Instead of being allotted more time, the developers were instructed by the publisher to get the game done and on time, quality be damned. The publisher’s unwillingness to allow more time to make the game better was simple. According to them, research indicated that the game was going to sell a certain amount of units no matter how good or bad it was. The game, a licensed one, was primarily going to appeal to young children, whose parents, who have no interest in actually playing the game themselves, would buy it for them. This particular buying group is typically less savvy than the hardcore gaming audience, who are more likely to check reviews and gather community feedback before committing to purchasing a new game. Parents pay more attention to the license of a game than its actual quality, and children are more tolerant of flaws so long as the license is represented well enough. This creates a perfect storm for publishers, who simply want to exploit this willingness on the consumer’s part to buy lower quality, cheaper games. The money saved in development can then go on to buy more and more lucrative licenses, which while not assuring financial success, certainly increase the odds of it. My co-worker’s game was released, to great commercial success and harsh critical attacks. That, ultimately, is how we ended up that day, playing that awful game.

Fortunately, there are still a lot of publishers out there who are dedicated to making the best product they can. For some games, quality is the most important factor in ensuring success. God of War is a great example of a game with no license, poor cultural relevance, and limited potential audience that has gone on to be one of the biggest successes of this entire generation, riding simple excellence of execution to both critical and commercial success. Rest assured that other publishers have already observed God of War’s successful practices, and are well on their respective ways to bringing you games of the highest quality possible. I can’t wait.

Thanks for reading.


  • At 10:26 PM, Anonymous elvis said…

    Excellent article. The current crop of games seems to be totally overrun by rampant mediocrity. So much so that as a "hardcore gamer" myself, the volume of my annual purchases decrease year by year. It really is a shame, but it is the price to be paid for a market that was once "niche" and has since become completely mainstream. Same with anything else.

    One comment however:

    "But make no mistake, games are a business first. If one day there’s no money to be made in the gaming business, you can be sure that videogames as you know it will cease to exist, passionate or otherwise."

    I disagree. As someone who spends a lot of his spare time developing free/open software for absolutely no monetary reward, I can tell you now that there will always be someone making games (or any sort of software), whether there's money in it or not. In fact, the very first computer games ever made were done so purely for enjoyment, and not for profit. Profit came only after someone realised there was a plausible commercial market that could be sold to. And if that market dries up, the developers who enjoy making these things for kicks will still be around.

    Don't ever underestimate the creative power of a bored geek. :)


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