September 1, 2010
(The following editorial was submitted anonymously to IGN.com in 1999, during the wild and woolly days of internet gaming ‘journalism’. This was LONG before FOX had bought them. Hell…when IGN rose out of the primordial cybersoup, it was essentially a hardcore fan site where the Nintendo faithful went for the latest N64 scoops. Yes – I am dating myself. For reasons that will become abundantly clear as you read this, I could not let my cubicle masters at EA catch even the slightest whiff of its origins. This was an era before ‘social media’ was even a tingle in anyone’s nether-regions. Before ‘insider blogs’ glutted the WWW. Before we were all merrily jeopardizing our career paths with mobile cam-uploads and slanderous late-night tweets. And now? My concerns seem almost quaint. Enjoy!)
Art in a Corporate World
Interactive entertainment. Electronic play. Videogames. These are antiquated terms for what has become a multi-billion dollar medium – a method of transferring ideas and experiences through complex mathematics and manifested pathways of light and sound. We hunger for it. Our applause is registered at outposts of the global retail network, a system that is all-too-aware of our narcotic-like need for the next “masterpiece”; the impending “classic”; the “killer app”.
At the beginning of the century, the motion picture medium was demonized as the bastardization of “art.” About halfway through the 1900’s television was introduced, and a cacophony of criticism rose to pan this harbinger of personal intrusion and cultural sideshow… surely this glowing box leaves the masses no more than a “passive, neutered collective,” unable to distinguish art from a torrent of low-brow distraction.
We now face the close of this century, and of this millennium, with a medium that could transcend all those before it – a tool that could give millions the opportunity to express their uniqueness through action, reaction, and consequence – a strange and wondrous synthetic plane, where scientific approach, artistry, and the magic of storytelling combine to cast a spell born of electricity on those with courage, skill, and imagination – where the Creators learn from those who partake, and use their craftsmanship to improve and refine the worlds they have woven, until finally we (you, I, and the gaming collective) can choose to explore the mystery and splendour of a Virtual Eden…all whims satisfied…no wish too great.
That is the dream. A romantic thought, indeed.
I’m so sorry to dash this fable across the rocks of reason, but if you’re one of the faithful legion who still adheres to the romantic ideals of the gaming industry – if you still believe that corporations, the ones producing and selling games en masse, desire to take us all to Game Nirvana – then perhaps you should close this window now and spend a few hours romping through the fields of Hyrule. Granted, there are always exceptions to “the rule.” Indeed, there are factions in the world of gaming whose goal it is to innovate, tantalize, and provide a groundbreaking experience of play. The same can be said for all entertainment media, really. There are independent filmmakers who wish to tell an original story and change the way that you perceive the world. There are cult musicians who push the boundaries of musical form and function while delivering serious messages of hope and warning. Even television attempts to educate as it entertains, in the desperate hope that at some level it can free itself of the shackles labelled “Idiot Box.”
But for every “Brazil” there are 50 “Wild Wild Wests”…for every “Tragically Hip,” there are 100 “Backstreet Boys”…and for every “Simpsons,” there are infinite “Friends.”
And I think that we’ve all had enough.
Yet we know the system exists. We know why it seethes and grows and pulses with pretty lights to render us zombified and malleable. The reason is elementary — the common thread undeniable. Shout it from your couches and let it thunder and echo above the digital sea.
No surprises there. And it’s no surprise that money (and the rewards attached to buckets and buckets of it) affects the output of every major gaming company on the planet…even Nintendo. Of course, if you attach a philosophy of game design and development that strictly adheres to the concepts of “quality” and “innovation” to the corporate model, then it becomes a Win/Win scenario. Great games for you – mountains of green for the Motherbrain. Logical enough, it would seem, yet so few companies seem capable of grasping this simple truth. Instead, they choose to make games that are derivative – that fall into “types” that can be engineered via a Hollywood-style formula – that lack vision. Combine this painful truth with slipshod management practices and an abundance of ignorance as to what makes a game “fun,” and half the time the end result is barely playable.
For every Smash Brothers, there are 50 Dual Heroes…for every Beetle Adventure Racing , there are 100 GT64s…for every Zelda, there are infinite Supermans.
Perhaps if we demystified the “process” of making games ‘the corporate way” we’d glean some startling insights into how so much crap ends up as cartridge. Of course, you’re free not to read this. You could simply go to the Previews section or the Letters section or the section that predicts Dolphin as the Second Coming…you could change the channel so the Masked Magician doesn’t show you how they cut the lady in half.
But the next time you plunk down $50 of your sweat and sacrifice for a copy of NFL Quarterback Club or Batman Beyond, you’ll remember what you’ve read thus far, and you’ll come back for what follows:
GENESIS: “Let there be…”
Every creative venture starts with an idea out of the void: music, movies, TV, games. Let’s end the debate right now…it’s all art, and the genesis of art is the conception of an idea. Ideas are “good” at the Big Corporation. Ideas can lead to games. Games lead to money. So everyone from the lowly game tester to the leather-chaired executive offers up an “idea.” The trick is getting the “decision makers” (usually an executive committee comprised of senior producers and management) sold on your idea. Unfortunately, this is where things start to go poo-poo.
New ideas are risky. “No one’s ever done that before, so if we devote resources to that and it fails, then it reflects poorly on all of us!” Or even better, “If no one’s done it before, then it can’t be a good idea, because if it was a good idea then someone would’ve done it already…and then we’d do an improved version.”
There’s some mind-numbing logic at work here. I assume that you’re curious as to how any game ideas get the “green light” at the Big Corporation.
Franchises: “Could I have the McGame combo, please?”
A franchise is an existing property in the Big Corporation’s stable that already possesses some popularity, or “mindshare”, with the buying public. If you piggy-back a new idea onto an existing franchise, then it’s more likely to get noticed on store shelves if the franchise is still hot. Mario, our chubby little plumber/uber hero, is the biggest game franchise in the world. Make a good Mario game – hell, make Mario Accountant 64 – and you’ll see some brisk business at retail. Pokemon’s a great example of a current property that’s being pushed to high heaven as a franchise: multiple versions on Gameboy/GBC and soon-to-be GBA, multiple N64 incarnations, a probable million+ system-selling Gamecube version, and hot lateral marketing through merchandise, toys, and the fit-inducing cartoon. All things “Pokemon” sell, and we’re about to experience a Third Wave of Poke-products thanks to the Big N’s clever hype-engineering.
Hey, at least these titles are being made by THE top-notch developer – Nintendo in-house games are consistently AAA titles, with fun characters, deep gameplay, and tons of replay value. Nintendo makes franchises we can all live with…even Kirby. That’s fine and dandy.
But over at Big Corporation, USA, you get a different approach to the franchise ideology. Once a new title achieves “hit” status (at least 500,000 copies sold, but that number is slowly climbing), the decision makers immediately begin planning how to capitalize on Game X’s success through the development of a franchise. Remember NBA JAM? Remember Mortal Kombat? Acclaim nearly killed itself with a slow gut-wound in the SNES days by releasing a string of inferior products based on these franchises and others. Then there’s EA, the biggest game publisher in the solar system (I’d say Universe, but let’s not be hasty!) — it’s pleased as punch to release titles in its sports series year after year, with only minimal changes and “upgrades” to the core of the game itself.
“But this year, we have facial animations and all of the real stadiums!”
Please. After they show Madden and the probably SSX for Gamecube, my bet is they’ll sit back and see if the platform becomes ‘viable’. And we all know what happens to a platform that EA doesn’t mark as ‘viable’…Cast your Dreams elsewhere, my friend.
And don’t even start me on companies who do lacklustre ports of franchise titles from one console to another. The N64 suffered enough from less-than-stellar third-party support in its library, so the last thing we need is another inferior version of a lame PS2 game – rushed to our shiny, cube-shaped console of choice from an outside development house hired by the Big Corporation at the last minute in the hopes of capitalizing on a franchise’s perceived excellence.
But I digress. I know what you’re thinking now – What about original titles? What about the games that started the franchise in the first place?
Licenses: “Go Kart racing is cool, but the kids just love South Park…”
If you want to get the attention of the big boys with your revolutionary idea, then the best way to do it is to somehow involve a license in the equation. What’s a license? Well, for the uninitiated, a license is a hot commercial property that can be fused with a game concept (or screw the game concept, and just make sure that the licensed material shines) to give it more perceived appeal to the public. Every Big Corporation utilizes this approach in some degree: Nintendo and Star Wars (who needs F-Zero’s gameplay or Wipeout’s music when you can have neither in the Star Wars universe?), Acclaim and South Park (it’s like Turok, only slower…with more fog…and no real point…but they swear!), and EA (FIFA, NBA, NFL, PGA, NHL, Porsche, Ferrari, Volkswagen…the Vatican’s next) — the list could go on forever. Find the right license and match it to a solid game concept, and the Big Corporation smells ching-ching. Of course, as I mentioned above, it helps to have an actual game concept to back up your star property unless you want to end up with a warehouse of Batman Forever cartridges.
Once the possessor of the license has a-ok’ed the legal agreement and settled on a healthy sum for the character’s/car’s/actor’s/athelete’s likenesses and related labels (which can take months, affect the final game design, and cause delays in a product’s scheduled release…more on delays later), people can start planning promotions, media events, lateral product tie-ins, and oodles of product-launch hooplah for print, radio, and TV (mark my words, just wait until WCW Mayhem gets released for a tidal wave of wrestling-related promotional nonsense whose budget could’ve fed a country…even if the game ends up pale). A hot celebrity, a cool car, or a famous athlete can give much-needed “credibility” to the average game buyer, and can also help to sway retail chains like Walmart and Toys ‘R’ Us to book more product and hype the game with internal advertising. All of these factors help the execs at Big Corporation breath a sigh of relief, since risk-taking has been reduced to a minimum through the signing of this high-profile licensing agreement…even if gamers end up with something more akin to Automobili Lamborghini than Beetle Adventure Racing.
Genres: “It’s like Zelda, but we use people instead of elves…they’re taller.”
Still, not all games fall into the “franchise” or “license” dichotomy. Stand-alone titles comprise a good chunk of what we see on the store shelves, but it takes much more coaxing to get the Big Corporations to do this. Without a franchise or license to reduce the perceived risk involved with game development, decision-makers need to be sold on a concept that makes them comfortable. People are comfortable with what they’re familiar with and executives are familiar with what has already proven itself in the marketplace. Look at all the games that came out that were “Tomb Raider-inspired.” Have you observed the trend towards interactive horror titles, a la Resident Evil? Played the majority of “nods” to Mario Kart? Mastered the Mario 64 wannabees?
These games get made because someone pitched a concept to a decision- maker at a Big Corporation, and it sounded something like this:
“It’s like Tomb Raider and Zelda, but there’ll be more fighting and less puzzles, so the player doesn’t get as confused. Like in Resident Evil, they’ll be fighting undead-like creatures, which leaves lots of room for blood that we know the kids like. Maybe we’ll put in some vehicles for our hero to drive, kind of like the tank level in Goldeneye, and there’ll be a big Cheats Menu for the player to find so the kids can do all sorts of cool and wacky stuff, cause kids love codes. And to top it all off, the game will be in Dolby Surround Sound, have 3 minutes of real-time cinemas, and use all-new lighting techniques that accent the character’s breasts at all camera angles. Oh yeah, did I tell you about the blood?”
The executive board gets a warm and fuzzy feeling from these familiar features, and all smile approvingly at your document that outlines competitor product that has achieved high sales from similar design concepts. You get the A-OK to assemble a high-level design that outlines the key selling features of the game and the general vision that you have in mind for the title. You’re ready, you’re willing, but you’re not yet able.
There’s one devilish hurdle left.
Marketing: “We could sell your soul if the European numbers are good…”
Did you ever see the episode of Dilbert where he leaves his Big Corporation and goes to work for the Perfect Company? His new office supports free-thinking, research, creativity, risk-taking, and employee wellness. His new bosses eagerly await Dilbert’s first contribution to the company, but instead of moving forward with an innovative idea, he asks, “Where’s your Marketing Department?” His new bosses assume that this new-fangled idea of a “Marketing Department” must be a good one, because it’s new — and “new” is good at the Perfect Company. The execs invest heavily to incorporate a place for Marketing in their operational process, eager to see the results.
One day later, the Perfect Corporation lay in ruins.
If there is one true bane to the Western system of product development, it is the school of thought that encompasses the need for Marketing. Before you can move ahead with the first real steps of game development, the Marketing Department gets to do its forecasting. Marketing takes your idea in the form of a treatment or “high concept” and shares it with the other Marketing satellites of the Big Corporation that occupy the various sales territories around the globe – specifically Europe and Asia – and tries to guess how many copies your game will realistically sell.
So, essentially you have a group of 20-somethings with a collective promotional background limited usually to packaged goods like tampons and anal ointments – who don’t play games and have nary a clue as to what makes a game “good” – deciding the fate of your “idea.”
Having a franchise helps. Having a license helps. Having an established genre helps.
But, if Marketing comes back to the decision makers at Big Corporation and proclaims, “Well, we think what you’re trying to do with this game is great. It’s a super idea, and personally I’m behind it 100% — but we really can’t see a way to sell it to our target demographic of 8-13 on the Gamecube, and that scares Europe, and it makes Toys ‘R’ Us and Walmart worry about inventory. Perhaps if we made some changes based on some feedback from focus groups in our target market…”
If Marketing says something like this, then there’s a good chance that you won’t pass GO. Either the idea gets scrapped or it gets the necessary “retooling” required to raise the forecast numbers. Without the support of Marketing at the Big Corporation, a game doesn’t get the advertising dollars it so desperately needs to get public awareness, and without public awareness sales stay low – no matter how good the title is (just ask a number of development teams).
In the world of pricey N64 ROM cartridges, low projections spelled C-A-N-C-E-L to Big Corporation executives on multiple occasions, or at the very least a massive rethink of game design and sales strategy. Perhaps the cheaper disk media on the Cube will ease these concerns…perhaps. Still, it’s possible to make Marketing “see” your vision and rally behind it, even if there is a modicum of risk involved. If they believe in you, your team, and the overall concept of the game, then it’s all-systems-go towards your scheduled launch date.
You’re gonna’ make a game…but you’d better hurry.
Shipping on Time: “Hey baby, wanna see my Stock?”
The producers have hammered-out the fine details of the design. There have been endless meetings with the team of programmers and artists placed on the project. Everyone has a series of tasks to complete within a specific time frame to make it all happen. Physics models, motion code, special effects, modelling, texturing, cinemas, audio, front-end design, cheats, easter eggs — it’s all coming together. Marketing has lined-up press interest to cover your progress. Sales forecasts grow as words of praise fly through the halls of the Big Corporation concerning the work that your group is doing. A team of testers is assigned to the project to track down any and all bugs (and with the average N64 game, there were over 1000 of them…let’s hope that coding on the Cube is indeed easier!). Everyone digs in for the long haul. Every pixel will be tweaked. Every line of code will be optimized. Every feature and game mode will be delivered as designed.
You can smell a hit.
But there’s one problem. It’s a really big problem. It’s such a big problem that no one at the Big Corporation dare mention it until it’s too late.
For lack of a better term, the schedule for the release of the game was… ambitious. The average game developed has an 18 month schedule to conceive, design, and complete a game. Big Corporation has given your team nine months to crank-out your baby free of crash-bugs and loaded to the plastic with the hot new features that you promised. The team realizes that there’s no way to release on time with the scope of what’s left.
Now, it would be logical to take a page from the books of Nintendo and Rare — delay the game. Take the time necessary to make it perfect, release it when it’s totally polished, and there will be much rejoicing on all fronts. You wouldn’t be delaying your title as a positioning ploy against a competitor. You wouldn’t be delaying out of fear of a slumping market for your type of game. You wouldn’t be delaying to artificially generate hype in the press and, consequently, in the public.
You just want to make the game right.
Suggesting a delay to the Big Corporation is enough to leave you crying in your pink slip. There is one law above all else in the world of the successful multi-national company – Release the Number of Products that You Said You Would.
If a product doesn’t ship when it’s scheduled to, then it usually misses the planned Fiscal Quarter (each company divides their release schedules into four quarters, similar to seasons, where they project a certain amount of revenue for each quarter). If a game doesn’t make it’s quarter (God forbid it doesn’t make it’s Fiscal Year) and can’t be shuffled with another game in the company’s roster, then profit forecasts for the Big Corporation in that quarter will drop, perhaps sharply. If profit forecasts drop, then investors take notice. And when investors take notice of a shortcoming in a company, then the stock price drops.
This is a mortal sin in the eyes of the Big Corporation.
The stock price must remain strong so the shareholders stay happy and reap big rewards. It keeps the company’s profile high, it attracts outside investment, and offers the company more muscle in the global marketplace so it can continue to grow — and make more money.
I told you it would all come back to money. These days, it always does.
You’re thinking, “But couldn’t the Big Corporation hold back the game, finish it right, and sell a lot more copies when it’s done?”
Sure, that’s a great long-term strategy; you endear yourself to consumers by releasing consistently strong titles, thereby strengthening your Brand Name as a result (Nintendo’s a household word for a reason). Unfortunately, the Big Corporation doesn’t think that way. It will do anything to meet its scheduled deadlines and release the quantity of titles it promised in its shareholders’ meetings. As a result, for the sake of meeting a quota (‘cause that’s all it is), the game – already weakened by needs to be franchised, licensed, pigeonholed, and marketed – will have features axed, game modes simplified, extra goodies shelved, and it’ll be chock full o’ bugs.
All in the name of short-term profit.
How to protest, the American way.
Your dollars are coveted by the game industry like a programmer covets a Konami Booth-Girl at E3. They need you. Without your expenditures, they do not survive.
The only way that we can change the Big Corporations is by exercising our capitalist right of Freedom of Choice in the marketplace. Do your research. Follow a game’s development in the press, from its announcement and through each milestone. Read the previews in magazines and on websites (but don’t believe the hype in Producer interviews…it’s always “The best game ever”). Familiarize yourself with a company’s history. Decide if you really want to buy this game — would you buy it without the franchise, the license, and the cool advertising campaign?
If enough of us stop buying the sh*t that is shovelled upon us by all of the Big Corporations, then they will take notice. It will take time, but they will notice. And when they do, they’ll have two choices:
- 1. Adopt the ideology of design: “Make it good. Make it fun. Don’t release it ‘til it’s DONE.”
- 2. Or they can choose to stop supporting the console, citing “disinterest,” “over-priced business models”, and a “fickle consumer base”
- 3. Do what Nintendo does 8)