Mad Mack: How Not To Screw Up A Video Game – 4 Simple Steps
Fed-up with uninspired experiences, exploitative DLC and restrictive DRM, disgruntled gamer and professional business consultant Dave ‘Mack’ McConkey offers developers and publishers four crucial rules for avoiding disaster – and launching a genuinely great game.
In my last article a few weeks ago, I discussed (in an uncharacteristic effort to at least pretend to be a legitimate journalist) some of the reasons why we will always suffer poor games, exploitative DLC, and infuriating DRM in various nefarious forms.
Continuing in that vein, and again drawing from my own professional experience in a completely unrelated commercial area (so you can be sure I absolutely know what I am talking about), I am going to spend a bit of time discussing how game developers and publishers might at least try not to launch a piss poor game that is a waste of everyone’s time and money.
If any games developers/publishers/marketers read this, you are welcome – I normally charge a few grand for these cutting insights….
Know The Market Place
It’s a jungle out there and no mistake. The smallest factors can influence the launch of a new game, and make the difference between it doing a simultaneous flash and clear into every living-room in the land, or emerging blinking and confused into the cold, harsh light of day where it is summarily dispatched by a 20-foot iron golem. It does not take much for a game to pluck defeat from the jaws of victory, is what I’m saying here.
There is a lot that games developers can do to ensure that their new-born game has the best chance of making it in this big, scary world. The first step should be to make sure that they know the gaming landscape inside and out. Regardless of whether or not you want to make the next realistic shooter, real time strategy, 4X, MOBA, MMO or (ugh) sports sim, an innate understanding of what is going on at consumer level will give you a fairly clear idea of the features that customers will expect as standard in a game, and how the game will fare when released onto shelves.
Taking the easiest example, let’s look at shooters. First, who is the competition? Is it a ‘realistic’ shooter (because that horse is not going to flog itself), or a fantastic journey through a contrived, steampunk-esque floating city featuring bland combat and endless, samey enemies?
If realistic, then you can immediately identify the competition (COD and BF among some others), and in knowing the competition, you know what the average gamer will expect from the experience (bombastic set pieces, gritty graphics, lots of military hardware, and waves of ethnically ambiguous enemies that appeal to at least one facet of the many ‘great menaces’ the USA has faced since the second world war).
A lot of these aspects of design will cost a lot of money to implement – money that most development teams just do not have access to. So, if the game in development will not be able to afford the money to create your standard Triple-A ‘realistic’ war sim (realistic as in Russia invading the USA, and then simultaneously invading everywhere else), then it needs to have something else to offer. Spec Ops: The Line obviously lacked the budget to be a COD-style shooter, so instead it decided to weave in a gripping story and setting that more than made up for its fairly boilerplate gunplay.
Knowing the gaming landscape can help developers understand what is expected of their baby when it is launched, as well as giving insights into what might compel gamers to pick up their iteration of ‘shoot Arabs or Russians with realistic guns with explosions, on-rails sections and WMD going off’, and ensure that they have something in their game that helps it stand out from the crowd. Something to really make gamers and critics sit up and take notice. Which segues nicely to…
Know Your Unique Selling Point
In my last article, I stated that it’s very difficult to declare a given game as ‘the best’ within its genre, as most games offer a permutation around a central theme. Direct comparisons are difficult, because even with seemingly very similar experiences, there is still a lot of room for debate (Call of Duty vs. Battlefield?). However, despite that being the case, it is still possible for developers to look at what is available on shelves, and decide where their game will fit -and how it will be received relative to the competition.
Let’s look at two recent games that are more alike than might initially be apparent: Colonial Marines and Bioshock Infinite. These games are alike in the fact that they are defined primarily by their setting, and by a core NPC – I am choosing to consider the Alien as a singular NPC, but I am aware that you fight hordes of them in-game.
Both of those games have their own features, but for me, the most prominent are the xenomorphs themselves and the chance to revisit the colony from Aliens in Colonial Marines; versus the city of Colombia and Elizabeth as an active NPC in Bioshock Infinite. These are the Unique Selling Points that both games offer, and should be the reason a customer is willing to shell out £40 (or whatever it is in your neck of the woods).
Think about it: how many games have insectoid enemies that are fast and deadly up close (and derivative of the alien), all set in a frightening, ruined futuristic looking industrial complex? Many, but no other games give you the chance to fight against this legendary movie monster right in the set of the movie itself. It is similar with Bioshock – there have been many attempts to give players effective, meaningful and characterful partners in their journey (Amy, to offer up one failed example), but few have captured the essence of an NPC as a true partner as well as Bioshock (as an aside, it seems that a lot of the internet has actually fallen in love with Elizabeth – certainly there is a lot of evidence of it on various subreddits – guys, whatever floats your boat, but remember that you are just as bad as this…)
Many other games have given you the opportunity to fight through cities in various states of revolution, but only Bioshock would give you the chance to fight in the majestic, fantastic and old-timey city of Columbia.
So if we consider these two games, games that, for the sake of this argument, are ONLY differentiated from the competition by these two facets of their design, then you can be damn sure that if the game is going to be worth the customer’s cash, it better have these unique elements polished off to a fucking mirror finish.
Needless to say, Aliens: Colonial Marines got it spot-on with its drab graphics, winding, featureless corridors, broken AI and terrible creature animations….
Develop from the Heart
The last thing I want to sound like here is a massive hippie, because I hate hippies and all they stand for (I am more of a ‘rampant commercialism, war kicks ass, violence as a means-to-an-end’ kinda guy), but when it comes to crafting something truly worthy of praise, it never hurts to create what is in your heart and like, totally part of who you are man.
What I mean is that we, as consumers, can tell the difference between something that was an obvious labour of love, and something that has been focus-grouped to death. It is apparent in everything from TV shows, movies, music and any other form of entertainment you could name. Look at Firefly vs. Enterprise, Bowie vs. Bieber, Dredd vs. Transformers – you know instinctively when you are experiencing something that has emerged from the mind of a visionary compared to something that was programmed to appeal to the greatest number of people. Did we really need Shia LeBeouf mincing around in Transformers? Did we need Megan Fox looking all sexy and pouty? Fuck no! But we got them, because this would appeal to adolescent boys (who, for some reason, still had not found all the porn on the internet) in the case of Megan Fox, and appeal to fucking God-knows who in the case of Shia LeBeouf.
When developing a game, developers should retain that spark of creativity and make sure that it is transferred into the final product. It must be about creating an experience for the player – it cannot be about pressing certain buttons within certain demographics or increasing the potential customer pool. While that is important for making a game a commercial success, it must come after the creative, artistic input to make it The Game that it is supposed to be, not the game those fucks in marketing want it to be.
For an example, look at XCOM: Enemy Unknown. The option to include a classic difficulty, ironman mode and perma-death for the team members was more of an afterthought by Firaxis, and only really included to appeal to X-Com veterans. But these facets of the game, quintessential aspects of the original X-Com experience, have elevated XCOM: EU from ‘engaging strategy’ to ‘emotional rollercoaster’, and have singly ensured that every game, no, every mission, will leave you exhausted and drained and desperate to dive in again. And that has propelled the game into commercial success. One definitely follows the other.
If games are to be considered art, then they must invoke an emotional response (beyond the usual Skinner-box reward) that is sustained and heartfelt. Only through games being true to their original vision can this be possible. And, apparently, in the case of XCOM, only when your crack assault misses that crucial 99% chance to hit, setting in motion the events that result in your whole A-Team being turned into wallpaper paste, accompanied by the stream of frustrated profanity and threats to ‘smash your fucking RAM into dust’, will it be considered art.
Treat Customers with Respect
This is where we move out of the hands of the developers, and even the greasy mitts of the marketing team, and now gently rest our balls in the grubby, calloused paws of the finance and corporate teams. And this is where things start to really get ugly, and where game companies start to feel pressure to make money either through sales volume, or by turning tricks on every street corner in New York.
It is at the corporate/finance level where some very questionable practices start to creep in. Practices like crucial Day One DLC, micro transactions, intrusive DRM (including ‘Always-Online’), exclusive ‘Collector Edition’ content, and so on. These things are mandated at a corporate level in order to increase the potential revenue streams available from the game. Ultimately, in nearly every instance, the deployment of these practices is motivated entirely by the desire to monetise the customer as much as possible.
When executives and PR men (or women) wax lyrical about how they view micro transactions as a way to increase the accessibility of a game to the less hardcore gamer, they are lying. When they tell you that Day One DLC was just to give true fans of the series a bit of extra flavour, they are lying. When they tell you that ‘Always Online’ is just about giving you access to the community (or most laughable of all, that a game should have been seen as an MMO from the outset, then they are absolutely, unequivocally, lying through their fucking teeth.
However, when a publisher says that the free DLC with new purchases is to encourage sales of the game and discourage pre-owned sales, they are being fair and reasonable (provided that the DLC is not absolutely central to the game), as they were with the Catwoman pack in Arkham City. When they tell you that an online pass is required specifically so they can monetise pre-owned sales, again, they are being forthright and honest. An enlightened gamer should not have a problem with publishers trying to monetise him or her, as long as the exchange is mutually beneficial for both parties. Hell, even if it is totally one-sided, if publishers are being honest about it then we as consumers can at least be fully aware of the nature of the exchange.
We, as the loyal customer base, should not have to put up with bullshit just because we want to experience the next instalment of our favourite game franchise. I am sure that the ‘From Ashes’ DLC sold amazingly well for EA, solely because it contained one of the only two totally new playable characters in the game, but we know that EA are abusing their position by excluding this relatively small but important amount of content from the vanilla game. Honestly, it probably didn’t hurt Mass Effect 3 sales, but I know that it is this and practices like it that ensure that I will play literally any other game I can before I consider paying for an EA title (don’t get me started on the Sim City fiasco).
If customers were treated with a bit more respect, then maybe more games franchises would be successful, and publishers could see their total revenues maintain, or even increase, without alienating the very people who are offering them money in exchange for goods.
So there you have it. When it comes to launching a new game to commercial and critical success, as well as the adulation of your loyal fans, all you have to do is intimately know the marketplace, deliver a game that meets or exceeds the gamers expectations, ensure your selling points are polished and integrated into the whole gaming architecture, create games that are made from the heart and not in a focus group, and treat your loyal customers with respect – even if you do want to make as much out of them as possible.