Tobold's Blog
Monday, June 04, 2012
The dangers of artistic vision

The layoffs at 38 Studios and EA Bioware reminded us that game companies are not charities with a goal to promote a specific artistic vision of games. Game companies need to make money to pay their employees, to keep their current games running, and to develop the next ones. Making a product that not enough people buy can sink the company. The game industry has had more than their fair share of failed development studios with more enthusiasm than economic sense, making basically the game they would want to play themselves, with little regard for how well that would sell.

What I am always surprised about is how little market research these game companies appear to be doing. Some don't listen to any advice. Others think that having a forum will give them feedback from the players, when in fact it only results in a very unrepresentative minority view. And a lot of game companies "market research" appears to consist of copying stuff that sold well in the past.

It doesn't help that there is a very vocal group of players who actually *want* their favorite games to not sell well. "Mainstream" is a dirty word on many game forums, because these players prefer games that are only accessible to a small hardcore elite. Or games in which that small hardcore elite can lord it over the average player until those give up in disgust. Making another player "ragequit" is considered a badge of honor among these players, whatever damage that might do to the financial viability of the game company running the game.

And that isn't limited to massively multiplayer online roleplaying games. Wizards of the Coast is making their next edition of Dungeons & Dragons less accessible to new players, and more pleasing to hardcore veterans. The veterans are cheering, but that cheer might fade quickly when Hasbro decides that the resulting weak sales justify stopping any further development of Dungeons & Dragons.

Both veteran players and veteran developers have so much experience with their favorite kind of game, that their artistic vision fails to account for new players being less skilled or just less familiar with certain conventions of a genre. Leaving these developers to make games without market research, or just with the feedback of the veterans leads to games that can only be appreciated by the veterans. Some of these games are actively hostile to new players, and that is before taking into account the so-called "community".

If they still want to have a job tomorrow, developers should rather seek to expand their audience, to make games that are accessible to the greates possible number of people. And instead of creating social systems that encourage the veterans to look down on the new players, they should create game mechanics in which the veterans *need* the other players. The patron-vassal relationship of Asheron's Call was a good example of how to increase the appeal of your game by encouraging veteran players to actively help new players. It is sad that we are not seeing more of this. There is a lot of untapped social potential in multiplayer games.

Porsche and Ferrari don't make cars that are accessible to the average user and still make good money.

A game can be successful only catering to a small but loyal customerbase.

Of course if you make such game, you should not plan for beating WoW in subscriptions, you must make a plan that is profitable with a few 100K subscribers who stay for years or even decades.
Isn't a Porsche or Ferrari also much more expensive than a regular car? Why make a game for a small customer base at $15 per month, if you could make a game for a large customer base at $15 per month.

It would be interesting to see whether your concept works for a niche game costing $50 per month.
Gevlon is right. Not a sentence I expected to be typing this morning.

His examples are top-end but you could use examples from the other end of the spectrum. I used to buy a great deal of recorded music, first on vinyl, later on CD. For the last few years there have only been a handful of artists whose new CDs (or MP3s) I will automatically buy, unheard.

All of them are producing their own material on their own labels, doing their own promotional work. As far as I can tell, they all make a full-time living doing this, selling CDs/MP3s and playing live to a core audience that has been following them for years, sometimes decades.

These performers are not U2 (thank god) and the equivalent in MMOs will not be GW2. MMOs do not all have to look like Bioware/EA made them. They do need to be made by people who both love what they are doing and are really good at it, who want to share what they do with an audience and make a decent living but not necessarily get rich. They need to be made by artists, in other words.

We see it in single-player games all the time - Minecraft, Love, Journey. MMOs can and do work that way too - A Tale In The Desert, Wurm, arguably EVE. There will always be a mass-market driven by corporate need for ever-growing profits but not all people able and willing to create MMOs will need or want to work in that market and not all players will want to consume from it.
Commercial viability and artistic integrity aren't mutually exclusive, although some people prefer their worlds black and white.

This duality is almost as hackneyed as the everybody's favorite stereotypes: the evil corporation, and the starving artist.

I think the market is big enough, and smart enough, to let poor ventures fail, and good products prosper.
@Tobold: the loyalty of the hardcore customer is a value even if he pays only $15/month since he is likely to continue paying for long years, the developer can assume that his game will be played and payed for long time without actual content update.

EVE barely received content in the last 5 years ("expansions" are rather bugfixes, UI-improvements and ship rebalances) and still have the same 400K subscribed accounts. WoW would die in half year without another level cap increase, new dungeons, quests and raids.
We'll see latests experiment of abandoning core to expand audience pretty soon with Mists of Pandaria.

I'd bet on continuing decline after initial expansion bump. Redefining your game rarely works, and sometimes backfires badly.

Social mechanics need to be there up front, because their introduction can change social dynamics pretty significantly, and not always for the better.
the problem is that the people don't know what they it possible to please the people nowdays?

people ask thing A. they think that feature A is what they need and what it will make their game fantastic without even knowing that feature A will destroy feature B.

The whole gamer base are all burned out and nothing can please them anymore...they are never happy with a game and always believe that they know how to make a game better...

I doubt that even if a perfect game come out now will please them..they will not see the 100 features the game have, they will immediately see the 1-2 feature the game missing and they will make it appear a HUGE problem in their minds and all of these because they are burned out..

At first with my girlfriend we did sex all over the the car, in the floor, in hot days and in cold after some years we surely need a bed for this and of course it should not be a hot day nor a cold day...the bed must be stable, if it is moving and making some noises it is disturbing..
The problem is that everything out of mainstream you automatically count as not-accessible. This isn't true.

Everyone thinks sword and sorcery fantasy is mainstream, and therefore "accessible", modern fantasy, on the other hand, is not. Along comes Harry Potter.

Everyone thinks actions and puzzles aren't most accessible game genres, and then Portal emerges, which appeals to casual crowd who haven't even played a first person shooter once.

And then there's Stefanie Meyer... Don't get me started.

Star Wars and Star Trek were as hardcore as it gets when they first came out, as was Lord of the Rings. As was Song of Fire and Ice before they got the movie going.

Everything mainstream today was groundbreaking once. Accessibility doesn't equal being like everything else out there. Accessibility means a potential to become the new mainstream.
the loyalty of the hardcore customer is a value

Loyalty is of value. It means the developers can move away from what those players want and they won't quit.

Of course, we're really talking about "Gevlon loyalty" here, which lasts only as long as one is getting what one wants.
I'm not subbing to any MMOs at the moment. I got pretty bored.

I've seen a lot of games, over the years, which had really appealing concepts and interesting mechanics, but which completely fizzled for me because of the 'community'.

Mortal Online, Darkfall, EVE Online, World of Darkness, DayZ. These could all be amazingly popular games if it weren't for the fact of their communities. Go to them and read the forums of any of them. I guarantee you will see at least one post about, "Don't dumb this thing down for the whining carebear noobs who get griefed by us. We don't want them here! Well. Until we've had a chance to kill and laugh at them. THEN we don't want them here."

EVE's Hulkageddon is now a full-time feature, with bounties placed by the king griefers on every 10 hulk killmails. I was very interested in the concepts being proferred by the successful Kickstart for Embers of Caerus. Unfortunately... full-loot open PVP.

Griefers drive people out of sandboxes, then wonder why sandboxes aren't popular. It's truly baffling. It's almost as if they don't KNOW they're assholes... but surely they have to know, right? You couldn't be THAT big a d-bag and not be actually trying to be one, right?
Gevlon's high end car analogy is a bit misleading because driving is essentially an inelastic demand. Gaming itself is a niche, and demand is extremely elastic as is most entertainment. When you further divide it into smaller and smaller niches you run out of income and narrow the margins. Investors don't like that.

One reason for WoW's success is that the subscription model helped stabilize income and allowed for actual financial planning. Less reliance on investor money and unrealistic goals.

Bloggers keep talking about deeper and deeper niches. My game is better, this game is ruining the industry, etc.

All that is needed is a bigger consumer base. More people playing equals higher quality and more numerous options.

IMO it's gamer's inherent need for exclusivity and noobism that is killing the industry.

Case in point a Syncaineism from today's post that caught my eye: "If it's horrible you deserved it." translation: if you don't like my game it's because you suck at it.

Now how does a marketer target that kind of audience with an eye to expanding the market?

What you describe is more or less the Blue Ocean business strategy - Essentially, create new audiences for your product


Star Wars: A New Hope broke Box Office records despite only being screened at 43 Cinemas.

It was anything but a 'hardcore' title upon release.

It wasn't expected to be a big hit like it was, but don't confuse that with it being a hardcore title.


Games in general should be less niche and more accessible, note that this is NOT 'easy and for casual retards'.
What if the next accessibility innovation in the genre comes from different direction? Let's say we have WoW, how can we make a better one without changing the game?

Perhaps a game which you can play on you pc, continue playing on you living room tv, on your mobile phone while on the bus, on you Pad, in all cases having almost the same gameplay experience and without limitations in spite of your gaming device?

There are different ways of making the game more accessible. A huge consumer base is coming up when the cheaper smartphones and pads reach the developing countries. These guys might never get a pc but they might get a cheap smartphone and play games with it.

Which mmo will capture that market?
Seems to me companies need to employ more psychologists and stop listening to amateurs who don't know what's good for them.
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