A Change Would Do You Good

Change is equal parts powerful and frightening, and in some kind of Newtonian equality of opposition so to is the resistance to change. Change is unknown, uncertain and unfamiliar, none of which are necessarily traits that translate well into the world of business. Publishers are very conscious that, despite the occasional half-hearted complaint, gamers pay to play in a comfort zone of familiarity. It is one of a few foundations on which the video game industry is built, this idea of iteration and repetition. It is why we are about to enjoy a fifth Burnout, why Halo 3 breaks records for the entire entertainment industry on the day it's released, and why we naturally look forward to Starcraft 2. These are games built on the idea of repeating past successes, building naturally off the familiar and firmly entrenched in the idea of meeting fan expectations. And there is a meaningful place for these games.

But, I worry that the mainstream gaming industry is so locked into the financial necessity of meeting fan expectation, that the freedom necessary for experimentation is being undermined. Developers and publishers exist in a high-pressure environment where there are already a dozen or more reasons to temper creativity by the necessities of doing business in the big-budget machine, so it seems troubling that fan expectations sometimes compound the problem.

I enjoy predictability in my pabulum as much as the next guy, and for as completely formulaic as a game like Halo 3 might be at times, it is satisfying like a Big Mac when you're hungry or a watered down American beer when you've just finished mowing the lawn. But like the certain gastric doom of subsiding entirely off mass produced food stuffs, these games are not really enough to sustain an industry of big budgets and long development cycles. That may sound a little ridiculous on the heels of Halo's record breaking sales, but, of course, it needs to be kept in mind that at some point Halo itself was a new and uncertain franchise, a force for its own change of a kind.

After all, if Bungie had stayed the original course, they'd have just released another Marathon game for the Mac.

Innovation in gaming comes from daring to do the sacrilegious, the blasphemous, the ridiculous, the laughable and the offensive. It is weathering the scorn of producing a handheld with two screens, breaking away from the publishing chain to release your own direct distribution and community service or even eschewing the cemented vision of fans for an entirely new direction. Innovation often fails, is too expensive, is critically successful but commercially forgotten or never even has the opportunity to reach the market, and it's really not the best way to try and do business, but it is also the lifeblood that fuels a market that strains toward stagnation. The failures, in their own way, are as important in the long run as the games that redefine genres, IPs and expectations.

And, it's often its own worst enemy.

We revolve around an industry built on marketing and hype, and that does not make for a consumer base that is particularly comfortable with change. It's so conveniently easy to be excited for a Starcraft II that on passing glance seems to be virtually identical to its predecessor. And, considering that we will be saddled with a year or more of anticipation, increasingly meaningless screenshots and poorly informed previews, the saccharine taste of familiarity is going to make it a lot easier for fans of the series to grow their anticipation. Had Blizzard showed the temerity to dramatically alter Starcraft II, and then put it into the public eye for a year of development, the discontent of fans unhappy with the changes would have become a living and growing thing. Every screenshot of this unfamiliar game would be an insult, and with some degree of justification.

It's not that fans of a series are in the wrong for concocting their own vision of succeeding games, but that the industry demands years of public development while the internet gives endless voice to critics and supporters alike. The problem is not in the expectations, which are inevitable in a consumer base. The problem is with a cycle that forces the incomplete into public scrutiny, particularly when the publishers or developers are swimming upstream against expectation. It forces the makers of games, and particularly sequels, to fall in step or face outrage.

The solution is not in naively asking fans to change their expectations or worse have faith. You might as well ask the sun not to rise in the morning. It is the nature of fandom to take possession and to challenge those who break from canon. The solution instead is to trim the lead time on the entire industry, cut the years between announcement and launch down to weeks.

Personally, I'm never more enthusiastic about a game when I find that the time between its announcement and its release can be measured in months or even weeks. Not only does it lay the groundwork for a release not infected with unrealistic expectations, but it tends to catch me when my enthusiasm can still be fresh rather than spoiled by a long and tedious wait. I don't seem to have the self-control and strength of will to avoid endless developer diaries, screenshots, previews and interviews, even though I know that as my anticipation for a given game is desensitized by each publication so to my expectations, fueled by promises and hype, become unrealistic.

In the end, developing in an environment outside the marketing machine is an obvious boon to the quality of games. Without the necessity of having to meet fan expectations even years before release, it is conceivable that the quality of games could universally increase, and I remain unconvinced that the year of marketing hype that we would no longer suffer actually generates meaningful sales numbers. In the end, such a process might work to the betterment of everyone involved.

Comments

Xeknos wrote:

You know, I think the best example of this is shown in Star Trek Online. The official website (in some form or another) has been up for a long time, but you haven't really been hearing anything about the game save for a "monthly" devlog which doesn't really touch on any sort of meaningful gameplay mechanic. I believe the first one was, "Hey, look, this is how we make a world in STO." That's great, but what can we do in that world? How do we get to it? If there's any example of developer diarrhea, as shihonage put it, it's the devlogs of STO.

Going back to the topic, the people working on STO may have it right. They don't really let much get out as to what it is they're actually working on, aside from the reassurances that it will be true to Trek. Sure, you have the occasional screenshot or "hey, we think that this partiicular element of the game will work like this" but that's about it. Unfortunately, this just leads to people believing that a game is stuck in developmental hell since there's no previews to show the progress of the game, and what they have released have polarized the people who want this to be a Star Trek simulator and the people just looking for a fun Star Trek-based MMO.

They stay quiet because almost everything they release makes the people looking out for it cringe. I have had friends that from day one sang praises to the heavens that their prayers were answered with a Star Trek MMO. They now just shake their heads with each new announcement.

Gaald wrote:
You can't get away from the louder critics. You have to release something to keep people interested, and there will always be a group of people who don't like the direction the game is going.

Yeah but if no one knows you are creating a game and than a month before release you say, hey get ready because next month we are releasing a Star Trek MMO and it's going to be true to trek. The amount of time you have to sit there and placate anyone is greatly reduced. Telling people you are creating a Star Trek MMO months if not a year or more in advance is I think the problem Elysium is referring to. Doesn't matter how much they give up, the cat is out of the bag and well the fans (and fanatics) will have way too much time to think about the possibilities, and get angry about the decisions being made.

Exactly! This is what my friends are experiencing.

If it had been announced the week before... Every single one and even myself that's not even a Star Trek fan would run out and buy it and sign up for at least an extra month beyond the free month. As it is now... I'm not touching it and my hardcore Trekkie friends will probably buy it but only with reluctance and odds are wont be subbing up beyond the first month.

ranalin wrote:

They stay quiet because almost everything they release makes the people looking out for it cringe. I have had friends that from day one sang praises to the heavens that their prayers were answered with a Star Trek MMO. They now just shake their heads with each new announcement.

That's the same camp I'm in. First it was "WHOOHOO! TREK!" and now it's just... /sigh.

It is curious that the two most successful games this holiday represent different strategies. COD4 was announced in may has stated before which we may consider a small window especially compared with assassin creed that was announced if I not mistaken in the E3 2006 almost a year before. One is a successful franchise with a big change in scenario another is a new IP. So this may suggest that franchises can be announced closer to release date, or at least details of it because every one knows that another one is coming, new IP must build hype so maybe more time between announcement and release may be needed with all the problems this may incur on the development team.

I think that the thing to remember is that when faced with the choice between the familiar and the unfamiliar then most people will go with what they already know. This is analogous, I think, to the complaint I hear a lot about how when people travel they always eat at the same old chain restaurants that they can find anywhere.

Consider. You've been up all day, you've taken a long plane flight cross-country, you've spent all day in meetings and now all you want to do is get to your hotel and get some sleep. But first, you need to find something to eat. Yeah, you could try to find some place new and different but you're tired and how much of a chance to you want to take, really? The chains may not be great but at least you know what you are getting and, hey, that one thing on the menu isn't that bad. So, you go to the same old Applebees or Chilis or Fridays or whatever, get your average food then go on to bed.

(And, yes, I know you always try someplace new when you travel. I'm not talking about you; I'm talking about Joe Average Traveler out there.)

Games are the same way. When Joe Average Gamer is standing in the game aisle of their local Best Electronic Circuit Boutique Buy City trying to decide what to spend their limited gaming budget on they could try something completely new, but most people will probably take the safe choice and just grab Zelda XVI: The Link to More Money or whatever. Yeah, the gameplay may be tired and they know it's going to have that annoying jumping sequence but at least they know it will be somewhat entertaining. Why take the chance on something that may have them hurling your controller across the room after the first five minutes.

As an aside, that is part of the reason you only see limited innovation within a series. You do risk losing your core audience when you make major changes to a beloved franchise. A lot of the current discussion around Fallout 3 shows this clearly. Personally, I loved the first two Fallouts and am happy and looking forward to seeing what Bethesda does with Fallout 3 (the only people I would be happier to see with Fallout 3 would be Bioware, even though I am still annoyed with them over Mass Effect not being released on the PC) but I admit to being a long-time Elder Scrolls fan as well. But, if you check out a lot of the Fallout fan boards like No Mutants Allowed you will see nothing but great wailings and gnashings of teeth over fear of what Bethesda may change; these people won't be happy unless Fallout 3 is exactly like Fallout 2 only with better graphics.

Yeah, it is possible to innovate within a franchise but I think anything other than incremental changes is only possible under limited circumstances. Yes, GTA 3 was a big change from earlier versions, but I think it picked up most of its current audience with that change too. Certainly there were not that many changes from GTA 3 to GTA 4 and I think GTA 5 will probably continue with pretty much the same gameplay. As for Super Mario Galaxy, Mario isn't so much a franchise as he is a mascot. Given there are so many different games and different types of games featuring Mario it isn't really unexpected to find different gameplay in a different game.

But I wander from my point. Given that the average person will make the safe choice when possible, how do you convince them to try something new? Yes, many people have been lavishing praise on Portal but how many of them would ever have picked it up if it wasn't included with the rest of the Orange Box? A lot of people may have bought it after seeing the incredible positive press received (the only game yet that Yahtzee hasn't been able to say anything bad about) but I maintain that the gamers who frequent the game sites and follow the on-line reviews are only a small fraction of the number of game purchasers out there. As another example, I can say for myself that I probably would not have done more than glance at The Witcher if I had not read the reviews and comments on it here, now I'm looking forward to playing it. So, how do you convince Joe Average Gamer to try something new?

As for independent developers, they exist but I think there is a level of expectation among gamers that will limit what their influence can ever be. As an example, consider Dwarf Fortress. I know some people here are familiar with it, but for those of you are not it is an incredibly innovative and detailed city sim that is literally being produced by a one-man company. However, most people I try to introduce it to almost immediately reject it for one reason; the game uses ascii graphics. (Oddly, many of these people are the same ones who are constantly harping on how they wish games would quit worrying so much about graphics and concentrate on game play.) I don't think many games will ever become very successful going forward that do not meet some level of graphical and interface polish, and I think achieving that level is beyond anything that very many small or solo developers can achieve anymore (barring the creation of some sort of cheap, intuitive graphical and 3d modeling and animation and audio tools that can be used without a staff of artists and graphical designers, musicians and voice actors).

I feel that I am rambling more than I intended to here, but I think the real question is not so much "how do you convince the studios to release new and innovative games?" but instead is "how do you convince Joe Average Gamer to buy the new and innovative game when it is released?" If there was a market for a new, innovative game then the studios would certainly produce it. The trick is creating that market.

kuddles wrote:

Why not? It happened with GTA, it happened with Zelda, and it's going to happen with Fallout. In fact, GTA III completely re-invented the previous formula.

I don't see why franchises are expected to play the same with each iteration, and frankly I would rather that they didn't.

That's odd. How would you define "franchise"? What is the meaning of a "franchise" if it does not indicate a label you put on games (the "name") and then incorporates consumer expectations with it. Sometimes consumer expectations veer only on setting, sometimes they focus on gameplay as well, it depends on the intentions of the franchise creator. If you look at, say, Fallout and its creators, it isn't odd that its expectations are different than that of the GTA franchise, because the intentions were different.

And I disagree, GTA III never "completely re-invented" anything. Just like the previous two, it was a sandbox-like title in which the player explored, completed missions, committed criminal acts and killed people. The gameplay mechanics were different but served the same function, and obviously the camera was different. Metroid changed more, it remains to be seen how much Fallout 3 changes.

Certis wrote:

Like Quintin said, this is a false statement. Even games like Madden manage innovate something every year. Almost every series has has to make the jump from 2D to 3D, for example, often bringing a new interface and perspective.

Sure, sure, but let's not veer off course here, I don't think that when Elysium mentions innovation as the lifeblood of the industry he's talking about those kind of minor changes.

Certis wrote:

And who do publishers sell their games to? Consumers. What do consumers buy? Games they expect to be good.

Not just games they expect to be good. Consumers buy games that fulfil their expectations, their specific desires. That's exactly what working with a license is different than creating something new. I could make a D&D game featuring an invasion of little green alien men from the future and no matter how good the game is, the D&D consumer-base would still think it's bad.

Certis wrote:

I think he's saying that if franchises and sequels have to be prevalent, they should be pushing harder to innovate within those confines.

But franchises and sequels don't have to be prevalent. That's where we seem to disagree, simply the wrong premise. We both see the same problem in innovation in the industry, but I don't see why consumer expectation patterns should be expected to adjust to the industry's inability or lack of desire to create new franchises.

Certis wrote:

The consumer buys the games. Over and over again we see that sequels and franchises sell a vast amount of units when compared to original properties.

Yes. I never denied that, but where exactly in that logic does it become sensible to shift the burden onto consumers. If you're going to write an article about inherent industry problems, isn't a bit weird to pretend consumer feedback of all things is the problem? Isn't that a bit simplified?

Certis wrote:

You'll be better off not asking the writer if he's insane because you don't agree with him. That's pretty weak, although given the issues we've been having with people from your site in the past, it shouldn't surprise me.

Oh, c'mon, I never called him insane (though if it came over as such, I apologize), I was using hyperbole as a form of uttering surprise. I don't know who you've had problems with or why, though I think your tone is misled. We don't encourage cross-site trolling on NMA, and if anyone tries to brag about bad behaviour elsewhere he usually gets mocked before the thread is removed (because we, as I said, don't encourage it). We're not a hive-mind, though, and I don't accept any responsibility for the behaviour of NMA users on other sites, so I resent your attempt to heap said behaviour on my shoulders. I can see with one glance the way you allow people to talk about Fallout fans here, so I shouldn't act all shocked if it makes someone angry. Not that NMA is much better, but at least we don't allow people to troll specific communities (comment on how stupid the Bethesda official forum is get removed instantly, for example)

I'll just remind you that last time around, I came here because someone on your staff had called me a psychopath, and I was polite enough when replying to it. If I can deal with being called a psychopath and stay courteous, I don't think it's very well-mannered of you to try and heap other people's behaviour on my shoulders, nor is your better-than-thou-art attitude very sensible.

Just sayin'.

The odd thing is I think we basically agree here, except on one tiny detail.

these people won't be happy unless Fallout 3 is exactly like Fallout 2 only with better graphics.

Yes, people say that a lot, but it's simply not true. Have you ever read a less insane Fallout fan (because we do have quite a few who froth too much at the mouth to articulate clearly) explaining what he'd want? I'm sure some people would want a Fallout 2 clone, sure, but considering how many times so many of us have stated "we'd like a sequel to follow the design intentions of the originals, nothing more or less", I'm surprised to see people are still saying "they just want a Fallout 2 clone."

Then again, most people have no particular reason to be interested in NMA's opinion. But if you don't know the opinion of many people on NMA, why misrepresent it? Either try to understand it or ignore it, it's the misrepresenting that tires me out.

I'm sorry if you feel that I'm misrepresenting something, but how are:

"these people won't be happy unless Fallout 3 is exactly like Fallout 2 "

and

"we'd like a sequel to follow the design intentions of the originals, nothing more or less"

that different of a statement? Not trying to be confrontational here, but doesn't what you are saying mean you want the sequel to look more-or-less the same as the originals? Isn't that what "follow the design intentions" means? I'll try to understand it, but you'll have to help me here.

Brother None wrote:

Either try to understand it or ignore it, it's the misrepresenting that tires me out.

I feel for you, it's unfortunate that a vocal few are tearing across the internet on behalf of your site and spouting some pretty odd arguments and accusations. It's unfortunate, but I'm afraid there's not much you can do to escape it either.

Oh, c'mon, I never called him insane (though if it came over as such, I apologize), I was using hyperbole as a form of uttering surprise.
I'll just remind you that last time around, I came here because someone on your staff had called me a psychopath, and I was polite enough when replying to it. If I can deal with being called a psychopath and stay courteous, I don't think it's very well-mannered of you to try and heap other people's behaviour on my shoulders, nor is your better-than-thou-art attitude very sensible.

But we like hyperbole too!

I can see with one glance the way you allow people to talk about Fallout fans here, so I shouldn't act all shocked if it makes someone angry. Not that NMA is much better, but at least we don't allow people to troll specific communities (comment on how stupid the Bethesda official forum is get removed instantly, for example)

Try as I might, there's really nowhere for me to go in the face of all this intellectual tap dancing. You spend as much time complaining about all the horrible things we do to you and your community as you do perpetuating them with your own words.

I dealt with your post and the content it presented, I didn't stray from that. You're talking a request not to follow the example of other Fallout fans from your site who have registered here to kick, scream and make personal attacks and turning it into a rather large site vs. site issue. We're not interested in pursuing that line of discussion, it's pointless. You seem like a good guy, but other members from your site, who I agree you have no control over, have pretty much ruined any chance that NMA will be considered a reasonable community worth engaging with. Sarcastic, caustic posts on your front page complaining that sites are anticipating a game you don't like speaks to that as well.

That's all I have time for in this particular discussion. The days of my indulging in back and forth debates that end with no one changing their mind or even agreeing on anything are pretty much over

EDIT: Not necessary

Oh and as for the psychopath comment. I believe that was me, and I believe the first time you came here to defend the ideas I owned up to it and it was dealt with. Not that I needed to own up to it as it was recorded for all time on the podcast I said it on. Just like you mention that you can't control what others do as far as cross site trolling neither can Certis or Elysium and they have never encouraged it either.

Getting back on topic here!

Yes, people say that a lot, but it's simply not true. Have you ever read a less insane Fallout fan (because we do have quite a few who froth too much at the mouth to articulate clearly) explaining what he'd want? I'm sure some people would want a Fallout 2 clone, sure, but considering how many times so many of us have stated "we'd like a sequel to follow the design intentions of the originals, nothing more or less", I'm surprised to see people are still saying "they just want a Fallout 2 clone."

I think this is a great example of why companies should not release information about what games they are producing too soon. Fallout 3 happens to fall into that category. It would have been much better for Bethesda and for all of us had they told everyone only a month in advance that they were going to release Fallout 3. Yes we still would have seen a lot of fanatics rail against Bethesda creating the next Fallout, but it would have only been for a short amount of time. Everyone else would have been excited about being able to play the next game in the series and the whole argument would have been silenced very quickly either one way or the other as everyone played it for the first time. Releasing the info so soon means we still have to wait months and listen to all the speculation and utter nonsense that the most rabid fans of the series spew. It can get on anyones nerves, and can ruin the whole experience before you even get a chance to play the game.

The same thing happens with movies. It's why I do media blackouts for any movie I may be interested in seeing. For those movies I am not sure about I usually watch just enough to peak my interest and than ignore everything else or wait for a friend to recommenced it. It works well and I don't often leave the theater disappointed because it failed to meet the hype.

tanstaafl wrote:

Not trying to be confrontational here, but doesn't what you are saying mean you want the sequel to look more-or-less the same as the originals? Isn't that what "follow the design intentions" means? I'll try to understand it, but you'll have to help me here.

Well, yes and no. After all, the design intentions are pretty broad. They don't force you into any kind of storyline, mechanics are adaptable, viewpoint (first-person or third person) is secondary. Obviously I have no bussiness speaking for the developers, so I'll let them speak for themselves.

So "more or less the same as the originals" is true. There are a number of design intentions everyone agrees on needing to return; dark humour, branching dialogue, GURPS-like RPG system...but despite the fact that the original devs have stated turn based was a purposeful choice and not a choice forced by limitations of the time, this remains an odd point of contention. As do other points, I suppose...

Then the matter becomes "how close do you want it to be" and that's where I feel our opinion is misrepresented. "A clone" means an identical combat system, quest system, dialogue system, RPG system. I don't think you'll find many NMAers who'd be happy with that kind of a game, we'd like to see evolution too, but in a different direction; a more advanced and tactical TB combat system, improved moral choice and consequence, improvements to the unbalances of SPECIAL and, yes, better graphics (why not?)

Bethesda is not going to provide that and no amount of angry internet posts is going to change that. Well, too bad. What worries me more is where "sticking to the original design intention" is on Bethesda's list of priorities. From what I've seen, it's pretty low

(sorry if this is too off-topic, still)

Certis wrote:

You're talking a request not to follow the example of other Fallout fans from your site who have registered here to kick, scream and make personal attacks and turning it into a rather large site vs. site issue.

That wasn't my intention. And despite bad behaviour from our users, I like Gamers with Jobs a lot and rather see our two sites friendly than at odds with each other, even if we disagree on Fallout 3.

Certis wrote:

We're not interested in pursuing that line of discussion, it's pointless.

I'm not really interested in talking about this either, but we were also running another line of debate on the nature of the industry and fan feedback's place in it which should be separable from NMA and continued easily enough.

Certis wrote:

Sarcastic, caustic posts on your front page complaining that sites are anticipating a game you don't like speaks to that as well.

Heh, what can I say? We're only human. We generally avoid putting too much opinion in frontpage newspost because we know there are many who read NMA but don't agree with our opinion and it's annoying to them to have it shoved in their face. But alas, we're only human, and sometimes my patience does wear thin and I slip.

Brother None wrote:

Heh, what can I say? We're only human.

...perhaps Too Human?

Player: Nei reach Lv.9
Player: Nei: +200xp, +5 Marketing Plant, +1 CHR, -6 INT.

...ah cr*p!

Nei wrote:
Brother None wrote:

Heh, what can I say? We're only human.

...perhaps Too Human?

Player: Nei reach Lv.9
Player: Nei: +200xp, +5 Marketing Plant, +1 CHR, -6 INT.

...ah cr*p!

Laughed out loud. I'd dock some CHR, though

Certis wrote:
Nei wrote:
Brother None wrote:

Heh, what can I say? We're only human.

...perhaps Too Human?

Player: Nei reach Lv.9
Player: Nei: +200xp, +5 Marketing Plant, +1 CHR, -6 INT.

...ah cr*p!

Laughed out loud. I'd dock some CHR, though ;)

You forgot +5 to skill sellout.

It's non-game related, by I loved the In Rainbows announcement. The digital download was announced one week and released the next week.

Like it's been said, though, a short lead time works better for established franchises. Or, in this case, bands. I'm not buying some new band's album just because they just announced it and I can buy it tomorrow. So, I'm not going to buy, let's say, Portal because Valve announced a weird puzzle shooter game made by some students and it will available in a week. Well, Valve might be a bad example for me to personally use, but you know what I mean.

boogle wrote:
Certis wrote:
Nei wrote:
Brother None wrote:

Heh, what can I say? We're only human.

...perhaps Too Human?

Player: Nei reach Lv.9
Player: Nei: +200xp, +5 Marketing Plant, +1 CHR, -6 INT.

...ah cr*p!

Laughed out loud. I'd dock some CHR, though ;)

You forgot +5 to skill sellout.

I expected some sort of monetary bonus, but I guess people don't do quests for cash in game worlds anymore. I do wonder what kind of skill bonus I should have received for baking some 500 loaves of bread, though.

+3 to grinding?

boogle wrote:

+3 to grinding?

No, that was the milling you had to do to get the flour to make the bread.

wordsmythe wrote:
boogle wrote:

+3 to grinding?

No, that was the milling you had to do to get the flour to make the bread.

Oh the puns continue.
I suggest a possible +2 to domestication?

When I stop to consider, I think Ultima 7 may have scarred me for life.