Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Raising Games: Charles Dickens Edition


Games are like children. If you nurture their growth and support them once they leave the nest, they will be happy and support you and bring you joy the rest of your life. If you treat them poorly and stunt their growth, they will enter the world angry, not contribute to society, and like the Menendez boys, quite possibly kill you. In a Dickensian way, Fagin - like publishers are sending games out into the world deformed, immature, socially retarded, and ill equipped to face a cruel world. These emotionally undeveloped game are expected to perform in the real world and send money back to Fagin. When the handicapped games displease the publishers with a "please sir, may have some more," because the subsistence level support did not allow them to grow, publishers withhold support and expect them to fend for themselves. No marketing for you. Fend for yourself, or die. These publishers don't realize, a piece of them dies with each wasting and withering game. It seems kind of silly, especially in a world where we see the fruits of early intervention, and holding our games back for extra nourishment and support in Bioshock, Halo and years of Mario.

Publishers seem to take an adverse stance relative to developers, both internal and external. In most cases, it is much easier for them to see the expense than the upside of the investment. They threaten to withhold money if the title is not complete, or refusing to extend release dates for polish. This leads to an interesting discussion.

"I know I added some features, but you agreed, why can't you finish the title?"
"We don't have any money."
"You'll be in breach."
"We don't have any money."
"You are contractually obliged to deliver on time."
"We don't have any money."
"If you don't deliver, we will sue you."
"We don't have any money."
"Ok, wrap it up and give us a gold master candidate?"
"We don't have any money."


And then the publisher walks away. Of course developers have a responsibility to deliver a title, but even Riccitiello acknowledged, quality and dates fixed 2 or three years ahead of time are not always the best bed fellows. It is very hard, if not impossible to know exactly what is going to show up on screen two to three years from the day you start. The things you thought would be fun turn out not to be. The stuff you thought you could do, you could not. Stuff you couldn't imagine, turns out to be possible, the publisher makes unilateral changes, the publisher's producer makes changes without telling the
publisher, and the publisher and developer mutually agree on changes. Unfortunately, too often, the revised game does not fit into the aggregated marketing, Q/A, localization, music, voice and production costs into a single "not to exceed number." So when these changes occur, money is drawn from another area, reducing the likelihood of success. Remember the campaign for Psychonauts? Neither does anyone else. Or, one of my favorite conversations:

"We started testing multiplayer today. We've assigned a team of 6 men."
"But we have eight player multiplayer."
"I know, but we spent extra money on the game."
"You extended the schedule by a quarter, and added a new city."
"I know, but it cost money."
"But multiplayer won't work."
"They are very good."


I cannot conceive of why it makes sense to spend millions of dollars getting a title to the goal line, and then stopping. Regardless of quarterly why would a publisher invest so much money in a game, and then hold back on Q/A, leading to ship of a buggy game? If you ship a quarter late, you have a bad quarter. If you ship a quarter early, you lose a franchise, and all of your investment.



It is time the publishers stop looking at these titles as "handicapped" and start looking at them as "handicapable." If you feel the game is too deformed to ever be accepted by the cruel world, please put it out of its misery, your misery, our misery. No matter how much you cut back, the costs only just begin at release. Once a publisher releases the game it incurs not only the visible costs of marketing, manufacture, shipping, etc., but the possibly more expensive unseen costs of damage to reputation incurred in the critical and consumer communities. Each bad game is a shovel full of dirt drawn from a new hole. If you feel the game can be mainstreamed with some support and therapy, support it. There is no in between.

The publishers should be reviewing games on a regular basis and making hard decisions. The decisions should be based on a clean slate review. The amount of money into a title should not be a factor in determining whether to proceed. It is either good enough to wash its own face after release, or it should be killed. Think like a Japanese publisher. Do you think Nintendo was looking at the budget on Mario Galaxy? Publishers should know when a game goes bad. It is their job. They should see when a developer is not going to make it or the title just won't come around. A bad game, is a bad game and it is obvious in development. At most, provide input and give it another quarter, see if turns around. If not, kill it. They must be honest with themselves, and kill it. Remember Daikatana? I wish I didn't.

The converse is also true. If a game is on the verge of greatness, but the budget and timing will not allow it to get there, double down. Publishers are in the business of making games. They should know when there is magic on screen. If they see it, support it. Sure, there is plenty to "save for the sequel," but get the good stuff out and make it great. The list of games hit games with schedule extensions is much longer than the list of hits from games rushed to make a date. If the publisher kills the bad ones, there is money left over to build the good ones. This is not to say developers should be relieved of their responsibility to deliver. But the check on poor performance is termination, not cut backs. This is still a business. The publisher's responsibility is to see and nurture greatness. The developer's responsibility is to create greatness.

Ok, so the game is supported, and nurtured, and given the support it needs. It is ready to leave the nest. Fagin looks angrily at the game, screaming,

"You cost too much. I've given you every penny I am going to give you."
"But, sir, no one will know I exist."
"It's not my problem. I gave you everything you asked for. If you are truly great, people will find you."
"But they just walk over me in the street. I can't get to the front of the store unless you pay them. They won't even mention me to customers."
"You should have thought about that before you asked for more money."


If a publisher decides a game is good enough to complete, it is good enough to support. Even notorious spendthrift, Activision, knows great titles are not enough. They must be supported with marketing. And not the usual 8% of projected sales marketing. Real marketing.

In most cases, video game publishers market only set aside enough budget to market to the video game community. The sales guys go into Wal-Mart, and the buyer says "What's your MTV buy? What's your ESPN buy?" Sales then reports back to marketing, and media is directed to those channels. PR and marketing focus on gaming publications. The result, everyone who knows the game is coming out, gets to know the game is coming out. If you walk into magazine stand with 100 magazines, you will see a dozen gaming pubs with the latest sequels on all the covers. Turn around, and you will not see a game on any other covers. This is curious, as every publisher who branched out into the mainstream, found great success. Guitar Hero advertised on American Idol, Call of Duty, Halo and GTA IV on network, and they sold - a lot. It is imperative to market to the core audience, but core is only the beginning. With the budgets we are dealing with, we publishers must reach the main stream to survive. The most common publisher responses, are "if the game sells well, we will invest in more marketing" or, "those games are fanchises." Yes, those games sell well and are franchises because they were supported. They did not sell well and were not franchises before the marketing money is invested. Do I have to write any more about that thought process? Maybe just this conversation,

"We gave you the biggest action film franchise in the world, what are you doing the mainstream."
"Core is very important, our marketing and PR focus is there."
"Those plans are great, but you can get the cover of Time Magazine and People with this."
"You don't understand, they don't care about games."
"They care about this franchise. I got Lara Croft on the cover of Time and Entertainment Weekly two years before the movie."
"Yeah, but she's an Icon" said the PR guy who is not old enough to have ever lived in a world without Lara Croft, and not quite as old as many of the socks in my sock drawer.
"Not when I started."


Tomb Raider was launched in a different world, the game was held back 6 months for polish. Larry Sparks' marketing program in the UK included bus stops, movie theater advertisements, mainstream magazines, Pepsi co-marketing and the video wall on U2's Zoo TV tour. It was ground breaking at the time, and it led to a world wide, company carrying, franchise property. While the plan is not so ground breaking today, we have seen with Call of Duty 4, Guitar Hero, GTA IV and Halo, it still works. If you think the game deserves to live, hold on to your balls and run full steam ahead. Invest what you need to invest to make a great game. Tell the world it is there, and then tell them again. If you don't believe in the game enough to fully support it, kill it right now, you will never get your money back. Anything in between, and you are pissing money down a rat hole.



1 comment:

TJefferson said...

So true Keith. This actually sounds like the "Brutal Legend" scenario that's been playing out since March.