The reception and resonation of EA games, and other short stories
EA and those affiliated have once again claimed that, mystically, one of their titles didn’t “resonate” well with their target demographics. I am convinced that this is because EA aren’t creating games that people want to play, they’re creating games that people want to buy. There’s a difference.
The reception of Crysis 3 has been somewhat mixed, but since there’s been no flat-out dismissal of the game, no major reviewing outlet has felt entitled to destroy it a la Warfighter, despite it apparently suffering from the same curse. Medal of Honor: Warfighter is a game that EA aren’t actually ashamed of – and neither are we, since I wrote this, defending it - but they did admit it didn’t “resonate well with consumers.”
Peter Moore, at the time, said that “we struggled with two challenges: the slowdown that impacted the entire sector and poor critical and commercial reception for Medal of Honor Warfighter. Medal of Honor was an obvious miss. The game was solid, but the focus on combat authenticity did not resonate with consumers.”
In this instance, I actually agreed with Peter Moore. In my article, I claimed that reviewers were showing a general disdain for the new sub-genre – modern military shooters – rather than the game, its mechanics, and, actually, its fantastic multiplayer dynamic. This time, however, I’m not so sure.
“Some games have lost up to 20 percent, despite the fact that the games are quite good still. That’s because there’s a certain fatigue level with the old generation currently. The markets are down, people’s expectations are much more radical than the current generation of games are doing.”
We covered the interview here, but Yerli explained how the “8 year old” technology of this current console generation is stifling innovation. Players expected huge leaps in game-play, and innovations in the game-play mechanics, but what they got was Crysis 2 with a slightly better narrative - on consoles (PC gamers got nicer graphics than its predecessor). Given that many core gamers are bored to death of linear, shooting-gallery FPS’s since 2012 basically smothered us to death with them, Yerli senses a disparity between how Crysis 3 is received, and how it should have been received under better circumstances. He also notes how Crysis 3′s budget was three times larger than the original, and that this could only be possible due to taking the title onto multiple platforms.
So let’s translate that appropriately: in order to get more money, Crytek had to limit what the game could do. I’m really not a sensationalist, but I can see how many readers might take to the comments and call that “selling out”. Video game development is a business, and making a straw-man model of what Crytek has done with EA isn’t particularly helpful in any academic sense – although it’s hilarious.
This editorial isn’t about developers “selling out”, and it’s probably apt to point out that in order to stay afloat, these creative people need to cut figurative chunks of their hearts out in order to even make 5% of their dreams come true whilst at the same time supporting their families. Let’s not show too much disdain towards anyone. My problem here isn’t with anyone in particular, it’s with a series of notions, and a trend.
In an interview with Swen Vincke of Larian Studios – a Belgian developer comprised of 40 awesome people - we discussed the idea of market “resonation,” and what that term actually means. A little digging into this question seemed to reveal a lot about why people just aren’t into EA FPS’ at the moment – and a lot of it has to do with the idea that EA are creating marketable products on paper for demographics that exist as statistics.
I have this theory that may or may not be true: it’s impossible to make a genuinely fantastic, full length, fully scripted and voiced AAA title with the graphical fidelity of a game like, say, Crysis 3 – because of the astronomical cost. You buy game mechanics, or you buy visuals. That’s the incredibly tl;dr version of it. Larian Studios is a developer who created the Divinity series of games. Their last massive-budget RPG was Divinity II. I asked them: “why no Divinity III?” Vincke’s response was both relevant and illuminating:
“[...]So this means that we basically have the tools to do it. So why aren’t we doing it? The only reason we aren’t doing it is because the cost of creating those things is really, really high. So since we want to be self-publishing we need to put ourselves in a situation where we can support that type of game. It’s pretty much what CD Projekt is doing – pick themselves up, growing like this, taking our own destiny in our own hands, and if we’re successful then hopefully one day we’ll be able to do that.”
No major publisher on the planet would currently green-light a AAA Divinity RPG like Divinity II and allow the game to be what Larian Studios would like it to be (something Vincke both implied and seemed to agree with me on). Because of that - among other reasons – Larian Studios started creating more manageable games in the Divinity universe: Divinity: Dragon Commander, and Divinity: Original Sin. Their RPG, Original Sin, is a top-down isomeric turn based combat RPG. Why? Because it’s cheaper. What do they do with the money they save? They put it into depth, game mechanics, NPC interaction, script, and story. In other words, they make a good RPG instead of a 20 hour long action-RPG with about one grain of the depth they’d ideally want. They adapt.
Not everyone chooses to adapt. They loose heart, and their products suffer because of it.
Bohemia Interactive are a success story in independent development and publishing. Arma II is a critically acclaimed military sandbox simulator, and it’s solely for the PC. With the money from various developments – and reeling in the riches acquired through supporting modding (take note, everyone-else) – they were able to create a new physics engine and better the games predecessor in every way, whilst still releasing on one platform, and at the price of only £19.99. Poor Bohemia Interactive, just how ever will they cope with such a crippling PC market.
My point is that good games seem to find their demographic the ‘Vinckean’ way: “If I like it, and he likes it, then there are probably other gamers who will like it too.” Thus, a demographic is born. Not from pie-charts, marketability, or targets – but from love, craft, and earnestness. Doesn’t that sound great?
“Yeah, but it’s surprising how that logic is ignored when you look at it from a publisher perspective, when you have your stocks, charts, percentages… When you sit into those meetings – you lose your head, right! You’re just following numbers [mocks number crunching and talking about stocks] “who can release an RPG without Facebook intergration!” What the hell? [laughs].”
It seems very logical to assume that if you create a genuinely good game, there will be gamers for that game, doesn’t it? But we’ve been duped into thinking video-game critique is entirely subjective – like a mechanic that plainly doesn’t work might work for someone who enjoys the taste. We’ve been led to believe that gamers are simply stupid consumers who can’t tell the difference in quality between good coding, and bad coding; good visuals, and bad visuals – or a good dynamic vs a stale one. It’s completely false. We gamers play dozens of games every year. Here’s the secret: you’re all video-game critics, and most of you are better than professional video-game critics. You know if a game plainly sucks, and marketing is there to combat that.
Publishers know this, and that’s why games are suffering:
Many games have become concepts; their mechanics stripped down, replaced by various sensations. Games are designed to evoke: “I’m X doing Y which is [insert appropriate response] therefore this game must be awesome!” Like the hook in a catchy song, a games core concept has become about doing something every other game has done, in a different skin. Familiarity guarantees comfortability, it’s a marketing must. Demographics are comfortable with X, therefore there’s clearly a market for it. Because of this, uniqueness is actually counter-productive to publishers. That means that your game, if too original, is bad for the publisher. Originality – creativity – is bad for the publisher.
Take Crysis for example. One might say the original campaign was open, intuitive, exploratory, exciting. A publisher would probably say it was convoluted, alienating; lacking in finesse, a direction. In other words, not every single teenager between the ages of 12-19 could sit through from A-Z without, at least once, going: “I’m slightly confused”. It wasn’t easy to understand what it was. Its concept was abstract.
How do you sell an abstract concept?
Well, that’s something I also discussed with Vincke. Our conclusions were as follows: 1) I don’t know. We’ll see. 2) Give people a demo, let them get a taste for it themselves. These two methods of marketing your product are wholly insecure. You can’t estimate a large return on statistics you don’t have. How many people will even try the demo? Out of those, who will like it? If people don’t know what your game is before they buy it, they won’t buy it – at least, not in EA numbers. This is stiffing innovation enormously, because that familiarity is crippling mechanical innovation. It demotes development teams into much smaller yet much more ambitious indie creatives who no longer have the chance to create their AAA dream, to the extent of large publishers’ titles.
Games are designed to wow on concept, then sell on familiarity – they necessarily intertwine
If games were half as good as their marketing I’d not even be writing this right now. Due to the fact that familiarity is the heart of marketability – and this stifling innovation – we end up a perpetuation of bold concepts containing very mediocre game mechanics. Money is being spent in the wrong places – my pet hate being: voice everything (shorter, reduced dialogue – and less of it).
So, spot the problem. I’ll do the hard work for you: EA need familiarity in order to ship their product, but their products don’t “resonate” well because people are “fatigued.” In other words, EA have created bored gamers by creating a gaming culture that revolves around boring games. You did it to yourself.
Whilst it’s somewhat true that the 8 year old technology of the current generation is holding gamers hearts back, it’s definitely not true that it’s holding their wallets back. People are still buying games – now more than ever – and EA themselves admitted that more people than ever are currently playing video-games. It’s not your ability to sell products that’s the problem, it’s the fact that it’s becoming increasingly obvious that your products are targeted at statistical demographics that, actually, exist only on paper. Creating video-games can’t be done through pie-charts, and the fate of projects can no longer be decided by your trusty marketeers. They’re clearly missing the mark more than you’d like to admit, and it’s painfully obvious why.
There are hundreds of thousands of creative games developers all over the planet who are frantically obsessed with visions of their projects. These are competent, knowledgeable and hard working people who simply need the means to create something directly representative of the needs of gamers. Gamers want to jump into things they don’t understand. They want to learn and discover, not having to rely on X graphical improvement over the last iteration to keep them pumped. As Vincke said, it really is as simple as ‘well, if I like this, and he likes this, and that guy over there likes this, then I guess it makes sense that other people will like this’.
What they’ve done to combat this problem
Monetize the living shit out of everything possible. Losing money? Well, let’s not change the way we make games – let’s exploit the fact that people don’t know the value of anything less than a dollar, and offer “convenient microtransactions” in order to refill the coffer. In other words, ‘it’s not our fault gamers aren’t enjoying our products… so let’s just charge them more and more for the products they’re not enjoying’. That makes sense. Good job.
The harsh truth is that publishers aren’t focusing on how to make their games better at the moment, they’re focusing on how to sell more of them – and how to monetize them further. They’re talking about cutting losses, and hoping the magically superior next-generation will do something to increase consumer faith in game making. They’re using this last annual year to try and introduce monetization systems that seem relevant now, that will no doubt persist into the next generation when they are less so. They’re setting themselves up for a better business future, not better relations with their consumers, or their developers.
Games are suffering, and whilst there are publishers who seem to have some semblance of sense (Focus Home Interactive are funding some great, smaller projects at the moment – and Kalypso turn out some interesting strategy games every year), it seems that some of the major publishers have one option: adapt, or die.
What does this make their games? Well. Lifeboats. They’re lifeboats for themselves, not for you.
So, why are EA’s titles not “resonating” well with consumers? Because consumers know everything I’ve just talked about here, and whilst we’re not always good at being vocal – you’ve seen what we can do when we try. It’s become a sort of risible cliche to “hate on EA”, but I don’t hate EA – I hate this culture of settling for very mediocre games, which get incredibly high scores, perpetuating more mediocre games, because mediocre sells, and then being told that it’s our fault developers are suffering because we’re bored.
Yes, we’re bored – not with gaming, with you. I’m not trying to make an enemy of publishers, I’m hosting an intervention. I love you. You’re capable of great things, but you need to change. Prove me wrong.