Just yesterday I was having a coffee with an old friend that I have not seen in years, and we got to talking about the industry. One of my favorite subjects! J We used to work together, but he has since left the industry due to the volatile nature of most companies in the business and the terrible ways in which most companies treat their employees and their games. I am mainly referring to bad planning, excessive avoidable overtime (some overtime is unavoidable, unfortunately), and a general lack of respect and trust for their employees and their games.
I am in a fortunate position where I no longer have a boss to ruin things for me, since I started my own company, and I cherish my position of freedom. I also see the good in how a few video game companies handle their business. This brought the conversation to my views on Nintendo, and why I think many video game companies could learn vital lessons from them – vital lessons that could not only improve their business, but also improve the industry as a whole.
It starts with a simple, yet difficult, thing to grasp: be confident in the quality of your product. This might seem obvious, but the behaviors of many publishers in the industry suggest this is still very much an elusive concept to achieve. To be confident in your product suggests that you are trying to create something good, and that is where many publishers lose their focus.
The majority of video game publishers are still focused more on marketing their games than creating games that are great in their own right. Don’t get me wrong, marketing is extremely important, and Nintendo does oodles of marketing too. But, the key difference between Nintendo and many other video game companies is that Nintendo does not let their marketing juice backwash into the creation of their games.
The moment someone in game development is handed a list of bullet point features that need to be included in a game in order for it to sell well, you know they are entering the backwash zone. These features might be presented to you as “features that gamers like/want”, but often times the source of this feedback didn’t include game production staff, and was formulated by marketing departments who are focused primarily on sales data and how other games have performed in the market.
Seeds of Doubt
“But how else can we know what the players want?” you may ask. Performing analysis on what player’s respond well to and what is found to be fun and enjoyable, is a separate from how well a game might sell. As with most creative industries, including music and movies, sometimes great products sell poorly while poor products sell greatly. The quality of a product is indeed separate from how successful it may sell. Why is this? Well, lots of reasons, but marketing is an important component. This is where the seeds of doubt of confusion start to grow and mutate.
The first time a terrible game sold well, it spoiled the well and ruined everything for everyone. The trust between artist and audience was destroyed. The same could be said of the first awesome game that didn’t sell well, but due to the nature of its low sales it made a smaller splash in the collective conscience. When terrible games start to sell well, the ears of many perk up and want to find out how it accomplished its undeserved success. A bad game is a lot easier to create than a good one, and if there’s a way to fool people into buying large quantities of a bad game, the publishing charlatans want to know how. It results in companies not knowing or caring about the quality of their product, so they overcompensate and draw their focus to marketing tricks instead.
One of the Good Guys
Getting back to my original point, Nintendo is one of the few publishers who I do not consider a charlatan in regards to the games they create. Their focus is simple: make a great game. Wash away any concerns of past sales data. Ignore the current trends of what is seemingly popular. Just make a product that is good at doing something. Treat it like a toy. A toy that must achieve a simple, albeit difficult, task: entertain the user.
When user-satisfaction is the sole focus of your creative team, it forces you to be inventive. It forces you to be pure, and honest. It forces you to think effectively and work effectively. Data can still be important, but game creators will more-than-likely want and need to observe and interact with players to truly learn what may or may not be good for your game. Digits on a sheet of paper are likely too removed from what’s truly important. Game design is about a relationship with the player, and involves emotions and complicated psychology. Human interaction.
Their Time Will Come
I hope you agree that marketing has no place in the game creating process. Their involvement in this process would steer the creative team down a path of me-too creation with shallow assumptions and a complete detachment from the human experience. Marketing is important. Marketing is needed. Their time to shine is coming. But, it is not now. Not in the creation of a game.
Quality and Honesty
The job of the marketing group is to take a product and amplify its best qualities to the most suitable audience. It is not to convince or trick someone into buying a game. It is to communicate a product’s qualities, so the audience themselves can determine whether it is something that appeals to them. Making a great product and effectively communicating the greatness of that product has the likely result of not only directly appealing to the enthusiasts within that audience, but also the likelihood of netting some who are perhaps only mildly interested in what the game has to offer. Not because of a clever marketing lie, but because of the quality and the honesty of the product and the marketing message.
LegacyI am not suggesting that Nintendo is a perfect company. I am saying that their approach to creating games is often pure, trustworthy, and refreshing in comparison to 90% of video game publishers. This is why Nintendo is often synonymous with quality. This is why Mario games always sell well. This is what everyone should aspire to achieve. This is my goal. I hope it is yours, too.