Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Big Divide

I think most gamers believe that developers of original games always create games that they want to make. This isn’t true.

For me, Dementium: The Ward was certainly a case of us creating a game just for us. But, after that, Moon came along. Moon was an opportunity that arose from discussions with Mastiff, who wanted to work with Renegade Kid on a FPS for the DS. I dug into my bag of ideas and resurrected the essence of an old sci-fi game concept for the Gameboy Color and pitched the basic idea in FPS format, and then we got started into development. Getting the game signed was a ridiculously quick and easy process. This is not typical. Now, I’m not saying that Moon was a game that I did not want to make, but it wasn’t born of pure game-making desire. It was a business deal that afforded us the opportunity to cobble together some ideas in an effort to convince a publisher to pay us to develop an original game.

There was no publisher input with Dementium: The Ward. It was literally made just for the pure sake of making a game. Moon, on the other hand, had a publisher involved from day one. Those of you who have played both games will hopefully agree that both Dementium: The Ward and Moon are pretty much of equal value, with some people favoring one over the other as a matter of taste, which is a pretty amazing result, and a testament to the publisher’s / developer’s tolerance of each other.

Dementium II was also born from a business opportunity. SouthPeak purchased Gamecock, who published Dementium: The Ward, and as part of their new acquisition decided to act upon one of Gamecock's successful titles. Dementium II was a lot closer to my heart than Moon because it was a sequel to the pure-born Dementium: The Ward. And, with a HUGE thank you to SouthPeak’s David Dienstbeir, John Kaiser, and Aubrey Norris, the developer/publisher relationship on Dementium II was a smooth as warm butter. They let us make our game, and supported it in any way they could. It couldn’t have been any better. I really enjoyed working with those fine folks on D2.

ATV Wild Ride was a semi-pure-born concept. We’d wanted to develop an arcade racing game for the DS for a long time, and found ourselves with no development deals on the table after Dementium II was completed (even though I'd been in talks with dozens of publishers for over 6 months), so we decided to start making an ATV racing game – called ATV Spirit at the time. The ATV direction was directly influenced by the awesome title, Pure. We also decided to go with ATV because that theme of racing has sold fairly well on the DS, and we wanted to develop a racing game that players and publishers would be interested in. I know ATV racing is not really on the top of the list of hardcore gamers, but it is a genre that appeals to a lot of casual players, and perhaps with a little Renegade Kid magic we can turn a few hardcore players into believers. We’ll see…

So, anyway, my point is that we don’t always get to make our heart’s desire. Personally, I have wanted to make a 2D platform game for many years. I’d also like to develop a 3D platform game, hence the Maximilian demo we made. It can be argued that if a developer simply goes ahead and creates a game that they’re passionate about, it will find a home with players. But, what stands in-between the developer and the players are publishers. If publishers don’t think they can make money from your game, they won’t be interested in it. It can be a risky market out there, and publishers are even more careful with their investments than ever before.

Now, one of the main reasons that publishers must be so careful with their money is because the retail industry controls what games are put on the shelves. This includes Gamestop, Target, Walmart, Best Buy, etc. Publishers must convince each retail outlet to place an order for their game(s). Each retailer obviously wants to make as much money as possible, so they want titles that they think will sell. Are they experts on what will sell? Um, no, they really aren’t. But, they are in control of what product goes on their shelves, because they own those shelves. So, if a publisher goes to each of the big retailers with a single DS game and tries to place it with them, they’re going to have a hard time with an original title with an unknown brand that is only on the DS. If this title also has a Wii version, suddenly the deal looks better to retail. It feels like a more established brand and perhaps the publisher is going to put more marketing into a two SKU title. Now, if it has 360 and PS3 versions too, well, now we’re talking! How can we make this deal even more appetizing to retail? Huh, OK, how about we dump the artsy fartsy original content and replace it with a known brand, such as a movie or TV show? Yeah, now that’s money! Now, we have a game that has a built-in audience from the license, and it has multi-platforms. How can we lose? Oh? The game is shit? Never mind, it’ll sell anyway. :) Sure, I know that was a little sassy, but it is unfortunately very true.

This brings me neatly to one of the many things that is changing the video-game industry: digital content. The ability to cut-out retail is a beautiful thing. If we – and when I say we; I mean developers and publishers working together in a balanced partnership – if we can focus on making games that do not need to be engineered to impress retail for shelf space, but instead are able to focus on a game for game’s sake and invent creative ways for marketing our games to players, the number of high quality titles will surely increase. On top of that, not having to spend / risk money on manufacturing cartridges or DVDs is also a huge benefit that helps steer the focus of game making back onto the game and not all of the abstract and unnecessary obstacles that stand in our way today.

I see the road to a brighter day being paved today. We'll be there before you know it!

I hope you're having a great day. TTYL.