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
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
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.
“But how else can we know what the players want?” you may
ask. Performing analysis on what players respond well to and what is found to
be fun and enjoyable is 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 and 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.
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.
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.
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.
I 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.