Creativity in video games vs. what sells...

This was inspired by a set of pictures I saw on Tumblr in which game designer Tim Schafer reads from the marketing document Microsoft made for his cult classic game Psychonauts:

(Note: the final product is a mostly humorous game that takes place at a summer camp.)

Now, note that I said “cult classic.” That’s because, per Wikipedia, Psychonauts didn’t do so well in sales. Perhaps following Microsoft’s focus group recommendations would’ve increased sales. But it certainly wouldn’t have been the game Tim Schafer designed, and it probably wouldn’t have the fanatic following it has today.

So where do you draw the line? Is Psychonauts a success for what it is, or a failure because it didn’t sell? Would “giving in” to the marketing research have made the game better, even if it did sell better?

Both; it depends on what standard you are judging it by. The problem with the marketing guys is that they have one and only one standard they care about: How much did it sell?

There’s nothing wrong with products that appeal to a wide spectrum of people; but there’s nothing wrong with niche products that appeal to only a small fandom, either. And profit is not the one and only standard that matters.

I haven’t played Psychonauts, so I can’t say if it’s a success for me. I don’t care specifically if a game sold well or was hailed by critics, I care if it’s entertaining for me. Of course, those things might be indicators that the game will be entertaining.

I’m unlikely to buy a game if the reviews say that the game was highly creative but had problems like tedious gameplay, a lousy interface, or wallbanger bugs. Reviews that mention a game is derivative are much less of a concern. Torchlight II is derived from Torchlight I, which was derived from Fate, which was derived from Diablo, which, while being a trendsetter, was itself derived from previous dungeon crawlers. Follow that line back and you get to the earliest CRPGs, all of which were derived from paper RPGs. The dungeon crawl is one of my favorite genres. I’m happy when games I like spawn similar games, not jealous that others are copying.

This is going to vary for others, sure. Some people say they buy games for the story, I tend to dismiss dialogue and narration as flavor text. Some will criticize games for lacking multiplayer, I mostly play one player. There may be some out there who highly prize creativity. If there are, they’re pretty quiet about it.

The sole drawback of a game tanking on the the market is that it will be less likely to lead to sequels and imitators. Unfortunately, and due, I guess, to the massive cost of designing games, even success stories like Skyrim don’t seem to spawn quality imitators.

I think the first and third criticisms from Microsoft are reasonable and would improve the game. I don’t understand what the second remark is asking of the developers. I’ve played Psychonauts and didn’t like it, mostly because its gameplay sucked.

LOL … it’s actually my job to draw that line. I’m a senior game designer with Sony. My job is to work with external teams making small indie games for PlayStation, giving them design advice and critique.

The answer is … it depends. I try to be very hands-off when it comes to things that are central to the artistic vision of the game and very hands-on when it comes to things that negatively impact player experience in unintended ways.

For example, if I was working on a horror game and the controls were awkward and wonky, I’d say to the developer: “Hey, moving around is kind of awkward. Is that something you’re doing on purpose to make the player feel disoriented and scared?”

But if I was working on a first-person shooter and the controls were awkward and wonky, I’d say to the developer: “Your controls are broken. Here’s a list of things I want fixed.”

From time to time I’ve worked with devs who’ve tried to hide behind “artistic license” to avoid fixing shitty parts of their games. I really hate it when they do that.

(Hit submit too soon.)

As for market research, my general rule is:

Focus groups tell you when something is broken. They don’t tell you how to fix it.

So, for example, if I did a focus group and lots of people said “your story is unoriginal, childish, and overly complex” I’d take that feedback very seriously. If a lot of people are responding that way, then that’s a *problem *that needs to be addressed.

But the key is understanding *why *they’re responding that way. What makes the story seem childish? The character names? Their motivations? The voice acting? Particular nuances of phrasing? The font the subtitles appears in? I wouldn’t just rewrite the whole thing to make it adult and serious. I’d drill down to try to figure out why the playful, child-like tone I was shooting for wasn’t coming across the way I wanted.

Feedback like “overly complex” is similar. Is the story really too complicated? Or is the player getting distracted during key moments of exposition? Do we need to add a quest log? What about a story recap when you enter a new area? There are lots of ways to fix the “overly complex” problem without actually changing the complexity.

The problem is that it’s hard to agree with some other objective criteria for deciding a success or failure. Sales are numbers and that’s easy to compare.

I suppose some smaller games can still enter the Zeitgeist thanks to word of mouth later down the line, or because they happened to influence later titles.

I once actually read a game design book that, early on, recommended you make your controls kind of broken to keep the game difficult.
I stopped reading because what the hell!?

Edit: To be clear, there’s “broken” where there’s acceptable quirks like powerups that speed you up but also make it hard to decelerate, or games where you can’t change direction in air. Then there’s broken where you have floaty or laggy controls as just the default state of affairs. The book was explicitly recommending the latter.

Let me respond to a few of the points there:

(1) “Based on the twelve focus groups conducted worldwide, the primary weakness of the game is the storyline, which is considered unoriginal, childish, and overly complex.”

Actually, they were probably dead-on. Psychonauts was good, but nobody played it because the plot was so amazing. In addition to erratic pacing, the game just kinda meaders around, and nearly half the game is just Raz wandering about doing “psychic stuff”. Because you rarely revisit anything (and never need to in the entire game), the plot as such is pretty random and complex. Several characters just show up as convenient because the plot says so, and nobody has terribly complex personalities or motives. Certainly on paper, the game doesn’t really sound like a winner, and from playing it I can definitely say that the first 2-3 hours and finale were confusing, as I had very little idea what the hell was going on. Stuff just happened without much explanation, and it wasn’t really necessary. Point = Marketing.

This is actually probably true. The big issue is that Psychonauts looks like a relatively kiddy game, but it has a depth of humor that kids probably aren’t going to “get” and requires affair amount of work to master the controls and options. Hence why it’s a memorable but not really “great” game and hasn’t really influenced the biz - it’s too divided to have wide appeal. That kind of weird mixing is often common in cult classics in various genres, but it’s not really a good thing.

In cases like these, it’s often a good plan to cover one’s bases with some more basic humor that can work a mass-market approach. You don’t have to eliminate the more subtle stuff - Looney Toons got away with some pretty subtle (and even raunchy) jokes for decades because they had basic humorous elements. So I’d say the Marketing was spot on here.

(3) “To help international appeal, limit game components that feel especially Americanized, i.e. summer camp.”

Here is think the marketing made a significant mistake. While Summer Camp is pretty American, it’s not like the concept is totally alien in a pretty wide swath of the world. Had the team covered Point (1) well, I think this wouldn’t have been a big issue.

More to the point, let me basically point out that Tim Shafer’s resume hasn’t been exactly burning up either the sales charts or the critical lists lately. He still clearly has talent, but he also hasn’t been doing innovative work. He may have enough talent (as well as lot of connections and a well-known name) to get away with that. But frankly, other people like employees and so forth would probably rather make large wads of cash, because they don’t have six billion nostalgic fans waiting to kickstart their vanity projects.

I don’t want a game to be “creative” for its own sake, I want it to be creative in order to be a game I want to play. If your game is unique in ways detrimental to my enjoyment of your game, I’m not going to give you credit for that.

When talking about Psychonauts in particular, the thing to remember is that Microsoft actually canceled their publishing contract for it due to these focus groups. It was eventually picked up by Majesco (an extremely small publisher, especially by mid-2000s standards) and wasn’t marketed very well because Majesco is so small. It’s also important to remember that it got absolutely stellar reviews when it was released and if it had been released by Microsoft as a big Xbox exclusive, it likely would have sold much better.

So Psychonauts is probably the worst game to use as an example of creativity versus sales potential.

Also, personally, I didn’t much care for Psychonauts. The controls were a little rough and the first half of the game is just one long collect-a-thon. Thankfully, we left that nonsense back in the late 90s/2000s where it belongs.

Hey Mr. Sony Man, whatever happened to Until Dawn? :wink:

[Note: I don’t expect you to answer this, doubly so since I’m a member of the gaming press]

I just don’t get the criticisms. How do they fit together? How is the game simultaneously too childish and too complex? Part of being overly childish is being too simple. Humor should be secondary yet also needs to be right out in front where everyone can see it. The game is unoriginal, and yet you are telling me to make it more like every other game.

And because everyone else is dogging the game, I have to say that I loved it. I thought it actually made the collect-athon aspects fun again. The controls were fine for me, other than clearly being designed for a controller with more buttons than mine had. I don’t want a complex plot in a humorous game, but one that is making fun of cliches. (And, even then, it has plot twists.) And I thought the humor was completely obvious–and that the deceptive childish look of the characters was an important part of it. Granted, I never played it to the very end, so I never played the really hard levels, but everything else was grand. I found it to be a rather unique experience, making me feel like I was playing a platformer designed for adults.

Do you plan to work for free?

It’s like film. You can make an art house film that appeals to a narrow audience. But you can’t do it on a Michael Bay budget.

Kickstarter and other methods seem to provide a decent channel for funding independent games that appeal to niche audiences. Although I wonder how many of these games ever make it to production build? I feel like I see a lot of unfinished games get released in beta or even alpha build, but never get to a final release.

You’re in luck, a study was just released asking this very question (though it only goes up to projects created 2009-2012).

About 33% of all fully-funded Kickstarter games have been released to the public as full products. Only 5% have been outright canceled and another 62% currently exist in a “partially delivered” or in-development state.

This study doesn’t track actual release date versus promised release date, but Kickstarter projects do get released with some regularity. It’s become a real way to fund a game.

Not necessarily. You ever have an eight year old try to tell you a story? “And then PIRATES showed up! And they had laser swords! But the dragon had a MACHINEGUN!” Tons of story elements with no cohesion and no logical links between them = complex, but childish, story telling.

It’s time for Fun With Anecdotal Evidence!

I’ve backed a few games on Kickstarter. Here’s what has happened with them (Note: I am only included projects that actually backed successfully. Games that failed to reach their goal don’t count 'cause they got no money from me):

[li]The Banner Saga: Took much longer than forecast, but then, they got about 10x as much money as they asked for, so obviously the game grew a bit. In any event, it DID come out, and it was exactly what I was hoping for. [/li][li]Americana Dawn: Still in progress. I’m actually a little surprised it IS still in progress. Don’t actually expect it to finish. But it’s one guy’s pet project and I only gave him $5, 'cause I thought it was an interesting idea.[/li][li]Republique: Shipping…soon now? I’m not actually paying much attention to this one and I’m trying to remember why I backed it, but it looks like I’ll be getting a game. It’s a little late, but not crazy late (“promised” for Sept 2013).[/li][li]Planetary Annihilation: Coming along pretty nicely, it seems. Long overdue, but once again got about 2.5X their goal. It’s in beta now, I’ve played it, it seems entertaining.[/li][li]Mercenary Kings: Don’t think it’s ‘out’ yet, but I’m sure enjoying the alpha/beta/whatever it’s in. Also overdue.[/li][li]Akaneiro: Demon Hunters: Out. Haven’t actually played. [/li][li]Strike Suit Zero: Came out, on time, quite liked it.[/li][li]Shroud of the Avatar: Forsaken Virtues: It’s in beta right now, and that makes it more or less on schedule since it’s not ‘forecast’ to come out until October of this year. [/li][li]Buddy & Me: Released. Late, but it’s fully done and available.[/li][li]Infinite Space 3: Sea of Stars: Late. Seems to be in progress still, but no Alpha/Beta anything yet.[/li][li]Dog Sled Saga: Late. Looks like they’re still plugging away, but no Alpha/Beta/whatever yet.[/li][li]Unrest: Not late yet, but pushing it. (“Feb 2014”). No A/B/W, but shows signs of progress.[/li][li]Mighty No. 9: Not late, not even due until April 2015. No A/B/W yet, but shows clear signs of progress.[/li][li]Edo Superstar: Late. No A/B/W yet. Shows some signs of progress.[/li][li]Shantae: Half Genie Hero: Not due until October 2014. No A/B/W yet, but updates.[/li][li]Cosmic Star Heroine: Not due until the end of the year. Signs of activity, no A/B/W[/li][li]Obduction: Hell if I know, not paying attention. Just gave them a couple of dollars because I feel the game should be made, not because I actually want it.[/li][li]The Mandate: Nowhere near due (“March 2015”). Not too much activity to report though.[/li][/ul]
So, to break that down:
Completed, shipped: 4 (22%)
In Progress, not late, with playable build: 1 (6%)
In progress, late, with playable build: 2 (11%)
In progress, not late, no playable build: 5 (28%)
In progress, late, no playable build: 5 (28%)
Other: 1 (6%)
Failed/Dead/No signs of life: 0
Total 18

So what does this teach us? Mostly that unless a game is basically done when they Kickstart it (Strike Suit Zero was one of these - I call them “KickEnders” where they are basically going to crowdfunding to get some cash to buy a couple extra months of dev time to polish the product.) that game developers suck at estimating how long it will take them to finish, especially when their budget magically expands by a factor of 3 or more.

Surely the same people weren’t complaining both ‘childish’ and ‘overly complex’. And since we’re talking about taking place at a summer camp for psychics in which the hero has to jump into other people’s minds and battle in the virtual world of the individual psyches, I wonder what the hell they’re comparing it to when they report it as ‘unoriginal’.

I personally thought the game did a terrific job of making me actually want to play a 3D platformer-style game. As far as I am concerned, the fact that it was done as a 3D platformer instead of as an adventure game was already a brutal concession to popular tastes.

Which is actually exactly how regular game development works.

Yup. Go figure.