Microsoft versus Sony, Battlefield versus Call of Duty and Forza versus Gran Turismo. These are some of the rivalries that can get people talking about console wars. “Game On or Game Over” is your place to get inside the minds of Nicholas and Andy as they seek to find the true meaning of gaming and tackle some of gaming’s most controversial subjects. Both are award winning authors – although the awards haven’t been mailed or created yet — but trust them. Would they lie to you?
Andy: I’m tired. It feels like I have been playing the same games for the last five years or so. Sure they have looked different, some more so than others, but lately the games I’ve played feel very much the same. I’ve been feeling this way for a while now and I think I’ve even mentioned it in passing in our discussions a time or two. It really became apparent though two weeks ago when Call of Duty and Battlefield released their respective trailers for their next games.
I want to talk about my reaction as I watched the two trailers and the ‘game fatigue’ that I think is a very real thing that doesn’t get as much discussion. First watching the Call of Duty trailer I was confused. I couldn’t tell if I was watching a Destiny video or just what era the game was supposed to be. When I watched the Battlefield trailer my first thought was “hmm, they listened to what fans wanted.” I don’t want to make this article bashing Call of Duty though. Instead what I want to start talking about this week is game fatigue and what developers choose to do with feedback from gamers.
There’s been a trend in FPS and shooters in general across the last handful of years, where fans have been increasingly more vocal about wanting to take a break from sci-fi based settings. One company (Activision) didn’t listen to that feedback and ploughed ahead making a full sci-fi version of their annual franchise – complete with space battles. The other (Dice) listened and went all the way back to World War 1, even going so far as to title their game Battlefield 1. YouTube is not the gold standard to judge true reaction to things but looking at the likes/dislikes of each trailer there has to be some truth to the amount of love/hate they are getting.
To start things off this week I wanted to get your opinion on the larger issue of developers listening to gamers. This isn’t gamers talking about balance tweaks or changes to games that are already published. This is gamers asking for games in/not in certain settings. To me, this is something a developer should be very aware of. This isn’t something that snuck up on Activision overnight. Should developers be more willing to adjust to overall fan “wants” than try to force a square peg into a round hole and “tell” the gamers what they want?
Nicholas: I think it’s possible to approach this situation in two ways. On the one hand, you can take the route that Dice have, and seemingly create a game that caters to the request from their fans. This seems like the best decision to make to appeal to your gamer-base and it’s one that’s most likely going to generate the most positive hype surrounding your title. Alternatively, and what I think is important not to dismiss, is that the developer has a vision on where they’d like to take their franchise/game, and they run with this to fruition. Admittedly it might lead to some negative reactions from the fans, but it gives the developer the opportunity to create the game they envision it as, and to see where it leads them. In this scenario I think it’s important to recognise that a game is a team’s creation, and as much as we mightn’t always agree with their decision, we should respect that potentially a lot of thought and certainly a lot of effort went into creating it.
What’s also important to question is when you mention what the community wants, are those views that are being expressed representative of the majority, or as is often the case, the vocal minority? Bringing up the YouTube likes and dislikes is great as well because I wonder whether the difference between the two videos is representative of how gamers really feel, or if it’s just one of those bandwagon knee-jerk decisions that the internet has decided to get behind? Call of Duty cops a lot of flak online but despite that it still sells like hotcakes. Is this just the case of gamers getting giddy for Battlefield 1 and for a laugh they’ve decided to hang crap on Activision’s offering in comparison?
You’re certainly much more of a shooter fan that I am, so I wanted to get your opinions on the questions I’ve raised above. Further to that though, what are your personal preferences when it comes to a shooter. Whether we’re talking futuristic settings or world-wars, both have been done to death (pun intended – genius, I know), so is it really a case of one developer listening to fans, or just a case of them both recycling used ideas?
Andy: I think there are multiple things at play here that really make this issue more than what it seems on the surface. So, I’m going to bounce back and forth and try to touch on the things you mention above. Yes world-war games have been done a lot, the thing there though is the vast majority of FPS titles over the past couple years have been modern/futuristic/sci-fi shooters. I think that’s one of the issues here is that the market is just so saturated by that type of theme that gamers are simply fatigued by it. Whereas there hasn’t been very many recent shooters set in the past, 10 years ago it was the opposite, it’s the typical trend in gaming that we see time and time again.
Also, it’s par for the course with how Activision does business. They seem to over-saturate a market and then when they can’t milk it anymore they look for other trends. Look at how many Guitar Hero games they churned out. They are doing the same thing with Skylanders. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the later of those two games start to cool down either this year or next. Activision seems to operate under the ‘quantity vs quality’ model. One thing we have to consider here though is Call of Duty is on a three-year cycle between in-house developers (Infinity Ward, Treyarch and Sledgehammer). One argument for Activision is they had this game planned out three years ago, so they aren’t able to adjust on the fly as quickly as other developers may. Of course, they would never miss a year of Call of Duty. I believe there has been a new release every year for the past 14 years. That’s insane.
In regards to the likes/dislike thing. I think it’s a little bit of what you mention for sure. If you like Battlefield you can’t like Call of Duty and vice-versa. There is a natural rivalry there, much like how Mazda drivers think their cars are superior when everyone else knows they aren’t, but I digress (Nicholas Edit: Mazdas are better). While we can attribute some of the like/dislike to fanboys I don’t think we can completely discredit all of it. I think there is a message there that developers need to, at the very least, be aware of. You’re correct that they don’t have to listen to the rumblings of the internet if they have a true vision and something they want to accomplish. But, at the same time, if sale suffer then it’s something they have to look at internally and say “How did we miss here? Why didn’t we see this shift in thinking of the gamers?”
Personally I like most shooters, but I also like variety. I don’t want to feel like I’m playing the same game regardless of the game I put in my Xbox. That’s where my frustration lies really. Instead of making this topic purely about Battlefield vs Call of Duty I want to get your opinion on the larger issue that of game saturation within a particular genre. When you have six, seven or more games in a genre and are all sci-fi shooters do gamers have a legitimate reason to voice their opinion on that? When they say things like “Give us a break from the sci-fi shooters”, is that something developers should pay attention to? Or do you think it’s OK for a developer to say “Here’s your game you’re going to like it because we made it!”?
Nicholas: Well first and foremost, when you say if sales suffer then the developers/publishers need to assess why it’s happened, and that’s certainly true, but that’s not the case with Call of Duty. We’re not seeing a position where Activision have churned out 14 games in 14 years and each one is selling poorly, we’re instead seeing a publisher that’s been able to release a game each year for almost a decade and a half and it’s working for them. So I think that’s really important to note. While you and other gamers might not like what’s coming out, it doesn’t seem like the bulk of the community is in agreeance, or at the least, is still willing to put up with it.
To move onto your questions, absolutely, it’s on the community to voice their opinion on the kind of games they want to see and also on what they’re actually being given – hell, it’s what the beauty of the internet is for when you put aside the fact it’s largely a medium to distribute cat videos. On the flip-side then, it would then also make sense that these publishers and developers listen to this noise and do their best to cater to the demands of the community. Make a game that the people want and people will buy it. That said, I chose my words carefully and didn’t say that it’s the obligation for developers to make these games – it’s one thing to voice an opinion, but it doesn’t mean they have to listen, it’s just that they should.
I want to take a moment to put a twist on things though. From what it looks like right now, Battlefield 1 is set to deliver a theme and experience that gamers have been clamouring for. That said, until it launches there’s every chance it could flop like Battlefield 4. So, what I’d like to ask you is, have you ever had a situation where a developer was doing things one way, the community spoke, the developers listed and what they produced next actually delivered? Alternatively, do you have any examples where it flopped exceptionally?
Andy: I am really trying not to make this a habit while writing these articles with you, but you make some really good points above. The only thing I would argue is that I believe the sales numbers for Call of Duty have been trending downward the past couple years. Obviously it’s not enough for Activsion to give heed to though as they continue to churn out game after game every year. I lied, the other thing I would say is I don’t know if I would consider Battlefield 4 a flop. There were certainly issues with it, but they weren’t because of content or creative direction of the franchise.
Two times in one article, much less one reply, man this is getting old but that’s a great question. It really got me thinking, and I may have slightly cheated with a couple Google searches too for material – but that’s a neither here nor there. With my highly scientific research I was unable to find true examples of either end of the spectrum. The closest thing I could find would be during an alpha or beta and a developer gathering feedback and tweaking a game. But, like I mentioned above that usually isn’t a content or direction change. It’s more tweaking gameplay and making minor adjustments. I could not find an example where a game was drastically changed mid-way through based on feedback. The closest one I can think of was the removing of XP from Thief before it released. But again, not really a huge change in the grand scheme of things.
Since you made me do a lot of thinking with your question you had to know it was coming right back at you. Can you think of any examples on either side of that same spectrum that excelled or flopped because a developer made a change during production that gamers requested? If you’re like me and can’t think of any examples do we just chalk it up to developers not wanting to potentially flop based on fans suggestions? On the flip-side do you think a developer will ever roll the dice and embrace a suggestion and be comfortable enough to run with it?
Nicholas: The example which comes to mind immediately for me, and which sparked me to ask the question in the first place, is Need For Speed. Ever since Need For Speed Most Wanted was released in 2005 fans have begged for a sequel to Underground 2 (or even Most Wanted itself). While Carbon was essentially a combination of the two there was something off about it, and it really wasn’t until Ghost Games started teasing their latest offering that we felt the sequel we’ve been waiting for was finally on its way. It had all the elements – Japanese imports, customisation and night-time racing, it was the winning formula that worked ten years ago.
Problem was, when the game launched it fell short of expectations. Why that’s the case I’m still unable to pinpoint. I’m wondering if it’s because of the always-online issues, but at the same time, I’m also wondering if we’ve just been expecting an updated HD port of the original, so no matter what they gave us we would have been disappointed? After-all, nostalgia is a dangerous thing.
That said, they’ve been working on updating the game since the day it was launched, so while it seemed Ghost listened to fans and it didn’t deliver, it seems they continue to listen and make changes that the players are requesting.
What I’d like to ask is, who’s right in this situation? What I mean is, we have developers who both play games and create them. On the other spectrum, we have gamers whose entire hobby is playing what these developers create. You’d think that gamers would know what works because they know what they like when they play it, but at the same time, you’d think developers know what works because there should be a history of trial and error. That said, as I’ve mentioned above, it doesn’t always work out. Why do you think that’s the case? There are so many great games that excel in so many areas, why isn’t it as easy as seeing what works and merely implementing it again?
Andy: The answer is really simple actually. They are both right. As a gamer we know what we like, and we want more of it. The problem with that is, if we only play games in that small scope or things – over time they will become stale and boring. Most developers understand this and try to find a balance between giving gamers what they like, what they are familiar with and what they expect, with all the while trying to push the envelope, add new elements and keep the game from being a mere copy/paste slog-fest.
Therein lies the heart of the issue I think. With a series like Call of Duty, Activision has three separate studios working on iteration after iteration. This allows them to have a three-year cycle while also releasing a game every year. The downside of this, I assume, is that the direction of the game was essentially planned out three years ago. So while it’s easy for gamers to sit here and say Activision is deaf to what gamers want, making a game isn’t as simple as snapping your fingers, coding a couple lines and then shipping a game. As gamers, even though we think we know what it takes to make a game, we really have no idea what it takes. If it was as simple as finding what works and doing it again every game we play should be great should it not?
As we close out another week here I wanted to touch on something you and I have said before. If a developer does something in a game that you don’t like, don’t get it. We can’t send mixed messages by saying that we hate <insert game/feature here> but then turn around and get the game because of <insert feature we like>. A suit looking at the sales numbers isn’t going to break it down and say, “well X number of gamers didn’t like this thing, but X number of gamers bought the game anyway”. A sale is a sale. On top of that they don’t breakdown the player base either. So, if you hate the direction of a game don’t rent it just to get the achievements/trophies, don’t buy it and return it once you beat the campaign. The numbers are what matters to the higher ups. Take the numbers away, they take notice. So to finish things off is it really as simple as that? In order to get change we have to give them (the developers) a reason to change right? Complaining about it, but still playing it doesn’t cut it. Would you agree?
Nicholas: That is completely right. We’ve said it so many times in the past but there’s a reason why. The number of stories we’ve heard about a sequel not seeing the light of day due to poor sales is far from rare, and I think gamers really need to understand the importance their purchase makes on the kind of content we see being pushed out by these publishers. A game or theme that doesn’t sell well is simply not going to happen twice, at least not often anyway
You mentioned mixed signals and I think that’s the position we’re in now with the current state of social media. Yes, the Battlefield 1 trailer is generating a lot of hype and the CoD trailer is slammed with dislikes, but I’m confident the latter will still sell fine, so we have on one spectrum all this negativity, but on the other, the sales figures tell a different story. I think the challenge on publishers is having to decipher what’s real noise and what’s just bandwagon hate for the fact that it’s a ‘cool’ thing to do.
Ultimately however, you’ve hit the nail on the head. If gamers are really sick of a theme than collectively we need to show this to developers by not purchasing those games. You can block negativity by disabling comments on a YouTube video, but if you fail to listen to what the community wants, you’ll be essentially blocking sales – and that is another game entirely.