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Steve Allison: Warden of a Legacy of Mediocrity

Posted by nfinit on August 3, 2007

Anyone else remember Midway?

Nice little arcade company, made Joust, Cruis’n USA, SCUD Race, a couple of really awesome retro compilation discs? Yeah, those guys. Midway. Most recently known for giving John Romero a job for a few months until he decided to fuck off and make MMORPGs instead.

Midway has been trying to claw it’s way back into the public eye and it’s upcoming John Woo Presents:Stranglehold may represent a turning point for the company. After all, it’s presented as a “sequel” to Hard Boiled (Thus the “John Woo Presents: of Stranglehold) and movie franchise aside, the game looks genuinely intriguing, what with the team from the well-regarded Psi-Ops behind the project.

Fortunately for gamers already despairing over their abused wallets this upcoming holiday season, any concerns that Midway should somehow screw up and turn JWP:S into a decent game are readily dispelled by Midway’s chief marketing officer Steve Allison, who wants to let everyone know that under no circumstance shall he allow gameplay get in the way of his company’s commitment to mediocrity.

(From an interview shamelessly stolen from N’gai Croal’s blog, Level Up.)

Execution is Only The Third Most Important Factor In A Game’s Success. Yes, Third

This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t strive to make great games. Nor does it mean that a great concept gives developers the license to make a crappy game. It simply means that execution alone is no guarantee of commercial success. The developers who understand this will thrive in the next generation home console business. The ones who don’t will fall victim to the realities of the shifting marketplace.

The average reader of this piece, especially one working in the gaming business will say, “Wait a minute. A great game whose review scores average 90 or higher can ship when it’s done and it’ll still be a great game.” Or they’ll say, “Whatever the concept may be, a great title is all about the game mechanics.” Unfortunately, this is not true.

A great game is one that is a commercial success. Period.

Well, so much for the preorders.

In a way, he’s right. Shareholders don’t give a shit about level design, learning curves or anything else representing a quality gaming experience. But as far as gamers are concerned– especially those of us who would be interested in a videogame sequel to a John Woo movie to begin with– hearing a marketing guy basically say that Hannah Montana was a “great game” sorta makes us wince and want to curl up in a corner to play Ninja Gaiden until the pain goes away.

(I should take this moment to note that Steve Allison’s last gig was as VP of Marketing for Infogrames– a company that had so throughly trashed it’s own reputation among gamers that it decided it’d be better to dredge up the old Atari name instead. Mull on that for a bit.)

Continuing on…

Consumers review games with their wallet, and you don’t get to sell them a million units at full price unless a bunch of people love your work–especially at $59 a pop. Sure, your craftsmanship may be amazing. But if your concept is not a powerful and relevant male fantasy, executed in a timely fashion, at a level that delivers on the promise of your core idea, you’ve probably just delivered the videogame equivalent of an art house film.

An art house game certainly proves that your development team is really talented but it also demonstrates you’re really not in tune with the audience. This kind of creativity is only fine as long as your art house game was built on an art house budget. But an art house game made on a blockbuster budget–especially the sums of money required to be competitive on Xbox 360, PS3 and high end PCs–is fiscally irresponsible.

Ignoring the bit where Steve Allison says “art house games” do not fulfill a “powerful and relevant male fantasy”, there’s a way around the problem of high-concept games not selling at the full $59.99 price point. Stop selling games for sixty dollars, you fucking loons. Katamari Damacy sold well enough to develop into a franchise, and it did so in large part by being sold for $40, an impulse buy for the hardcore and temping enough for adventurous mainstream gamers to take the risk.

The concept of selling hardcore-targeted games at full MSRP is doubly absurd when you consider Midway, EA, Ubisoft the like place most games in settings where it’s easy for them to sell in-game advertising, the sort of thing that a person could expect be used to help “art-house games” sell cheaper. Then you have tools such as downloadable content and digital delivery, both of which could readily be used to price “art-house games” competitive instead of the current practice of expecting things like Senko no Ronde to sell at the same price point as NCAA ’08.

But hey, Katamari. That shit’s for girls.

And the hits keep on coming…

The truth is that there is no correlation between review scores and commercial success. If there were, “great” games Beyond Good & Evil, Ico, Okami, Psychonauts, Shadow of the Colossus, Freedom Fighters, Prey and Midway’s own Psi-Ops would all have been multi-million unit sellers. The aforementioned games are all games that average review scores of nearly 90 percent out of 100, some even higher. The reality is none has sold more than 300,000 units at full price in the U.S. and a couple of these less than 250,000 units lifetime even with bargain pricing. In today’s home console business, a true next generation game costs between $12 and $25 million dollars to produce, which sets the breakeven point at 1 million units and in some cases even 2 million units, depending on how high the budget has gotten.

The implication is clear- Midway has no intention of creating a great gaming experience. They instead wish to create games that are good enough while while selling to the broadest market possible. Which I suppose is a noble effort on behalf of the shareholders, but one wonders how far Pixar would have made it under the same philosophy. This is the same thinking that gives us tripe like Chicken Little, or reality TV programming, or Midway’s latest affront to good gameplay, Hour of Victory.

And while Steve Allison lists some notable commercial failures, he fails to recognize games like God of War, Halo, Gears of War and Twilight Princess, games that are not only grand and epic experiences, but have gameplay to match their lofty aspirations.

Let’s be clear: it is not the amount spent on marketing that determines how many units of these games are sold. A game’s sales potential is entirely determined by the strength of its overall concept, while the difference between its sales potential and its final tally is determined by its execution. And given the phenomenal execution of Psychonauts, Ico, Psi-Ops and the other art house games listed above, their failure can be ascribed to a misguided concept, poor timing or both.

Beyond the obvious implication that Midway expects JWP:S to sell on the tired old concept of videogames as movies instead of it’s merits as, you know– a good video game--It should be noted of those games listed, two if them, Psychonauts and Ico, were advertised so poorly that it was impossible for the mainstream gamer to know of their existence. I don’t know if he was trying to equate either game to a large marketing campaign, but if that campaign was there, apparently all the commercial broadcast time was purchased to air in Bolivia, or Nepal, or perhaps Christmas Island. Aside from the usual gamer magazine marketing blitz (an effort wholly wasted on anyone outside the hardcore community), there simply was no noticeable marketing effort present for either title. Then there’s the bit where Psychonauts was a pretty lousy video game, but that’s for another post.

To give Steve Allison credit, he is right on one count– Midway’s timing for Psi-Ops was abysmal. Not only was it a new shooter franchise being released amid the likes of Far Cry, Painkiller, Doom 3, Unreal Tournament 2004 and Chronicles of Riddick, it had to do so saddled with the yoke of being published by a company no gamer, hardcore or mainstream, was willing to trust to provide a quality gaming experience.

Thus Stranglehold’s greatest obstacle, a hurdle marketing suits like Steve Allison are blind to avoid– Even if Stranglehold turns out to be a good game, no one trusts the company producing it. Little wonder people are more interested in the free Blu-Ray copy of Hard Boiled than they are anything regarding the gameplay itself.

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