The Killer App Killer

Blah blah blah

The first game to be released in North America with two advisory labels.

Let’s say you’re the boss. No, not of me, but of a multi-billion-dollar gaming conglomerate. It’s your job to make sure that everything runs smoothly, that the gears are oiled, the cogs are powdered, and that any hint of originality or creativity is stymied as effectively as a third-party presidential candidate’s chances of actually being elected. Somewhere along the line, probably in your role as Global Operating Officer Benchmarking Expected Return at Crustacean Hut (“We’ve Got Your Crabs…Right Here!”), Shoes for Youse (headquartered in Newark), and Really Big Cashews (“You won’t believe our nuts!”) — each a subsidiary of Parasol Corp. — you discovered that the best way to fabricate the illusion of growth is to use words that no one understands. Or, better yet, use common words that have absolutely no relevance to your business whatsoever; that way no one can call you on it when you turn out to be completely full of shit.

When the president of a division at Multi-Billion-Dollar Gaming Conglomerate (MBDGC) refers to “a product,” or “a franchise,” but never “a game,” it answers a thousand questions as to exactly what’s wrong with not only that particular company, but with any company that approaches game development from the top-down. When that same president speaks in an interview  with IndustryGamers about an upcoming product being a “Halo-killer,” it smacks of amateurish posturing and marks the entire company as a confederacy of outsiders — developers don’t think in terms of dominating or “killing” another game; such premises are the purview of the perpetual non-creator, a subset including but certainly not limited to professional managers, commentators, and stockholders. You know, outsiders.

"The only thing that can kill Barnes, is Barnes."

The original. And only.

The people who create games (and I do not extend that definition to those who manage the people who create games), also play games when they have the time. See, they like games. They actually call them games, not products or franchises or properties. (Not only is it entirely possible that the president in question at MBDGC has never actually played a video game, it’s very damn likely.) As such, the people who create games aren’t interested in “killing” other games even in a figurative sense; they want their games to sell well, sure, because good sales allow them to continue to make games, but they do not attempt to secure their success with the cannibalization of someone else’s sales. This is true for any creative field; the writer who sits down at the keyboard with the explicit intent of writing a “Grisham-killer” or a “Twilight-killer” or a “DaVinci Code-killer” is, by definition, a hack. The same goes for any company that sets out to develop a “Halo-killer:”

“…we were trying to craft a Halo-killer, you know a product that would squarely go after what Bungie built with our partners at Crytek. So the Crysis 2 product is spectacular, very high-end, and is going to be a multi-year franchise.” — Frank Gibeau, in a 2010 interview with IndustryGamers.

What, exactly, does it mean to “squarely go after what Bungie built” in this context? Does it mean you’ve achieved Halo-like sales figures? Emulated the quality of the Halo experience? Did you convince people who would have bought Halo Reach or Halo 4 to forgo their purchase and get Crysis 2 instead? Given MBDGC’s history, that last scenario is most likely, but who can tell with a nebulous, undefined statement like that?

Yes, fine, but will it run Crysis?

Yes, fine, but will it run Crysis?

Before being acquired by Eurogamer, IndustryGamers (now GamesIndustry) was an online trade publication, meaning that it catered to the interests of game developers. Who the hell is going to take this guy seriously when he’s speaking to game developers about “killing” Halo as a worthwhile goal? Not “we set out to make the best game possible,” or “our goal was to give the player an avenue of self-expression,” or even “we wanted to see the Crysis story continued.” Instead it’s “we just wanna fuck Master Chief in the nose! Ooh-rah!” Okay, boss. If you say so.

So why does this indicate a problem with MBDGC? Because it exposes an unsustainable standard at the very top of their corporate hierarchy. It means that this company’s standard is not their game, but someone else’s. Their focus is not on how to make their game better, but how to make it better than some other game. It’s as though they want to attain some sort of secondhand credibility by indirectly hijacking the name of a game series that has sold more than 55 million copies since 2001, a series for which people are willing to line up in the middle of the night in order to get the next installment. This reminds me of Burger King going after McDonald’s in the early 1980s with commercials written to demonstrate not that Burger King’s hamburgers were fine and tasty and wholesome, but that McDonald’s burgers were…well, smaller; it’s a cheap, pathetic, desperate move by a company that knows it hasn’t got the ability to deliver against an objective, creator-defined standard of success. And hey, how did that work out for Burger King?

Crysis 2's main character, Alcatraz, from Uwe Boll's film adaptation of the game.

Crysis 2’s main character, Alcatraz, from Uwe Boll’s film adaptation of the game.

This is not intended as a rant against Crysis 2 or its developer, Crytek; I’ve played Crysis 2, and it’s a good game. It’s not as good as the Halo games, with the exceptions of ODST and Halo Wars, but it’s a solid experience in its own right. This is intended as an indictment of the company that published Crysis 2 on two systems for which there was no Crysis 1. I’ll reiterate that, because it’s kind of important: Crysis 2 was published on the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3 as Crysis 2; instead of branding the game with a non-numerical subtitle (Crysis: Cloak Engaged or Crysis: Reach), MBDGC let it hit the shelves with a title that told every potential adopter that they might as well not bother if they hadn’t played the first game, which most of them hadn’t; Crysis was exclusive to the PC from 2007 until its release on Xbox Live and the PlayStation Network in October of 2011, a full seven months after the release of Crysis 2.

Let me rereiterate that once more with feeling: Crysis wasn’t released on the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3 until seven months after Crysis 2. Instead of using the first game as a marketing tool to develop interest for the second one, MBDGC let it slip virtually unnoticed between the download-only cracks on two systems with a combined installed base of over 150 million. Brilliant? I dare say. As a result, Crysis 2 has sold 3 million copies worldwide; not a failure by any means, but nowhere close to even putting a small dent in the Master Chief’s faceplate.

"The only thing that can kill Barnes, is Barnes."

“The only thing that can kill Barnes, is Barnes.”

If you’re at all like me, you’ll think twice about supporting a company that employs such a grossly inverted standard in their game publication. To make a better game is a worthwhile goal; to make a game better than another game, to fashion a “Halo-killer” for the sake of “squarely going after” what another company has built, is the apogee of arrogance, ignorance, and general fuckheaditude.

Personally, I’d much rather spend $100 to help get a game like this published, than $60 on the next spectacular high-end multi-year franchise product. If there is any soul still to be found in the gaming industry, it lives in companies and individuals who haven’t traded it for stock options.

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