My Simple Minded World

Ideas on what makes a console game successful

Posted in Video games by Omar Ismail on June 11, 2009

With the release of NPD figures becoming a monthly ritual for a growing percentage of the gamer population, there is more attention being paid to what exactly goes into making a same sell well.

Obviously this is a challenge that all developers and publishers are tackling, and for the most part attempt to overcome. However, many fail at this, and with catastrophic consequences. So, rather than use my 20/20 hindsight vision, I’m going to come up with a criteria for what goes into a successful modern game, and then apply said criteria against games coming out this year. I will then be able to see how good my predictions are, and if they ARE good, well then great!

Criteria

  • Cinematic feel and presentation
  • Fresh experience
  • Social
  • Life improvement
  • Brand
  • Timing

Cinematic Feel and Presentation

This criteria is difficult to describe because it can be confused with cutscene-heavy or story-heavy, when that’s not what I’m referring to. Instead, what I mean by Cinematic Feel and Presentation is that the very act of PLAYING the game results in an experience that FEELS cinematic. Meaning, it’s almost as fun to watch the person playing the game, as it is to play itself.

Aspects that go into Cinematic Feel are: lush environments, great character animation, little to no  HUD, minimal “gamey” aspects (such as points, loading screens, etc), and high level of interaction.

Ubisoft is actually very good at making cinematic games with titles such as Assassin’s Creed, and the to-be-released AC2 and Splinter Cell: Conviction.

Fresh Experience

Players seem to be demanding a higher level of NEW experiences. We’ve seen this with depressed sales of games like MotorStorm 1->2 and Resistance 1->2 where the arguably better sequels sold substantially less. Obviously, there are a lot of factors going into that, but my theory is that a major factor is the NEWNESS of the experience. Different gametypes, gameplay, game-feel, settings, etc.

What successful sequels like Halo, Street Fighter, etc demonstrate is that people like familiarity but there is a minimum acceptable delta when it comes to the experience itself compared to previous offerings.

Social

This one is pretty self-explanatory. Though some people limit social gaming to party-games and having a bunch of people hanging out in a person’s house playing some Wii. I look at social in a broader context that includes online multiplayer gaming, and even single player games that have things like broader competitive interactions such as leaderboards.

Life Improvement

This criteria is pretty new in the mainstream and has come to the forefront through Nintendo and the Wii. For a long time “Life Improvement” games were strictly under the label of “edutainment” and were more about education than games. With Wii Fit and Brain Age, Nintendo was able to strike an almost perfect balance between bettering your life, and having fun. The next key is that physical and mental fitness aren’t the only ways that your life can be improved, and Nintendo will prove that in a very profound way with the Wii Vitality Sensor. The interesting thing, is that there are quite a few untapped areas of Life Improvement that are open season:

  • Mental Health – Brain Age
  • Fitness – Wii Fit, EA Sports Active, etc
  • Relaxation – Wii Vitality Sensor (most likely)
  • Cooking – Kind of with Cooking Mama, and some other DS games
  • Spiritual – ?
  • Love – ?
  • Relationships – ?
  • Creativity – ?
  • Sex – ?
  • Making money – ?
  • Have a successful career – ?
  • Parenting – ?
  • Learning languages – ?
  • Leaning a music instrument

Obviously some of these categories are not as interesting as “mental” or “physical” fitness, but if you could make a compelling game that helped you with your social life… that would be amazing. This is an entirely new class of interactive software that we’re just now scratching the surface of.

Brand

It goes without saying that there are big franchises and not-so-big franchises. Any game that has the words “Mario”, “Halo”, “Final Fantasy” or “Madden” will instantly get a lot of attention. The size of the brand will determine the center-point so to speak on where its sales will lie that is determined by how much the previous game sold. For example of Halo 3 sells 9 million, then it’s reasonable to use 9 million as a starting point for Halo 4, and then adjust from there and incorporate the other criteria to move up and down.

Sometimes an entry in a franchise will be able to break out and bring the brand to the next level like with Call of Duty 4, or bring it down many levels, as what happened with Tony Hawk (though that may have been more gradual).

Note that brand isn’t limited to just game franchises, but extends to all kinds of brands. NFL, UFC, Mario Lopez, musicians, movies, etc. It’s the reason why licensed games continue to be made despite their lower quality.

Timing

I was hesitant to put timing in here as a criteria since it is somewhat ambiguous and there is some overlap with “Freshness” but timing comes into play mostly as a negative factor. Even if a game is solid on all the other points, if it’s released in a period where there are some huge titles coming out then it can be completely looked over and squashed in the marketplace. I see this time and time again when it comes to the holidays. Publishers seem to be wisening up to this Q4 crush and have wiseley started to space out their releases, though from this E3 it looks like there’s going to be a Spring-crush.

If your game is huge then obviously the holidays can act as an amplifier, but for most games they need to be very wary about when they’re coming out.

Putting it together

Essentially each game has a scoring on how good it satisfies each of the criteria. Most of the time a game will focus on one criteria, though some games like Call of Duty and Halo are able to hit a couple (Social and Cinematic), or Wii Fit (Fresh and Life Improvement) and thus get super ridiculous sales success.

Now, this doesn’t supercede my article on Game Design Commandments, as that dealt with tactical fundamental gameplay issues, and this is a broader strategic analysis.

My next post will be with the predictions proper.

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