Making Games People Want to Play

by Steve Bowler on January 30, 2008

in design,general

So this weekend I was waiting for an oil/transmission fluid change on my car, and I wound up thumbing through an old copy of Newsweek from 2007 (their end of year issue), mainly out of sheer boredom, and found an interview by familiar name N’Gai Croal chatting up Harmonix founders Eran Egozy and Alex Rigopulos for a page about their road to fame and stardom.

It was an interesting, if predictable read. They talked about MIT, Frequency and Amplitude, then completely skipped over Karaoke Revolution (seriously, not a mention), before talking about the Guitar Heroes (and the fact that they still make money on GHIII due to patents on the guitars. Clever.) and then moving on to the obvious Rock Band discussion.

The takeaway though was when they mentioned that after the critically acclaimed Frequency and Amplitude didn’t sell, they realized that making great games wasn’t enough. They said (and I believe I’m roughly quoting/paraphrasing here):

“we learned we needed to make great games that people want to play.”

It seems obvious, but it’s just not that easy. There’s just so many factors in play. Is the IP/license strong? Is the gameplay concept what folks are interested in? Did marketing do their job? Is the concept even sound? So many games get greenlit today due to an individual’s power/opinion, or the wrong department calling the shots, or, god forbid, strictly taking data from a focus group. While I love the art/indie games that happen because one person has a vision and wants to see it realized, the vast majority of those things do not sell, and if you want a game to be played by the most number of people possible yielding the most dollars for your company, you’ve got to play to your market.

In the case of Harmonix, the progression is easy to see. They made some excellent music games that the public at large couldn’t connect with, so they gave people a new controller that was easy to identify with, and a new gameplay model that was easier to grasp. Karaoke and Air Guitar.

Looking at the lessons learned by Harmonix, can we apply that to future titles? Recently, it was just announced that Ender’s Game (MASSIVE spoiler ahead) is going to be turned into an XBLA video game. This might be a case for “Make Games People Want to Play.” I personally don’t see Ender’s Game as a strong license. It’s a great idea for a video game. Make a game about the game that genius children had to play in a book which wasn’t really a game, but an interface for controlling a real tactical space battle. Very meta. But, sadly, not mainstream enough. A lot of people haven’t even heard of Ender’s Game, let alone read it (I fall into this camp).

If they took the same gameplay model (tactical capital ship space warfare) and got a stonger IP, such as Star Trek or Star Wars, it would no doubt be a much bigger seller while not losing an ounce of the gameplay, which, in the end, is why companies make video games.

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