The Creative Assembly's Al Bickham on why 'hardcore' titles can succeed
What a crazy climate. The trade-winds blow toward mass-market free-to-play development; design-by-metrics, gaming as a service – even a utility – and staggering global audiences that drip enough pennies over time to fund a reasonably-sized dictatorship.
It’s a scary time to plough years of resources into a single core title, and the shifting wreckage of many legendary studios over the last couple of years throws the whole landscape into sharp relief.
Scary enough, in fact, without considering the storm that retail is rising. Take the bewildering array of marginally different SKUs studios are asked to provide in the name of retailer exclusivity, driven by the need of individual retailers to differentiate.
oes the benefit of those extra man-months really outweigh the cost? Does it even benefit consumers? I’d argue it just adds to buyer confusion and annoyance that they’re not getting the full package, simply because they buy from one retailer over another. Either way, it’s an added complexity with benefits that are incredibly hard to define.
A RECIPE FOR RISK
Factor in the one-sided battle between blockbuster behemoths and the output of competent mid-size studios, and the recipe for risk is undeniable. If you want to know more about just how compromising that competition can be for a studio’s vision, I urge you to go and read Rob Zacny’s ‘Death March’ piece on Kaos Studios and the birth-pains of Homefront on Polygon. It’s horrifying stuff.
So why do it? Why cling to the idea of the ‘traditional’ game? The tentpole release – ‘fingers crossed for a corking marketing campaign and good reviews,’ – that drives studios to differentiate within genres, to try and snag a little market share from the big boys, to experiment with new IP and hybrid genres?
Why roll the dice on several years of intensive development when your players might, if the headlines are to be believed, wiffle off at any minute to where games cost a fraction per transaction and provide always-on entertainment? A recent case-in-point for why core games work is, Dark Souls.
It is relentlessly, insanely difficult by current standards. It kills the player again, and again, and again. It makes Dante’s sixth circle of hell look like In the Night Garden, and I can’t imagine anyone is quite as surprised as Namco Bandai at the enormous cult status and incredible critical reception it’s generated. Plus, it was a respectable commercial success.
Dark Souls is an example of risk paying off; of a developer turning away from modern mass-market conceits and taking a serious lesson from the past: that the player’s dexterity and burgeoning skills are the denominators of success. It runs counter to the current norm of blockbuster hand-holding, with easy-outs for both the player and the developer through quick-time events and other safety blankets which make it less likely that the player will die.
We understand that risk. The Total War games can be tough; play Shogun 2 on Legendary difficulty, and you’re in for a rough ride, as we hold your hand a lot less, and remove many of the gameplay crutches.
But we know from experience, these are the most satisfying games our players play. The ones that generate legendary stories: epic battles against the odds that echo through the forums the morning after. They’re the ones that players remember.
I don’t want that to sound smug – getting it right is never easy. And it’s not about simply ramping up the difficulty. It’s about doing that in a smart way that always gives the player options.
You need to give the player more options about how and when they face the fire – let them dictate the terms of engagement. Players aren’t stupid, and they like a challenge.
If that sounds like a risky attitude, it probably is. But in the long run, they’ll thank you for it.