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Shooting themselves in the foot – Hollywood-style

19 June on Blogs, Editorial  

After receiving some pretty positive feedback about the Mass Effect 3 ending commentary (which I really should add a postscript to since I finished the game), I felt compelled to tackle another similar problem in the industry that has been bothering me since the early 2000s - Hollywood Envy.

You may be thinking I am talking about the narrative inspiration of just tacking on a flurry of non-interactive films to a videogame, but actually, my concern is on another topic altogether. To better understand my point, we need to travel back to 2002 and the launch of the original Xbox.

Microsoft was very serious about getting into the videogame business, but lacked certain sensibilities. It's funny to watch the Nintendo Direct Wii U presentation in contrast to this - while Nintendo decided to follow a very organic and personal orientation in designing the hardware, Microsoft went the opposite way in the "design by committee": a mix of seeking inspiration in successful formulas and unhealthy doses of focus group testing resulted in the aberration that was the original Xbox controller. While some of their expertise truly paid off and I am grateful for their contributions to the industry, some were not as important. Back then, the figure of the "console mascot" was of tantamount importance - and Microsoft needed a face for the Xbox. Since they were coming from nowhere, they found their best option in the acquisition of a rather niche studio called Bungie. Back then they were in the middle of a very long development cycle of Halo, a game Apple had been touting as a major breakthrough in the shooting genre (but then, isn't everything Apple presents touted as breakthroughs?).

Microsoft did what it knows best and just bought Bungie outright and tasked them with not only creating the "killer app launch title" they so much needed, but also requested its main character (which we now know as Master Chief) to be made into the face of the Xbox. It's funny to note, though, that the Halo shown during Apple conferences was very much a different beast: with a focus on Real Time Strategy, it is my belief that the protagonist was pretty much a generic character in the same vein as its predecessor, Marathon. He was probably to be a Tabula Rasa intended as a medium for a greater story told through subtle hints (that actually survived in the series, it should be added). But in order to turn Main Character into Master Chief, they needed to work their marketing muscles - a cool super soldier backstory, a voice actor that sounded tough and cool (and a bit like fan favorite Solid Snake, if you ask me) and... well, a lot of money. This last thing was the one element Microsoft was prepared to spare in order to achieve its goal, so it's no surprise that the Xbox and Halo had unprecedented marketing campaigns (at least as far as spending for videogames went). Let's have a quick look at how different the original product was?

So the Xbox launch came and went in 2002, and Master Chief was poised as the next videogame icon in the same vein as Lara Croft, and not as a mascot like Mario. Every dollar spent making Master Chief into the media powerhouse went directly into the value of the Halo brand. You could sell novels, toys, spin-off games,and they would basically print money. But what allowed this was not the fact it was a ground-breaking title. It was not the fact it had a charismatic protagonist. It was not the trend of the FPS as the new industry standard. In fact, you could argue that it even failed in some of these aspects. What truly set Halo apart was its extremely expensive marketing campaign.

Hollywood knows this all too well. Their business basically boils down to creating extremely formulaic movies, market the hell out of them, and hope they gross absurd amounts of money. Studios will go as far as bet on several potential blockbusters, knowing that if one of them reaches this kind of success, it will make up for the failure of the others. This "see what sticks" technique sends chills down my spine, frankly, but even worse is the other aspect of it.

Halo is not alone anymore. Call of Duty is pretty much following the same route, and having the same type of success. And while I don't think this in and of itself is a problem, I do worry about the fact that it reveals a scary trend: marketing investment is more important than development investment. And Call of Duty makes it pretty obvious: Activision set a second team, Treyarch, to make sure they could release a new title every year, despite the fact that it was Infinity Ward that propelled the series to its fame. They could only release a game every other year... but they weren't about to let that stop them. Not that the Treyarch titles weren't great, but the mere fact they accepted that - and later shot their golden goose with no remorse - only goes to show that they trust the marketing team more than the development team. And I'm afraid this might be a trend, as the long credit listing on Assassin's Creed Revelations shows.

It's not that I don't think marketing is important. It pretty much killed (it's lack, that is) the excellent Beyond Good & Evil and so many other games. And I think it's extremely important to manage your brand well. However, if we start making the brand more important than the product - and funny enough, Microsoft decided to sell its control of Bungie in exchange of the rights of the Halo series, further proving my point - we could quickly be moving into an area of pasteurized gaming products that are indistinguishable from each other if not only for their brand name. You don't take risks with development when that much marketing money is riding on its success.

The game industry needs talent recognition, not unlike Hollywood elevates actors, directors, writers and so many other professionals. Jason Rubin illustrates this point much better than I ever could, so watch his keynote if you have the time. Yeah, I know this sort of escapes my original thesis here, but I think it should be bunched together nonetheless. The biggest difference is that many creative minds in Hollywood still manage to find outlets for their dreams - with name alone they muster up the finances required to realize their visions. Most game studios don't, even when they have amazing titles under their belt. This recently led to the Kickstarter phenomenon that Double Fine ignited. They weren't pioneers, but they raised awareness of this possibility and have opened the doors for many awesome projects.

I hope that the Halos out there don't stop experimental titles like Mirror's Edge from getting made. The indie game movement has done a lot in the last few years, enabled by digital distribution. But with channels like the App Store creating so much noise, I sometimes fear that the renaissance I envisioned a few years back could be aborted. We should all keep our fingers crossed - I will say it again: the videogame medium needs to mature more before it becomes as mainstream as movies, or the experimentation may be forgotten.

Esta postagem também está disponível em: Portuguese (Brazil)

Author, freelance videogame journalist, cinematography major and a little insane.