The Opposite of Remarkable is Very Good - Seth Godin, Purple Cow
I've recently been doing a lot of reading about how to be successful in the age of retweets, viral successes and exploding choice, and trying to apply that to games. In so doing, I've come across an idea (first from Seth Godin, but repeated elsewhere also) that products need to be remarkable as a first step to success and if they are not remarkable then they are average. Average things are very hard to market and sell because people don't really talk about average.
In the television age, average was what worked best because television advertising was expensive but also mass-market. There were only a few channels, so products that got on TV got sales, bought more ads, more sales, and so on.
In the internet age, advertisements don't really work any more. There are so many ads vying for attention across a billion potential channels that we simply ignore them. The response from business has been to try and overcome that with many more products, but that simply compounds the problem. The result is a whole lot of average or very similar products all clawing at each other for market share.
So there's a real impetus for developers to work on the unusual rather than the usual because the unusual is frequently where the fun happens and users who become fans of fun unusual things are much more likely to spread the word. The unusual gets word of mouth recognition, which in turn magnifies through sharing and social networks into a torrent of attention and that leads to sales.
I think most developers essentially understand this (even if their bosses don't) and so it's not especially controversial reasoning. But something interesting happens when they are confronted with this idea: They assume that remarkability and quality are the same thing, that what's required of them is to compete even harder in genres, to get better graphics, better gameplay and better sound in known genres and that's what gets you talked about, and that rewards accrue to those who are worthy. Developers who think like this (which is most of you) think that it's all a matter of building a better boat.
What is worthiness?
To be worthy is essentially to look for approval. It essentially assumes that there are various steady states in the industry that bestow mana from heaven onto those who have tried harder enough. In the worthy mindset, what it takes to beat a World of Warcraft is an even better World of Warcraft. To beat Oblivion? An even better first person fantasy roleplaying game. To beat FIFA, an even better football game.
In some cases worthiness does indeed win: World of Warcraft is a better game than Everquest and took its crown. Most of the time, however, worthiness loses. The problem that being worthy engenders is that the empowered class who are the ones to deliver said worthiness (such as journalists) are actually bored by seeing the same thing. There is generally only so much room for improvement in any given genre (without a dramatic shift in technology) that a kind of inertia builds up around the chosen successful competitor. That's why back in the day the leap from Quake to Counterstrike was dramatic, whereas the differentiation between first person shooters these days is largely stylistic and average.
Secondly, the perceived influencers in the hardcore gaming culture (again, journalists) are often far less influential than they appear. This is true in any medium, but increasingly more so when anyone can write a blog game preview and anyone can tweet their opinion, those voices just don't carry as much weight any more.
The problem is that the core assumption is wrong: Rewards actually accrue to those who are sexy, and sexiness and worthiness are often not the same thing.
So what is sexiness?
Sexiness is difference. Not just difference, but passionate difference. A few years ago while everyone was coming out with more of the same action adventure games, Guitar Hero showed up with a cool game idea that was sexy. Everyone likes music, everyone has a secret inner air guitarist inside. Put two and two together and boom. Sexytimes. Now, many releases and competition from Rock Band later, the whole music game genre is becoming as average and boring as everything else and there's probably very little room in which to usefully experiment. Now its all about developers obsessing on how to build an even better guitar.
I think there are 3 C's that essentially define sexiness. Important to remember in all this is that sexiness is inherently the act of being unusual - so there is no path to follow to get there. Developers thinking that they can be the next Will Wright if they can just make an even better person-simulation game just don't get that that isn't sexy any more because Will Wright already did that. And nobody really thinks tribute acts are sexy. Worthiness leads to a lot of point-proving ("our AI is twice as complex as theirs") to try and attract attention but it's all just so much mush.
So, the 3 Cs:
1. Creativity: Do you have an original idea that isn't just X meets Y? That's a good start. Also very hard of course.
2. Credibility: Do you have fans that you talk to directly, be honest with, love and respect? If you don't, get some. Don't PR them to death either with brain-dead business-led press release style posting. Build communities through credibility.
3. Courage: Can you commit? Can you project an identity that not only do you know what you're doing, you know what everyone else is doing wrong? Can you pick a public fight in the industry because you have passion that someone or some company is making a mess and you can take a stand?
What sexiness is really about is vision and confidence. It is about finding the niche in which you can make a difference. Many developers pooh-pooh niches, regarding them as cast-offs from the mainstream and a sort of bolt-hole in which loser companies hide. They are completely wrong of course. Niches are what feed the mainstream and become the mainstream and create change. To be "niche" is to be at the forefront.
As long as you're not making the mistake of serving a "worthy" niche. So for example, there are communties out there who's interest is essentially in relics, and there are some developers who have trapped themselves into essentially serving the forces of retro gaming. Retro gaming is a bit like folk music. It had its day, everyone respects it, it has some die-hard fans. Folk music is a niche obsessed by worthiness. It will never be sexy again. A musician cannot go and be sexy by being a better Bob Dylan. Even Dylan realised this and got out of the folk busines in time.
Set the pace, don't chase the pack.
A lot of developers' heroes are guys like Richard Garriott and Shigeru Miyamoto. They want what those guys had. What those developers don't realise is that the reason Garriott and Miyamoto (and Molyneux, Wright, etc) were successful because at the time that they were coming up in the world, they were doing the brand new thing. They were sexy.
Screw Miyamoto. Screw Garriott too. Screw all of them in fact. Seriously.
You can't ever get to be as sexy and successful as they were by doing what they did because they already did it. Follow in their footsteps and you become at best a tribute act. You have to go to the edges, not the middle. If you want to get to be rich enough in games to fly to space like Garriott then the only thing that gives you a chance to do it is not to do what Garriott did because he already did it.
The worst sin that any developer can commit, therefore, is to be worthy. Worthy is boring. Nobody cares about average, boring, safe and worthy any more.