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[Hi, I’m Simon Carless, and you’re reading the Game Discoverability Now! newsletter, which you can subscribe to now, a regular look at how people find - and buy - your video games. Or don’t. This edition of the newsletter is a bit of an experiment, so please bear with me - lots more stats next time!]
For this latest newsletter, I thought I’d switch things up as a one-off - partly because I’ve been reading Paul Gorman’s excellent new biography of controversial Sex Pistols manager, Vivienne Westwood collaborator and all-round provocateur Malcolm McLaren.
McLaren had a lot of faults, of course, including not compensating artists properly, and sometimes deliberately played up his Svengali image for effect. But he also had genuine skills in talent spotting and understanding the zeitgeist, even when it bordered on cultural appropriation.
So let’s concentrate on what McLaren did right - and amplify that. Often, he looked for - or was involved in birthing - emerging trends. And he instinctively played the part of the puckish amplifier of iconoclastic, sometimes taboo concepts. He gave things a platform, generally with a dash of deliberately charged controversy.
I admit I’m partial to the concept of the art prankster (see The KLF). This raises the question - in the 21st century, in the hallowed realm of video games, do any of McLaren’s lessons on amplification still apply in.. actually making your game popular? Here’s what I see still works, and what doesn’t:
Well, they do say all publicity is good publicity (?). And I do feel like many games play it too safe, especially when it comes to even considering real-world quandaries in their design. (Frostpunk is my favorite example of a game that has resonant, morally interesting gameplay, without being too deliberately outrageous.)
But it’s way more difficult to push boundaries in the 2020s like the Sex Pistols once did in the 1970s, when a lot of those boundaries… sorta don’t exist any more. (Or devolve into hideously divided topics.)
For example, Panic Barn/No More Robots’ Not Tonight is a post-Brexit pub bouncer simulator with a definite point of view (check out this Boris trailer mashup), and probably picked up eyeballs on that basis.
But I also suspect it lost the chance for console platform-level featuring due to its subject matter. And though it sold well, I think its ‘spiritual sequel to Papers, Please!’ angle was more key to its success. (Though to be clear, Not Tonight’s devs picked the game’s subject to make a point, not for sales reasons. And make a point they did.)
So - I think if you’re just edgelord-ing it up to be controversial for the sake of it, maybe that doesn’t work. Though going against this, the first-person Drug Dealer Simulator continues to sell very well, and is even now spawning YouTube videos like ‘Let’s Make Crystal Meth!’. Ugh.
Which I find kinda gross and borderline offensive, and… hang on, am I being Malcolm McLaren-ed here? Am I the British police waiting for the Sex Pistols after their boat ride down the Thames?
So let’s take it down a notch. Can you push against a taboo without being straight-out edgelord-y? Vile Monarch and Devolver’s Weedcraft Inc. is an interesting example of this.
The sim is perhaps a bit too clever for its own good, explicitly saying up front that it’s about the “financial, political and cultural aspects” of the scene. And Devolver made some noise about how difficult it was to even promote a weed-related game. That’s kinda crazy, given the amount of violence tolerated in games, hm?
But the point is, these ideas are.. contemporary and interesting, right? (BTW, weed farming games are huge on mobile!) ‘Contemporary’ and ‘interesting’ are two things sometimes missing in a commercial video game scene that - if you’re not careful - is orcs all the way down.
Then, of course, there’s Genital Jousting, a Free Lives/Devolver joint, which is cartoonishly ridiculous but in a pretty ironic way. Heck, it even has an acclaimed single-player story mode (really! it was nominated for the Independent Games Festival last year.) That’s going places, subject matter-wise, that you don’t see so often in games.
Separately of the taboo elements, I definitely think that looking at what kinds of real-world trends are happening, then making a game that amplifies them, is something people don’t do nearly enough of.
This is very much in the Malcolm McLaren mold - he publicized hiphop scratching, doubledutch, & voguing, all fairly early in their history. And like it or not, trendspotting can be key to (commercial) success.
Going back to games, the publishers of Drug Dealer Simulator also put out the smash hit House Flipper, which I think was an incredibly smart play on a contemporary trend. Why wouldn’t players want to do the same thing that’s so hot on HGTV, but in real-time and a Simulator style?
And I’ve mentioned this before, but there was a huge hole in elements of the action sports game genre like skateboarding before Skater XL and Session came out. You can argue that this is just because the Tony Hawk series became less profitable for Activision, so there was a hole in the market.
Or you can argue that action sports is simply a contemporary trend that’s under-served. Another example of ‘I see a million YouTube videos about this, why aren’t there more games about it?’
Concluding this set of musings, and thanks for letting me riff and experiment… there’s a danger that these McLaren-esque types of edgy contemporary video games come across either as preachy or edgelord-y.
(If it’s pushing a certain point of view, it’s Weedcraft Inc or equivalent, and if it’s a deliberate ‘game mechanics only and we ain’t judging’ moral void, it’s Drug Dealer Simulator or its ilk.)
But in today’s market, maybe both are more interesting to some players than yet another fantasy battler, eh? And I know people want escapism, but commercial games shouldn’t go out of their way NOT cover any issues of interest. A good example of ‘escapism but not’ is Dream Daddy.
And the parting word, I think, should go to Watch Dogs: Legion’s Clint Hocking. He recently noted, in response to those annoyed at Brexit being prominently featured in the upcoming Ubisoft game:
“If we were creating films or movies or books, it's the same with video games. It's our responsibility to look at the things that are happening in the world around us and have something to say about that, to create something that's meaningful, that people can look at and engage with, and it speaks to the world that they live in.”