Early Wednesday afternoon at the E3 developer track at the Los Angeles Convention Center, a panel session was held discussing the means to make commercially and/or critically successful game titles, as well as how exactly failures are spawned, from prominent people responsible mainly for the former (and sometimes for the latter!)
Panelists included Louis Castle, Vice President, Creative Development of Electronic Arts Los Angeles, Kelly Flock, Executive Vice President of Worldwide Publishing from THQ, Inc., Julien Gerighty, Senior Producer of Ubisoft Shanghai, Tetsuya Mizuguchi, Chief Creative Officer of Q Entertainment, Peter Molyneux, Managing Director of Lionhead Studios, and Richard Rouse III, Director of Game Design from Midway Games. The moderator was Eric Zimmerman, Co-Founder and CEO of Gamelab.
Eric Zimmerman started by saying the panel was going to be slightly different from others, in that he asked the panelists to prepare in advance what they considered their greatest success and their greatest failure. "What worked? What didn't? What were the key factors that made them a success or failure?"
Richard Rouse III was first up and chose the horror/action title The Suffering as his greatest success and cited "balancing the known and unknown" as the key factor. "One of the things we wanted to provide the player was a different take on horror games. [The player is] in a horror situation but they are a strong character who is in charge of their own destiny... We looked at a lot of shooter mechanics, what worked on a console and what didn't? We also made sure to do a lot of the story stuff in-game." Mr. Zimmerman than asked if he considered design the most important thing for a successful game, to which Mr. Rouse simply replied: "For me that's always how it's been."
Richard then moved onto what he considered his greatest failure, the unreleased PS2 western-themed action/RPG hybrid Gunslinger. The main factor in its failure (and cancellation), he felt, was that it was a game "working in an unproven genre", specifically referring to its Western setting and not necessarily its mechanics.
Louis Castle (formerly of Westwood Studios) followed up on the discussion of genre by saying: "The biggest potentials and critical successes have been the "other titles"... a game that had an unproven aspect... The predictability of a title actually guarantees it won't be a runaway success."
Peter Molyneux continued the topic by saying: "The big problem is pitching that to a developer or to get the marketing people excited... we in the industry are always saying 'we need original ideas' but it's a catch 22 because when you pitch it they'll say 'our research indicates that Westerns aren't in demand right now.'"
Next up for the presentation of success/failure, Louis Castle brought up the 1997 PC adventure game Blade Runner, and said that the key siccess factor was staying true to the license. "To me the proof of success was that the fans didn't hunt me down and kill me," he commented, later adding: "It's an adventure game when people were saying that adventure games were dead, dead, dead! Yet it sold over 1 million copies...We were so true to the Ridley Scott experience. We went through great pains and experiences to get the same emotion, the same feeling as the film and not just the look."
His failure was the Super Nintendo's Young Merlin. The key factor in this, as he saw it, was too much innovation: "We asked ourselves, wouldn't it be great to have a real time adventure game on the Super Nintendo? But we found the same game experience sold even to the same consumer won't always work on a different platform." clarifying that "It wasn't a mis-marketed product, it was the left field nature of the product that made it so people didn't know they wanted to play it."
The talk about licenses and sequels led Julien Gerighty, who has worked extensively on the Splinter Cell series, to comment that for all the nay-saying about sequels: "There are opportunities to use sequels to put in subversive ideas. We always try to inject something new in sequels..." later continuing that "When games are costing more and more you can't afford to waste time, energy and money on ideas that haven't been proven to be successful. Sequels and franchises allow you to get away with just that."
Next up was Kelly Flock, who, even before discussing his choices, wanted to point out that "I'm not a designer, I'm a suit." a descriptor for which he was appropriately dressed, "My role in EverQuest was to green-light it." Leading directly into that, EverQuest was his choice for greatest success, the reason for the success being the pioneering of new technology. "We were probably the bottom of the barrel in terms of respect in the industry. We did a lot of sequels and licenses... that were basically crap. So we were forced to do something creative out of necessity." He then pointed out that long after EverQuest's incredible success, Sony contacted him to ask for copies of the research he and his team did into the product's viability before it went into full production, Mr. Flock had to tell them that: "We didn't do any research on EverQuest - if we had, we wouldn't have done the game."
Somewhat uniquely, his choice for failure was not a game but a studio, 989 Studios. The factor in this was that essentially it should have stayed an independent business. "We became so successful that Sony took us back into the fold."
Peter Molyneux greatest success, according to him, was also his first, Populous - the main reason being that it was made at a time when anything was possible. "Populous was born out of naivete, really - me and a friend sat in a room said, 'If we don't make a computer game and make some money, we really are going to starve.'" After having the game concept turned down by every publisher they could get an appointment with, "We just went out and wrote a game, didn't do any research. I did the programming, Glenn did the graphics and after a few months it was finished. When we showed the final game to publishers, that's when they paid attention." adding that: "The reasons why it was the greatest for me was I was completely unshackled from anyone's expectations... total and complete freedom. And it was really the only time when you could do that.... now it's different, but also now you get to work with amazingly talented people."
His greatest failure was Populous's follow-up, Powermonger. The reason was "the pressure to innovate", he explained: "This time we had publishers knocking on the door, and we had a release date. Every conceivable problem you could have, we had. We got a review of 95% in a magazine before they actually played the game. If we had another three months on the game, we could have had a good game."
Next was the indubitably hip Tetsuya Mizuguchi. Greatest success: Lumines. For him, the reason was that it was a new game for a new platform. Speaking in English he said "My first consumer game was Space Channel 5. I also produced Rez. I quit Sega, almost three years ago, for many reasons. I established Q entertainment. This was the first game for us. Lumines was a PSP game. It was a mix of music and puzzle game. This was the smallest budget, smallest team, just like five or six people. There were no original games for the PSP at the time. We thought of it as an interactive Walkman." coyly adding "So okay, it's not a deep game or experience. But just play for 15 minutes or so at a time and enjoy!"
Much to everyone's surprise, he listed Rez as his biggest failure. Though the reasoning was quite literal, as it didn't do very well commercially, the problem as he saw it was marketing an innovative title: "For me, technology creates styles. But another motivation is the commercial motivation - we want to sell." After seeing the shock of the audience at his choice of failure he clarified:"I love Rez! I spent a lot of time and energy to create it, but commercially it failed. Marketing said they couldn't find any words to describe the game. 'Is it a shooter? Is it a music game?' So it was like a wall going up. I felt miserable... I still want to break this wall!"
Last to present his choices was Julien Gerighty of Ubisoft. Interestingly his choice for biggest success is the yet to be released Splinter Cell: Double Agent. (Eric Zimmerman joked, "Doesn't that sound just like a little too much hubris?"). "Realizing a successful concept" was Mr. Gerighty's listed reasoning. "To keep the game fresh we had to change things around. Of course it's a big seller for Ubisoft, so we can't change everything. It's important to change things though because the sequels will start to sell less and less and less. The behind the scenes battles for me are what made it successful."
His failure was Splinter Cell's second game in the series, Pandora Tomorrow which he considered a failure because it didn't quite ignite high sales the same way as the original. "Splinter Cell had just come off huge sales, like 4 or 5 million units. Ubisoft told us they wanted the equivalent of an expansion pack in twelve months. With the addition of multiplayer it became a huge project. We worked really, really hard for twelve months. By no means was it a commercial failure, about 2 million copies sold, but to not see it ignite the charts the way the first game did was disappointing."