Losing the Franchise: Failing the Fans
Some games have to consider a special kind of audience in their design. Games that extend existing franchises and licensed products both attempt to capture a market that already has some expectations for the product. Because of those preconceived ideas, these types of games will undergo much more scrutiny at both ends of the development cycle. When creating a game design for an existing franchise, you as a designer will have a lot more people to answer to with your design.
The first responsibility to a franchise or licensed product is knowing your product. This means research. If you're working from a novel or series of novels, then you should read them. Pay attention to characters and settings, take some notes, and share your findings with the rest of the team. The more you know about the world that you're building a new representation for, the more your game will be able to reach the target audience. The same goes for movies, television shows, and even other, non-computer games.
For an existing line of games, you should be familiar with the new product's predecessors - especially the most recent ones. Know which ones were most successful and which failed, and look at the reasons why they failed. If those reasons were in the design, rather than in execution, then they are within your power to fix. If you know your franchise or license well, then you will be better able to present a design that fits its audience, and that means getting the green light to move forward with development.
Once you move forward, you face the second responsibility of designing for an existing universe: being responsive to the people in charge of the franchise. When dealing with an established world, you're going to have to know who is responsible for that world, how much involvement they'll want in your initial design, and how often they'll want to look at what you have. Establish these answers early on, and make sure that you keep the right people apprised of any significant changes that come along during the development cycle. The people providing this additional layer of oversight for your product could pull the plug after a lot of time and expense. Don't bet your future on your ability to read their minds.
In some cases, you'll find that it's not how well you stay within an existing universe, but how well you expand it. When designing a game based upon an existing franchise, be aware that you will sometimes need to jump ship, and find out how much leeway you have to do that. While you will probably have to answer to your company, to your publisher, or to the owners of a franchise (or to all of these), you should be able to present a design that stretches the boundaries of a product line where necessary. If you flood the market with look-alike titles from a franchise, the audience may not be loyal enough to keep paying your bills. Keep your pride in check when evaluating this: the most important consideration is not reviews, but sales. You may hear a few of the loudest voices grumbling about your persistence with a line, but if the products continue to succeed, then you must be doing something right. It's good to note here that steady sales over a long period mean only that you are maintaining your audience, even though you're actually losing your percentage of the total market as it continues to grow. If your costs continue to grow over this same period, then your franchise is a losing proposition.
Losing the Market: Hits that Miss
You'll notice that the words "audience" and "market" appear almost interchangeably in the first sections of this article. While they're not exactly the same, it's fair to assume that building a larger audience is equivalent to establishing a larger market. Grabbing your share of the market and continuing to add to it are as important to the business of games as establishing an audience is to their design.
While it's true that finding and capturing the market is primarily the realm of sales and marketing people, it's not only their job. The most important step in for these groups in reaching the market is reaching the people who will be selling the product. Whether they're selling on a web site or to Wal-mart, they'll need to generate some excitement in advance to pave the way for your product. To do this, they're going to need to turn to you. You must be prepared to show off the game you're making so your potential audience knows that it's out there. Developers often grumble that demos and screen capture utilities and the like disrupt timelines and destroy their schedules, this only happens if they haven't planned for them in advance. When you are designing your product, remember that you're going to need to show it off. Pay attention to sections of the game that will showcase everything you have to offer, and be prepared to offer them up as spokesmodels for the product when the time comes. Keep your maps and original work around in case they're needed to enhance a document or ad. If you're asked for a list of bullet points, take it seriously. Just because everyone does it, that doesn't mean it's less important. You're trying to get the product noticed, so take the chance to brag about your design when the opportunity arises.
Of course, there's one other important part of satisfying the market. Everyone says it; you've been told a million times. Hit your schedule. Be responsible to your team when estimating times for tasks, and then be responsible to yourself when completing them. It's so obvious that it shouldn't be in this article, but it's one of the most difficult things that we do in our industry. And when you get there, make sure that you've allowed yourself enough time to give the audience a clean product. While you may be able to sneak a less-than-perfect product out into the marketplace, it might make the audience think twice the next time around.
Losing the Sale: Negative First Impressions
We've looked at the big picture: the audience and the marketplace. But all of that comes down to a whole bunch of individuals - both retailers and actual players - who will purchase your product. Many buyers will make their decisions based on just a short experience with the game - whether playing a demo, renting the product, seeing it at a friend's house, or reading a review (which is often based on a very short play session, as well). Some won't even get that far. The designer's biggest job in creating a viable design is to decide how the game will connect with the people out there, convincing them to buy this product instead of someone else's.
The quickest way to lose a buyer's interest is through the game's look and feel. Particularly in times of transition from one generation of console to the next, the games that look the best will be the most obvious choices for purchasers. If a buyer has a powerful machine at his or her disposal, then he'll want a product that takes advantage of the machine's capabilities so he can show it off. When the only information that a buyer has to go on is a few screen shots on a box or a short demo in the store, it will be fairly obvious what games look great and which ones are duds. The more products that are out there competing for that purchase, the more readily a product with substandard visuals and effects will be discarded for a flashier choice.
The PC market and aging consoles are less likely to be influenced solely by visuals. The PC is less influenced by graphics because there's no universal set of specs for PC's, and the very high-end machine constitutes a small portion of the marketplace at any given time. In fact, pushing the graphical capabilities of a machine may lose more customers than it will gain in a mass market. Even the most awe-inspiring visuals are going to look pretty weak if a player has to turn everything off just to run the game. In this case, the box has more than just pictures to help a user make his decision: it also has machine specifications that can make or break the purchase.
In the case of aging consoles, the buyer is going to be far less concerned with getting the best looking product for home consumption. The so-called "early adopters" have already leapt ahead to a new console (or are looking forward to it, at the very least), and the remainder of the install base is going to be much pickier about how the game plays than how it looks. I'll talk about this more in the last section.
With the issue of visuals still in mind, there are two primary ways to make a shopper into a buyer. The first, of course, is to make a game that pushes the limit with graphics and effects. This may be through splashy special effects, ultra-realistic characters, beautiful scenery, or any combination of these. While this decision is not solely the province of design, it is essential that your design documentation clearly communicate the team's goals for a product's visuals. Many of your decisions later on in development -- from the engine itself to the tools that you will use to create the game to the actual content of the game -- will come back to the artistic direction that the team has decided to take. A game that strives for beauty through complex character models will be more limited in the number of characters that are displayed at any given time (Onimusha), while a game that attempts to capture more action will necessarily have to find different ways of making the characters look realistic without pushing as many polygons -- or even adopt a different style entirely for the art that won't require realistic characters at all (Grim Fandango).
Certain limitations on a project -- platform, engine requirements, tools, and timeline being excellent examples -- will require that a team de-emphasize visuals. Still, the game's design can capture that point-of-purchase sale. The alternative to having the best looking game is to have a "hook" that draws the player in before the comparisons even start. This needs to be a concept that the newcomer can grasp in a few moments of perusing your title. Of course, franchises and licenses have built-in hooks: people gravitate to a familiar character or universe (Star Wars, Pokemon, Spider Man), a familiar personality (John Madden), or even a concept that is common ground outside of the gaming world (World War II, Army Men, or sports games in general). To a lesser degree, this can come from long-running lines in the game market itself. Basically, if the buyer knows you before he meets you, so to speak, then you've got a head start on the competition.
Even with such a head start, you'll have competition, and you may not have these tools at your disposal at all. When laying out your design, make sure that you can explain it quickly and concisely to someone who knows nothing about it at all. If you can't focus your idea down to a few lines of text in your design document, then you're going to have a hard time reaching the people that you want to buy it.