Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Why Ubisoft's Red Steel 2 Failed to Live Up to the Hype

Speaking at the Euopean GDC, Red Steel 2 producer Jason VandenBerghe offers his insights into why he believes his high-profile Wii sequel sold a disappointing 270,000 copies.  Unfortunately, while he is quite interesting and insightful (and we're all rooting for him and his development team), Mr. VandenBerghe is making excuses.

Allow me to offer my observations.  If your game is not successful at retail, based on however you define "success" (turning a profit, building a franchise, propelling the hardware), there is only one question to ask: What Did We Do Wrong? You have no one to blame but yourselves. There are lost gems and cult classics, yes. I'm a big fan of underdogs. But if a video game fails at retail, there will be concrete reasons why. No excuses.

Back in the Arcade Games Era, a video game was packed into a fiercely competitive environment for scarce resources - kids' quarters. Your game had only seconds to hook the kids in, and keep them playing, before they walk away to try the other 30 machines in the room. Most arcade games would fail, and the strongest would survive and thrive.

On my lunch break today, I stopped at Target and saw that Red Steel is on sale for $30. I'm interested in the game. I want to like it. Now give me a good reason why I should buy. Convince me to cross the line. Have you and your team successfully done this, Mr. VandenBerghe? I don't think so. If the game was enticing enough, exciting enough, and offered enough strong content (what Vincent Flanders calls "heroin content"), I would have bought the game at $50. But I didn't do this, and I remain hesitant now. Why is this? What are the strengths and weaknesses of Red Steel 2? What did we do wrong?

Don't complain to me about motion controls. And don't try to tell me motion control isn't popular on the Nintendo Wii. That's rediculous. Wii Sports is the single most popular video game ever made. Wii Play, Wii Sports Resort, Mario Kart, Just Dance - all make excellent use of motion controls. Heck, the swordplay in WSR is spectacular. I want sword fighting like that! I want to be able to knock enemies off of bridges and mountains and slash them into the ocean. I want to feel empowered by fighting against overwhelming odds.

Why does Red Steel 2 have a tutorial mode? I HATE tutorials in games. I especially hate it when I'm required to go through it before starting the game. I just picked up Excite Truck, and it's a terrific game in many ways, but I just wanted to throw my Wiimote out the window over that stupid tutorial mode.

Arcade games should never have a tutorial mode. The controls should be immediately accessible and easy to grasp. I want as few barriers to entry as possible. Every barrier only angers me and brings me that much closer to walking out. Just today, I walked out of a Starbucks because their wifi connection was a pain in the neck. I knew another coffee shop that didn't make me jump through hoops to go online, so I packed up and walked over there. It's the same way with video games. Heck, if anything, the internet has made me crankier.

Does Red Steel 2 have multiplayer? The Wii is a console for the Social Games Era. Playing with friends and family is an absolute must. In fact, I'd say local multiplayer is even more important than it was for the Sega Dreamcast and Nintendo 64. If you're offering a FPS title for only one player, that's a major strike against you. I don't care about technical hurdles. I don't care about how hard it is to design. I got to play 4-player on GoldenEye 64 in 1997. I don't want excuses in 2010.

How is the design of the game world in Red Steel 2? Is it diverse? Or is it the same brown-ish Western town again and again? Are my actions and abilities a natural extension of this world? Does the gameplay gel with the level design and the art design? Is the action fast and immediate? Am I always three seconds from death (as Robotron was once described)? Do I battle through a variety of environments, or is it just the same big, boxy arena again and again?

Yes, the graphics are great. Congratulations to the art team. But graphics should never be the top priority. Priority #1 is Control. The control scheme must be absolutely precise and perfect. If I get to slash a sword with the Motion Plus, then I want to slash a sword just like I can in WSR. Priority #2 is Play Mechanics. What is the core of the game? Focus on that like a laser beam. This is where multiplayer comes in. A perfect example would be F-Zero X. The core of that game was 4-player racing, so everything was designed around the multiplayer experience. Graphics took a back seat to precision controls, rock-solid framerates, and sheer speed.

Gameplay over graphics. It has always been this way. I don't know why today's game designers can't seem to figure this out. They're far too dazzled by polygons and lighting effects and ignore the core of their games. As a result, most of them are deemed failures and wind up in the used bins at Gamestop. I grew up playing videogames in the '80s, so I'm used to greatness, and I don't have time or patience for anything less. A harsh environment, yes. That's the world we live in, and we just have to deal with it.

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