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volume 1, issue 20

Today in loonygames:

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Can't Please Everyone


By Rowan "Sumaleth" Crawford



he life of the humble game developer is fast becoming more difficult with no foreseeable letup of this trend any time in the future. loonygames has, in past weeks, talked about many of the problems faced by game developers, from the difficulty in predicting development time to the complexities of coordinating (and keeping happy) a team of around a dozen or so creative souls.

There is another facet of game creation that is beginning to come into play in a big way (with the Internet as a catalyst), something that we can quite accurately describe with the phrase, "you can't please everyone, all of the time".

I'd actually go a step further and simply state that, in this day and age, you can't please everyone, full stop. In other words, no matter how much work a developer puts into a game, and how carefully every design choice is made, it is impossible for everyone to enjoy every aspect of the game, or even the game itself.

This creates a number of fairly serious problems for game developers, problems that, due to their nature, have no clear-cut solutions. It's largely a case of biting the bullet and just accepting, from the outset, that from your very first choice you are discarding a large portion of the potential market. For example, if you decide to make a first-person-shooter, then you are accepting the loss of people who don't play FPS games which is actually likely to be more than half the gaming populous right from the word go.

The clear example of this sort of decision making is with games like Quake3:Arena, Unreal Tournament and TRIBES; games that go a step further and limit the market to a sub-genre, in this case the multiplayer/deathmatch "sub-genre" of the FPS genre.

Rather than limit your game to a small section of the gaming community you may decide to incorporate aspects of other genres in an attempt to sway the interest of gamers whose interests lay on the borders of different game types. The upcoming X-COM game, for example, is a first person game and a real time strategy game, but this isn't quite the win-win situation it may at first seem; the market gained by the genre crossover is more than likely proportional to the section of market lost by loosing that "action" focus. So in effect you are simply redefining your section of the market rather than expanding it.

The sort of decisions we're talking about here are those that have no workarounds, they are choices with mutually exclusive options. Options that have completely arbitrary values.

The "genre-level" decision is one that makes the biggest effect on your potential market, but developers make the games they like rather than have the market dictate the genre they create (although publishers probably see things differently), so in effect it's a decision that has the least impact. Developers simply accept that by their genre choice they are loosing most of the market but then also believe that there is still a large enough market left for their game.

It's when you start working your way down the "levels" within a single genre that the decisions start becoming more and more important. Your game is now competing against all the other games of that genre, and gamers can't buy them all. So this is where we begin to see the more devastating effects of "you can't please everyone," where opinion and taste rule supreme, and the choices as a developer start to become difficult.

If you were asked which color you prefer, blue or orange, could you also tell why you preferred one color over the other? Most of our tastes, opinions, and even personality, are completely arbitrary in this manner, and can change over time for no apparent reason (and without us really being aware of the changes taking place).

It's all to do with our environments, our interactions with other people, and an infinite number of other events, most of them random. It's a remarkably complex process, one that we have very little hope of understanding and yet, at any given time in our lives, we are who we are because of all these interactions. If you prefer blue, then thatís part of who you are.

The point of opinions and tastes being mostly arbitrary, and totally subjective, is very important because it means that the many arguments humans tend to get into have no right or wrong answer. Is blue better than orange? Your head may well tell you so, and you might be able to come up with some reasonable arguments for the case, but in the end there is no right answer to the question. But that won't stop us arguing!

Now think about this type of "blue vs orange" question applied to games. Every genre has an essentially infinite amount of decisions to be made which come down to taste and opinion, with every decision made loosing you if not a percentage of the market then at least a percentage of players who agree with your decisions.

Examples are all too easy to find. For example, there is no such thing as the perfect deathmatch variant since all the various models - heavy action, stealth, weapon balanced, strategic, realistic etc - are, for the most part, mutually exclusive. Yet players quickly gravitate to the variant they prefer leaving the others alone at no fault of the developer. Quake 2 has a big following, while some players enjoy the rocket action of the original Quake, others still prefer the realism of mods like Action Quake, and yet others favor the strategic teamplay of CTF, Team Fortress or Rainbow Six - the keen players are rarely serious about more than one or two variants.

If you're a game developer wanting people to play your new deathmatch game, what do you do? Do you try to find a nice "average" of the various styles which will, most likely, result in a 'distilled' variation of deathmatch (ie. unsatisfactory to everyone), or perhaps attempt to determine which is the most popular and direct the gameplay along those lines? Or maybe include a range of gameplay variations in the one game with the hope that it doesn't annoy, or even confuse players through the lack of focus?

There is no right answer. Nor is there an end to the list of decisions a developer needs to make when creating a game. In other words, this idea of a "perfect balance" is an impossible dream.

Graphical style is another good example: photorealistic or stylized? Bright and multicolored, or dark and moody environments? Exaggerated characters or realistic proportions? Humorous or serious detailing? If you're making a game, the choice usually comes down to what you prefer, or what you think people will prefer, but of course you can't please everyone no matter how hard you try. But try you must, because the process of making a game isn't what puts the bread on your plate; the game needs to sell.


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Credits: Illustration © 1998 Mike Sanzone. Can't Please Everyone is © 1998 Rowan Crawford. All other content is © 1998 loonyboi productions. Unauthorized reproduction is strictly prohibited, you pervert.