If we are to look back in a decade, or if someone decides to do a Top 10 list of the best video game designers, I hope Tim Schafer is on that list. Schafer, born in California and a student of UC Berkeley, first landed a job with LucasArts where he began work on The Secret of Monkey Island. This is where Schafer’s penchant for dialogue first showed through having written a large proportion of it for the game. Because of this, his comedic tone throttled the game to critical acclaim and since then the designer has hardly looked back. In addition to being someone who can write, his games are also known for their variety and being a little weird which is never a bad thing in my opinion. He has been able to do this repeatedly while also improving his craft with other hits as well such as Grim Fandango and Psychonauts.
But in Schafer’s case the definition of the word “Hit” is important. While he has always been favored by critics, he has had a rockier experience with consumers. Arguably the man creates some of the most outstanding stories and atmospheres that are available. Just look at Grim Fandango. Like most of his projects, the whole game screams of originality and has the feel of a Tim Burton film. This should meld perfectly with what gamers want – a high quality product with a very compelling story, out of the ordinary visuals, and fine gameplay. Some people consider him to be a master and themselves to be connoisseurs while others suggest that he is a bit too eccentric or that his work does not strike them as anything special.
To understand more in depth why good games sometimes do not sell let’s look at Schafer’s Psychonauts which may be the best case of a quality video game failing commercially. When it was first released for the original XBOX I had no interest in it, hence the power of marketing. The little I did know about the upcoming release confused me and to be honest I thought it looked like a game for kids given the art style. Fast forward about four years. I am behind the iron curtain in dodgy building in Eastern Europe, on my work break with a friend’s loaned copy of the game, and with two hours to kill I installed the game and started it. Even though you take on the role of a child named Raz with psychic powers at a summer camp the game is hardly for children as soon enough you are entering the sick and twisted minds of camp counselors. The story is engaging and the gameplay was serviceable as you are constantly gaining new powers that must be used in order to navigate your way through each counselor’s brain while the art style was new and sickly endearing. All of this and Majesco, the game’s publisher, recorded a net loss of nearly $18 million US and had their CEO resign. So while Psychonauts was aesthetically pleasing and funny, I will explain why this gem failed commercially.
Strangely enough, and unfortunately since it is so important, a lot of the reason Psychonauts falters is due to gameplay. While adding new powers to your arsenal keeps things from getting stale, they also do not push the game to a new level. Essentially it comes down to using one or two moves in a level and then some combination of them for the boss. So while the gameplay is not a major detractor it is something that must be great in order to achieve consumer appeal and have them risk perhaps their only game purchase that month. The level of attachment to games like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare is because of their gameplay as even with its short campaign it is nearly endless online. I never found myself inspired or starved to use Raz’s abilities. To further things, the gameplay also had a thinking part to it and when some people hear the word “puzzle” they lose all interest completely.
Secondly, while fun and interesting to some people, the whole psychology thing rubbed some people the wrong way or turned people off before they even tried it. While it is easy to say that they don’t know what they are missing, it is a problem when the majority of gamers are less than enamored with the entire premise of your game. The problem is that when you ask someone what Psychonauts is about, they will undoubtedly say that it is a platformer where your character runs around a psychic camp penetrating the minds of friends and enemies. This is not an easily identifiable theme that people get excited for unlike something like Grand Theft Auto. People can identify with Master Chief from Halo, even if their heroics exist solely in their dreams. The target audience was just too small to attempt something of this scale while merely hoping that the mainstream would see the light and know what is good for them. In the end, while Schafer’s ideas may have been new and exciting, he may have been given to much freedom and produced a product that was difficult to market.
This is where Schafer’s new release Brutal Legend comes in. It has been a few years since Psychonauts, overall a stellar project, but I see Brutal Legend as a way to correct mistakes of the past. Great games can have problems but it looks like this new title fixes them for the most part. The theme is metal. The target audience is huge and even if you’re not into metal you can still appreciate what they’re going for. So prepare yourself for chrome spewing volcanoes, massive corpse piles, and some thrash on the side. The mature theme of the game and tone of the actors will attract a much larger audience that Psychonauts did. Jack Black will do wonders for sales, like him or not, as Eddie Riggs will be much more identifiable and funny character than Raz ever was. Also, given the craze for music games, expect Brutal Legend to end up in the homes of some of those people too just because of the music alone. Above all, the marketing team for Brutal Legend has perfectly communicated the idea of the game so that there is no confusion among the public, only excitement. If there is a concern for Schafer it may rest in gameplay again. Michael McWhertor of Kotaku recently said that during his time with the game he felt, “…the gameplay was probably the weakest part of it.” But even if it is the weakest part of it, this is not saying that it is necessarily bad and it is still likely an improvement over Psychonauts. Knowing all of this, analysts are predicting Brutal Legend to be Schafer’s greatest achievement both critically and commercially selling millions of copies.
This look back at Schafer’s Psychonauts and his newest title Brutal Legend has attempted to show a balanced view of the designer’s recent work. It has been quite a journey with great success at times but one thing we can see so far in Brutal Legend is that he never stops honing his craft and that is a good thing as there is nothing worse that complacency. While nobody is perfect, the man has output fantastic work so far and if his recent projects are any indication on the future then he will certainly be considered one of the greats.
Marketing is an important role to a games success in addition to the gameplay and story of course. What are some great games that you guys can think of that failed due to bad marketing? Please comment below. No registration required to post.