Opinion Piece

Metro, Dark Souls, Dumbing Down And Throwing Money At Things

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NOTE: This piece contains foul language. You have been warned, mortal.

It seems that Deep Silver are pretty pleased with Metro: Last Light, which the company described to Joystiq as a “positive experience” during a fairly recent interview. And indeed they’re intending on continuing the series, which is of course great news for fans. Or is it?

“I’m very glad we acquired that brand. While it launched in a very dry space in the gaming calendar this year, it still got a lot of attention. Our ambition is to absolutely continue with that brand and we will also, in the next phase, look to making it more accessible for a broader gamer audience.” said Deep Silver CEO Dr. Klemens Kundratitz.

Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting your game to sell more and appeal to a much larger audience. People tend to associate phrases like that with the words, “dumbed down” and that’s simply not true. Making it appeal to a broader market doesn’t mean the game needs to be dumbed down. The problem is publishers don’t seem to get that.

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New York’s subway system is starting to get quite dangerous these days.

Metro: Last Light, as enjoyable as it was, already felt like it made heavy concessions in order to appeal to a more action-orientated market. Again, I don’t have a problem with changes being made in order to widen appeal, unless they compromise what the game is actually supposed to be, and I felt that’s exactly what happened with Metro: Last Light. Air filters were suddenly readily available, ensuring that the haunting and often panic-creating trips to the surface from the first game vanished, replaced by sight-seeing tours where running out of air was something that only happened to people who hung around at the gift shop for too long. Oddly enough I personally wasn’t the biggest fan of the air-filters in the first game, but that’s because I’m not a lover of games that force time limits on me like that. However, that doesn’t stop me from understanding that the air-filters were an essential part of what made the game so different.

Likewise the concept of military grade ammunition being used as currency and regular ammo in the original Metro became redundant to a large degree. With regular ammo in plentiful supply the need to ever shoot your military grade ammo vanished into the dark, never to be seen again, as did most of your concern over having to try to conserve your bullets lest you get your face clawed off by an irate…uh, thing. Having to keep a careful eye on the bullet count and scavenge as much as you could give the game a real survivalist sense, and yet I played through the entirety of Last Light in a fairly trigger happy way and only ran out of bullets a couple of times.

Both of these concepts were core to the original Metro and were an integral part of what made it exceptional, of why certain people loved it so much, and yet I felt they were compromised in the name of appealing to a wider audience in Last Light. By doing this part of the unique identity of the Metro name ripped away, leaving in its wake a game that was sitting a little closer to the mainstream FPS genre, a little closer to being a generic shooter that vaguely attempted to illicit fear from players by having some stuff say boo every now and then.

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These looks oddly like Glasgow at the weekends.

What’s more the solution to this problem was locked away as DLC. Ranger Mode made ammo and air filters far harder to find, bringing back that sense of tension and survival. By having Ranger Mode the game could have appealed to both sides of the metaphorical fence, with one group playing through the regular game and the other diving straight into Ranger Mode in order to get their fix. Instead in the name of greed Ranger Mode was locked away as paid DLC. The only way to acquire it without paying was to blindly pre-order the game, and as we all know I’ve got a bit of a thing against the current pre-order business model in which players are enticed with crappy stuff to put money on something that could turn out to be bloody terrible. Yes, I’m looking at you Aliens: Colonial Marines.

Games like Metro 2033 were shining beacons of light within an industry directed by focus groups and committees, games that aimed to serve a specific portion of the audience and serve them well, not try to steal some of Call of Duty’s by copying it. With the words of Deep Silver’s CEO ringing in my eyes I cannot help but worry what other changes might be made to the franchise that compromise what it’s supposed to be in order to garner more sales.

Of course this small rant really isn’t just directed at Deep Silver, because we’ve seen this all play out countless times across other games, and that infuriates me. Publishers and developers are so caught up in making massive triple A games that require ludicrous sales to be deemed a success that they’re forgetting that not every damn game needs to be like that! Look at Payday 2, a game that has been a huge commerical success without needing massive marketing and a development budget that could have actually massively helped the world as a whole, possibly by being used to order the assassination of Justin Bieber and almost all of the UK government.

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Still looks like Glasgow at the weekends.

I’ve already said it, but I’ll say it again: I’m not against widening the appeal of your game, developers,  but that’s because I firmly believe doing so does not mean having to sacrifice the core tenenants of the title in question. But Metro: Last Light doesn’t fill with me confidence when it comes to the inevitable sequel. What will Deep Silver sacrifice in order go get those extra sales?

Deep Silver are eager to clarify their position, however, taking to their official blog to try and ease the concern of gamers, and for that matter me, by saying:

“We understand the concern, and we would like to reassure the Metro fanbase that Deep Silver has absolutely no intention of compromising Metro’s unique DNA. We completely understand that it is the passion and evangelism of our fans that allowed Metro to grow from a cult hit to genuine, bonafide hit.

Whatever direction a new Metro game takes (and we are still assembling the drawing boards), it will build on the bleak, post apocalyptic pillars of atmosphere, immersion, challenge and depth that sets this franchise apart from the crowd.”

They also continued to say that they plan on extending the franchises appeal by “a commitment to ever higher product quality; through greater strategic investment in the brand; and, in the immediate term, through the release of dedicated Mac and Linux versions of Metro: Last Light. “

Indeed, these things are slightly reassuring, but sadly the gaming industry has rather turned me into a cynical bastard who finds it hard to trust anything that publishers say these days. Even if what they say is completely true, though, that still raises some worries that Deep Silver will start chucking absurd amounts of cash at the game, and equally absurd amounts at marketing in the misguided view of so many companies that more money will make things all better. Throwing money at things can, and has, made the situation worse in many cases. The industry in the current form claims that games have simply got to be expensive.  Just look at the recent Tomb Raider which was deemed as a failure because it sold less than 5-million copies. 5-million! Did Tomb Raider really need well-known actors or individual strands of Lara’s hair to be rendered? Hell no! By throwing money at the series could Metro end up going the same way?

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Payday 2 did things right, targeting the correct people, spending the right amount of money and being rewarded with profit for doing so. Sort of like a bank robbery, I suppose.

PayDay 2 has proven to be an example of how to do things, managing to become profitable before the bloody thing even released. It didn’t waste a ton of money on beautiful graphics nor did it pile cash on the marketing team, instead the developers made the game they wanted to make and then trusted that like-minded gamers would play it too. They were careful with their money, and even more careful with the maths that dictate developement. I firmly believe that Metro could do the same thing as Payday by carefully understanding the maths. It appeals to a certain crowd, and throwing more money at it, I feel, just isn’t the answer. There’s nothing wrong with a game appealing to a niche market, and better yet the people within that niche will do all the marketing for you if you simply let them know the game exists in the first place. But instead of accepting that a game appeals to a niche publishers spend millions marketing the game to an audience that doesn’t want it. EA spent millions changing Dead Space 2 so that it would appeal to a larger market and millions more attempting to sell it it to that market without realising that said market didn’t want the fucking thing! They tried to turn Dead Space into an action series despite people knowing the original as a horror game, and not once did they stop to think that people wanting to play an action game would already be playing them. It’s like companies that spend so much time trying to make their game like Call of Duty, without ever stopping to think that anyone wanting to play something like Call of Duty would be playing Call of Duty.  Money is just one more tool in the toolbox, handy in certain situations, and like a hammer completely inappropriate in others. Accept that your game is a niche title and be happy with that. Be happy it appeals to a certain audience and cater your budget toward that audience, not toward trying to capture people who don’t want it.

But hey, imagine if we got the best of both worlds. The dream situation would be that the next Metro game will feature a mode for those that don’t want to deal with low ammo and a short supply of filters, and another mode for those that do want to experience these things right? Because at the end of the day I’m not against more people playing the game. I’m not against a game being changed to help it appeal to a wider audience. And I’m not against a game being “streamlined”, because that does not, and never has, meant dumbing down. There’s a tricky and subtle art to opening your game up to potential new players without compromising it. What I am against is having a game’s core being turned into something very different to appeal to that audience, because then you lose the essence of the game. And the bad news is that creating a game with separate modes for players like that would mean, yup, you guessed it, a bigger budget or elements of the game not being as refined.

In fact, Dark Souls is a another good example of things being done right, and of my fears for Metro. The original Dark Souls was a great success, both critically and commercially, and it did that without requiring massive marketing campaigns and a budget that could be used to construct a fleet of spaceships and conquer the fucking galaxy. Dark Souls had a focused marketing campaign that aimed itself at the correct audience, had realistic sales expectations and used its money wisely. As a direct result the developers were celebrating 2-million copies sold, while the likes of Square Enix was crying its little piggy eyes out because Tomb Raider “only” managed 3.6-million sales. And then there was Capcom which deemed Resident Evil 6 a failure after it sold a staggering 5-million copies.

Dark Souls is comparable, then, to Metro 2033, a game made without a big budget and that got very little advertising, yet one that did very well for itself. We live in an age where publishers believe tossing money at things makes it better, when we clearly see that’s not the case. Games with massive marketing campaigns and huge budgets are classed as failures because they didn’t sell millions and millions of copies. For Dark Souls II the publishers were so pleased with the first game that they want to treat the sequel as a “massive, massive triple A” title and throw massive amounts of cash at it while increasing the audience catching net to try to make it more profitable, when it already was bloody profitable. Now, to be fair Namco aren’t talking about dumbing the game down or anything, although we’ll have to wait for the final product to know for sure, they are talking about injecting the game with cash, which is exactly the same attitude which has caused so many of the industries current problems. This is how it begins, this is exactly how it all starts: first it’s “widening the net”, then it’s a desire to “broaden the audience” and then it moves to “appealing to the mainstream audience”.  With Metro 2033 I’m worried we were starting to see hints of this, and that the next Metro game will lose what it should be because publishers just don’t get it. They’ll throw money at it and expect magical numbers of sales, and when they don’t get them they’ll burst into tears and start demanding that things be changed to resemble every other game.

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Dark Souls was a niche title for a niche audience, as was Metro, and that’s a good thing. It doesn’t need to appeal to everyone and be a game for everyone, nor does it need to be a triple A title. In fact quite the opposite, I’m glad that Dark Souls and Metro weren’t triple A games, because triple A games have become a grey sludge, often indistinguishable from each other. Look at Dead Space, a niche game that did damn well for itself, but because it did well more money was thrown at it by EA and the game was changed in order to appeal to that wider market which was required to recoup development and marketing costs, resulting in Dead Space 3, a game that really didn’t hold much resemblance to the first entry. Lo and behold, it was regarded as a failure by selling less than the second game did. Stop throwing fucking money at things!

“We’re going to go guns-blazing with it, and hope to God that it works” is a phrase Namco Bandai used when talking about marketing Dark Souls II, and it’s a phrase that worries the hell out of me because it’s exactly what every other publisher seems to be doing: chucking cash at the project and then hoping it’ll do well based on nothing more than simply wanting it to. I’ve got news for you,  publishers: that shit ain’t working. Yet they refuse to see it, and carry on oblivious to their own folly.

Games like Payday 2 are a success because the publisher and developer understand what they’re making and understand how much appeal it will likely have. They carefully allocate money based on what they think the game will sell, not what they want it to sell. Companies like EA, Activision and Ubisoft all seem to have this laughable belief that a game will sell well because they want it to, because they say it should, because they threw lots of money at it. Currently the industry as a whole loudly defends their spending by saying it’s because you have to spend that amount of money to make money, but games like Payday 2, Dark Souls and Metro 2033 provide this completely wrong. The answer is that it’s greed and nothing more that drives this: 2-million in sales for Dark Souls isn’t enough, they want more and to hell with it. These companies are businesses and thus exist to make money, that much is obvious, but lately that has also become a sad defense used by some gamers. Yes, they exist to make money, but that doesn’t somehow excuse them from being criticised for their choices. If the industry keeps spending the way it is I see no way that it can continue to sustain itself as budgets continue to get bigger but the sales don’t, encouraging more and more developers and publisher to try to pander to the masses, rather than just create good games for certain people.

The truth is I’m probably just worrying for nought and the next Metro will be fine, but then that’s what the industry has turned me into a pale being, a wisp of a shadow that distrusts what those massive companies tell me because they’ve lied and bullshitted too much in the past. Trust is earned, and they’ve not managed to earn mine, rather they’ve lost it. Still, Deep Silver have been showing some serious business savvy lately: just look at Saints Row 4 with which they were careful about the budget and is now selling pretty well, earning the company solid profit, although to be fair most of the development was completed by time Saints Row IV arrived at Deep Silver

And let’s be clear, I’m writing from one perspective here. If I shifted that perspective I’m sure I could find plenty of arguments against what I’m saying as well, because it’s important to be able to view things from numerous angles. I love Triple-A titles, but they have their place within the industry and I think that companies need to understand that just because a game is successful doesn’t mean that a sequel needs to be turned into a Triple-A development with a budget that can rival some countries. I don’t think Dark Souls II needs to be treated like a triple-A title, because people loved the first one for the very simple reason that it wasn’t a triple-A game. I don’t think Metro needs to be turned into a triple-A franchise in order for it to succeed, and I would hazard that doing so could render it a “failure” in the same sense that Tomb Raider was because its potential sales simply don’t have a chance of recouping development costs.

I’m a little worried at the moment about Metro and Dark Souls and so many other franchises,  then, but the simple truth is that I’m worried about the industry and games in general. Money is not the answer, it’s just a tool in the toolbox that needs to be placed in the correct hands and wielded wisely.

Let’s hope that my fears are misguided. Let’s hope I’m just a paranoid, cynical bastard who’ll have to eat his own words in a few years, and that’s something I’ll happily do if proven wrong.

Thank you for having the patience to read through this jumbled rant of words. What do you think? I’m I being paranoid? Are my fears unfounded or unjust? Do you think Metro or Dark Souls going triple-A could be a good thing?

Share your thoughts. Not too many, mind, we wouldn’t want to leave you feeling empty.

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