Metal Gear Survive: When Craft Collides With the Market

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I love writing about the level design and game design craft, but the truth is, video games are about so much more than that, and I’m interested in all of these aspects. Hence, I’ve added the “business” category. I hope these musings are as enjoyable as the more pedagogic writing that I do. -Rob

When I was a fan of games instead of a maker of them (long ago!), I held firm to a belief that the perception of game quality is largely determined by the individual effort of the developer. The more talent, the better the product. It didn’t take very long to realize this wasn’t the case, and the quality and perception of quality are a combination of many things. Yes, some games are obviously great because talented people worked very hard and made a very polished game. And there are certainly games that are low quality because inexperienced developers could not execute.

But what about everything else in between (which, to be clear: is almost every game released)?

From 2009 until 2011, I worked on Earth Defense Force: Insect Armageddon (EDFIA), which has some things in common with Metal Gear Survive. It was beloved IP, not made by the original creator of it. It attempted to introduce new concepts to the series. It was through this that I learned that fans of games on the internet do not necessarily look deeply at the craft of a game’s design and art, but instead react viscerally to perceived slights. Of course, we made some mistakes along the way! The most egregious was thinking we could get away with not having split screen co-op, which is a staple of the series from day one. Fortunately, it was also a very easy thing to backtrack on. Not to minimize the effort required to optimize the rendering, but it was something we had working, decided we didn’t “need,” then simply switched back on when the backlash was severe! Whoops!

Another legitimate critique was changing the game’s structure from the small bite-sized levels of the Japanese games, and instead adopt a Left 4 Dead style level structure. This meant levels that could take thirty minutes or more to complete, and less levels overall. For a simple game like EDFIA, getting in and out of levels quickly helps the experience feel right. Especially since a pillar of that design is not allowing weapons changes while in-level!

One final change that some disliked, but I personally liked, was reducing the amount of items available via random loot drops from defeated enemies. We still had some of that, but also adapted a point buy system where in-game currency (the free kind!) would unlock weapons based on your current character’s level. To me this is a fair trade off, since the total randomness of the weapon drops in the main series could get frustrating.

We also launched at a budget price point of $40, which did help us in the court of public opinion (and it wasn’t heavily monetized, beyond some minor DLC content).

However, most critiques of the game from fans didn’t necessarily focus on the actual problems with the game’s design, but a slew of things that were out of our control or even irrational items. These included:

1. Not trusting a non-Japanese team to capture the tone of and feel of the series. Nothing we can do to change our country of origin! Note: Brett Freese and I spent countless hours playing the original EDF games daily, on multiple difficulty levels; and I was a huge fan of the series before I even got the job at Vicious Cycle!

2. The game looks too good! It looks too polished!

3. The game runs too well!

Item #2 is understandable, since I think a lot of Earth Defense Force’s appeal is a particular aesthetic that invokes Godzilla and other such pulp fiction. Number 3 is just very strange indeed šŸ™‚ (And besides, Microsoft and Sony would never certify our game if it ran at bad frame rates all the time!).

There was a lot of really good design in EDFIA that was just ignored at launch. The class system worked so well, the original developers in Tokyo, Sandlot, immediately adopted it for future EDF games. This was graciously acknowledged by Sandlot in some interview (though I can’t seem to find that now).Ā  It picked up some minor awards, and was generally well liked critically, with one hilarious review that in essence said the game was for stupid people (I love sharing this review; bless you, Joystiq!).

Similarly, I feel like Metal Gear Survive has some excellent design in some areas, but this is unfortunately getting overshadowed by much baggage that the developers had little control over. Certainly they aren’t responsible for the situation with Kojima leaving the company, Konami’s business decisions, etc. These are designers, artists and engineers that have pride in their work, just like the rest of us. This dedication to craft shows in the following ways, having spent significant time with the game this weekend:

  1. The level design is very good here. Despite using a fairly homogeneous desert environment, smart landmark use means that I don’t have to constantly pause the game to look at the map. Additionally, when you enter the toxic fog regions, those landmarks have some kind of light which cuts through the fog.
  2. In typical Metal Gear fashion, encounters require planning and reward exploration and planning. It’s fun to go in and get what you need, while avoiding or cleverly dispatching the enemies.
  3. The game controls great, like the game it is built upon, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. The FOX Engine is incredible and the responsive controls remain a joy.

Despite this, the game is getting very negative user reviews, and it is easy to see that professional reviews are somewhat influenced by the baggage the game has. Most aren’t talking about the obvious strong points of the design, with a few exceptions.

What are some ways publishers and developers can create their products without attracting undue negative attention that could diminish the game’s impact on release? Some ideas would be:

  1. Identify key pillars of the intellectual property (IP) early, and make sure the game you are developing holds true to those pillars (Stealth? Action? Certain types of characters? Story?).
  2. If the game meets business goals, but does not support the pillars of the IP, consider branding this differently. It isn’t necessarily true that youĀ haveĀ to abandon the IP, but sometimes how it is branded, as well as how it is timed with other uses of the property make all the difference. Consider how Disney is branding Star Wars: the spin-off movies are always called “Thing: A Star Wars Thing” while mainline entries are given an official roman numeral entry. This clearly says: “we are still making proper Star Wars, but here, enjoy this fun additional content.” In this case, Konami has no announced mainlineĀ Metal Gear games in development, so this is difficult. Fans think this is the new direction of the series as a whole. Only Konami knows if this is actually true.
  3. Don’t be afraid to not make the something “games as service.” There are many things to love about games-as-service. However not every single thing needs to be that. Most people enjoyed the various spin-off Metal Gear games over the years (VR missions, the improved revisions of the main games, etc.).
  4. Expanding on number 4, be cautious about taking an IP known for a particular type of business model, and applying it to another business model, especially if, again, you haven’t announced a “main” game in the series.

In any event, I’m enjoying the game, and hope it holds up over time! I’m particularly excited for the base building elements, which I hope expand as the game plays out.

 

 

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