If you look at certain well known animated TV series or animated movies in the West, such as The Flintstones, The Jetsons, The Simpsons, Family Guy, South Park, The Incredibles, Finding Nemo, etc., you'll notice that all of them have families as their main casts.
Japanese anime such as Dragon Ball Z, Naruto, Gundam and Pokemon on the other hand are quite the opposite; families are usually non-existent or at least poorly represented. This difference can be easily glossed over by a young audience, but it's a good example of a lack of subject familiarity for Western audiences that can often become an obstacle when it comes to enjoying a movie, a TV series, or a video game.
If you show a short clip of Naruto to a random person on the street in his forties, they won't understand what they are looking at. If you tell them it's about ninjas, they'll be even more confused because their idea of what a ninja should look like is quite different from what they're being shown.
All decisions we take in life are based on expectations; when we chose what to eat, what movie to watch or what kind of car to buy, the decision is based on expectations we have towards what will result from the choice.
If one has to chose between two movies, one completely unfamiliar to them in subject, the other about an historical event they're familiar with, it's likely that they'll chose the one for which they can formulate certain expectations. There's a reason why it's always New York City that gets destroyed in the movies.
In the case of video game development, we tend to target people who are already gamers, but if there's a possibility to target the same audience without limiting our product to them exclusively, chances are we'll end up generating more sales since we'll manage to attract the attention of a market we know of as well as one that may be hidden. I personally believe that this allowed a game like Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed, which received mixed reviews, to sell over seven million copies.
The subject presented was one that practically anyone could understand. The knights and cities looked like what one would expect from the presented era and the depicted scene of assassination was perfectly readable and involved no magic or confusing gadgets. Anyone could tell that the game was probably about assassinating Templar Knights in medieval times, or something related to the crusades.
Viewers who saw a glimpse of the game were able to formulate expectations and hence gain interest in it if they were inclined to. This is already a much better start to reach for a wide consumer base than if the game was presented in a way that only gamers could decipher, such as a game where the knights have glowing magical wings and the cities float in the sky with two moons in the background.
Of course the high tech DNA-memory theme of the game was kept hidden for the most part, meant only to be seen after the game's purchase and only anticipated by hard core gamers who had read about it, something that was otherwise completely transparent to the average viewer until they had the game in their console.
It's probably due to similar reasons that sci-fi movies tend to fail at the Box-Office. The genre itself is quite popular among a specific audience, but for the most part the lack of familiarity with the presented subjects or visuals tend to keep anyone else away from such movies. A movie like Black Hawk Down will attract a wide audience, but the same movie with the same theme and characters set in an alien world will pretty much only target sci-fi fans.
As a game developer, lack of familiarity with a game's subject or its visuals is not an issue for me, but I could not see myself honestly telling my higher ups that we should make a game set in an entirely original world where everything has been created from scratch if we intend to sell the game to as many people as possible while keeping hard core gamers in mind.
As much as I'm bored with knights and dragons or modern warfare, if creating something completely unique implies reducing the game's chances of becoming a commercial success I simply couldn't see myself pretending that it's a great idea. I'd make sure that any American or European could understand what they are looking at if we presented them a short wordless trailer of our game, if not just an image.
I'd want to make sure that they could explain themselves what our game is about without having us explaining it to them. It's not a question of being able to sell a game to anyone, but to allow anyone to formulate interest in our product if they are inclined to.
Recently, Nikkei Electronics Asia interviewed Sony Chairman, CEO Howard Stringer about what his post-recession vision for Sony was. I believe that his comments hold much truth, regardless of how much trouble he may have had to implement this vision at Sony. I strongly recommend you to read the full interview, but here are some chosen quotes that I think relate to what I've described above:
"We can no longer say that we're right and our customers are wrong. We can't build only what we want to build. Right now is an excellent opportunity for consumer electronics companies to improve their understanding of consumers. Five years ago content companies were regarded as king in our industry, but that was wrong: the customer is king. [...] Consumers today are a lot different from how they were 20 years ago. They aren't passive any more. [...] Understanding customers will also help us uncover hidden customers."
If we look at the movie industry over the past decades, we can see that it has changed in the same way that the consumer electronics industry has. Gone With The Wind, Casablanca, or Ben-Hur, would be considered nearly unmarketable in the 21st century without the need for significant alterations.
I think this is in great part due to diversity of choice which has segmented the consumer base into an individual-driven market, meaning that in order to target a wide audience at a time when they have significant leverage as far as what they want to see, we have to be able to make movies, or in our case games, that speak to a wider audience to make up for the segmentation of the market brought by greater diversity of choice.
The more choice there is, the more the market becomes customer-driven, and the more we have to make products that speak to them rather than make what we personally want to make.
To go back to the example of subject familiarity, Forest Gump reached a wide audience in great part due to its reliance on a selection of familiar historical moments. It's really what sold the tickets, what spoke to everyone, while in reality the movie on its own was well written and featured great performances from the actors. But the sense of familiarity allowed people to formulate expectations about something that would otherwise be difficult to understand the merits of.
If you have to explain why your game is a good product to someone you want to sell it to, rather than make a game that speaks on its own, chances are you're doing something wrong. Most people outside of hardcore gamers have a certain innate reluctance at spending money on video games.
Their reasoning is very similar to the one that leads them to watch movies like Finding Nemo or The Incredibles, regardless of their ages, over movies or TV series that are pretty much only enjoyed by kids such as Japanese anime. They see the later as alien to them, they don't understand it, it doesn't speak to them at all, and they can't formulate expectations towards it as a result.
They'll say that they watched the Pixar movies because the kids wanted to, but in the end they enjoyed it as well, they look forward to future such movies, and they hope that they'll never have to watch a Pokemon movie again; a cartoon they actually despise, find ridiculous, if not harmful to their kids. Why? Because Pokemon is completely nonsensical to them, it's noise, an annoyance, a waste of time that doesn't speak to them at all.
If you want to uncover potential buyers you're not even aware of, aiming at both the hardcore gamers and the casual ones or beyond, ask yourself if your game speaks about itself on its own, and if people can express a sense of familiarity with what you are presenting to them. Do they understand what they are looking at? Can they formulate an interest on their own? Or do you have to explain it to them to the point where that very act makes you feel like you're trying to sell cat litter to a dog owner?
We can no longer simply make what we want to make.
Even with such constraints in place, there's still a lot of room to produce excellent games, but that's where talented creative directors, art directors, and game designers come in.
[Originally posted at http://www.allegory-of-the-game.com/]