At the GC Developers Conference in Leipzig, Germany, Gamespot's Justin Calvert moderated a panel, "Best-Selling Games," which brought together Stormfront Studios' Don Daglow, Lionhead Studios' George Becker, Factor 5 president and co-founder Julian Eggebrecht and Epic Games' Michael Capps to discuss the key elements that these top designers feel makes a hit title.
Calvert asked the panel what goes into making big selling games. "It is the combination of sensing what has to be done, and a great wish to do it," was Daglow's quick answer. "You have to have the great desire; 'I wanna do this!'" He added. "It isn't like another game; there's something... original."
"It's all about drive," Eggebrecht chimed in. "It's also about team structure, picking the right people. Your team needs to carry all of [your ideas]. Don't underestimate the inside of your company."
Becker added, "You have to trade something that not just you like, but that the people might like. In the forefront is an idea, that is entertaining, that everyone else wants to play."
Calvert asked the group where they get their game design ideas; "We copy Grand Theft Auto
!" Capps joked.
Daglow described his process: "A team member has an idea. They start talking with other team members and the idea gets bubbled up."
He added, "It is a very amorphous process. If you share your ideas, they will get heard in the company. If the team feels passionate about making this game, then we will do it.
The panel agreed that that passion from the team and the love for the concept is a quintessential ingredient. "It's extremely important that you love your (licensed) IP!" Eggebrecht emphasized. "Who had expected that Transformers
would be so successful as it is? Even if you have a small idea, go for it."
Eggebrecht continued, "In the beginning of making Lair
, we said, we don't want a license. Now I want to kill us! It's so much easier to have a license than an original game."
"The nice thing about small ideas is, getting to try out the idea is easier," Becker added. Before making an original IP, he said, "You have to bring love, you have to convince a lot of people. You have to have a strong idea, you have to believe in it. It takes time and passion to bring an idea to life."
When Calvert asked the group about movie licenses, Eggebrecht recalled telling LucasArts, "You have to have us working on Star Wars
, because everybody else isn't doing it right. In fact, that was our pitch!"
"Just ask your yourself the question: Is it a world you want your characters to play in?" Daglow added. Of Stormfront Studios' upcoming Spiderwick Chronicles
project, he said, "It's a dream situation. There are fun characters. At the end of the day, it's about fun gameplay."
Calvert probed the panel's feelings about the press and the feedback they read in the forums. "We absolutely love the press," Capps enthused. "We take it seriously. We have to keep [those] guys happy. We are listening to everybody. We make changes based on [our forums]."
"We absolutely love our communities," Becker agreed. "You have to have communication with the outside world. That is why the evolution of our games is quicker [compared to Hollywood]."
"The hardcore community is extremely vocal," Eggebrecht noted. "We had people bashing our heads for attempting to have motion control in Lair
He continued: "It was horrible in hindsight. You can even take it further with the press; the press sees the final version. It's great to get feedback from the press, even in the last minute. So really listen to the press there."
"The press isn't the enemy," Eggebrecht cautioned. The guys are as passionate as you [as a developer] are."
Daglow concurred, advising, "If you have strong PR people, listen to them; they are a real value."
How do they cope with games' relatively short shelf life? "Modifications keep our shelf time going," Capps said.
Eggebrecht advised developers to use downloadable content as much as possible. "It's so easy for the user to get that content on their Xbox or on their Playstation," he said. "You can keep the enthusiasm for the game going."
"We as game developers must focus on developing a relationship with our customers," Daglow added. "It's all about listening to your audience."
"It's the community that counts," Becker concurred.
What about big selling games, about ratings and criticism, Calvert asked? "If you have the chance to get billion of dollars or get critical rated, we definitely go for the critical rating," Eggbrecht said.
"I don't know the formula," Capps admitted. "But we are keeping on making great games."
"Even if you sold 5 million copies, if there's a thoughtful review, it can hurt you much," Daglow noted.
The audience also had the opportunity to ask some questions of the panel; on the subject of negative feedback, while Eggebrecht said his team always ignores comments on motion control, Daglow said it's dangerous to ignore the audience; "Never stop listening!" He cautioned.
How important is a big budget, and what about marketing? The panel seemed to agree that it's less about money and more about getting your money's worth. "I can have Lindsay Lohan come to my lunch," joked Capps. "But is it worth the money?"
"Word of mouth is nice, but it's overrated," added Eggebrecht. "You never get rich with it."
And what about margins? One audience member asked if one could make a big selling game for ten dollars. "Deerhunter
was a great game," Capps replied with an example. "And it was sold for ten dollars each. Of course, they only spent 30 cent per copy... You still need a publisher. You need someone putting your posters around the city."
Another audience member asked about the big budgets, big marketing and big magazine pictures as problems with business models, versus the success of titles by word-of-mouth, and if the panelists ever saw themselves moving away from those models. "No!" Daglow said. "Good marketing that holds a bad game, will fail faster."
"It's a tricky process," Eggebrecht concurred. "You cannot force it. The traditional way to release a game is much safer for us instead of waiting a year and see what comes out. We have to pay bills, we have to pay our team."
So is it true that the correlation between press scores and game sales is overrated? The last audience question wanted to know what the panel thought about that idea.
"Forcing the press wont work," Eggebrecht said. "It has to come from the inside of them."
"The journalists begin to judge a game in relation to its targeted audience, instead of rating it in terms of what they want to play tonight at 10 o'clock," Daglow added.