Everyone likes an original concept. Everyone likes Tim Schafer. I mean, who wouldn’t? This is the guy who brought us some of the most classic adventures from the 90s. He gave us Psychonauts. He’s an all around nice guy, and we enjoyed talking to him about Brutal Legend earlier this year, amongst other things.
What seems to have occurred, sadly, is that poor Tim decided he was sick of making amazing games that the general public avoided and decided to create something accessible. What actually happened was a complete mess of marketing and hype; a tale of selling something that didn’t exist.
Brutal Legend will undoubtedly have a strong following for years to come. Tim Schafer is the classic design underdog. He’s friendly, accessible, and legitimately enjoys his craft as well as the gamers who indulge him. He has a ridiculously creative mind and his knowledge of gaming conventions are second to none. It’s no surprise, then, that BL looked to be that hack’n'slash (h’n's) adventure, full of humour and egocentricity of the heavy metal genre, we would enjoy.
The demo eased us in. The ark of Schafer doesn’t disappoint; the writing is funny, the voice acting, art style and animation are spot on. Nice touches, including giving players the option of “accepting” gore and profanity hinted at the clever design choices that only a seasoned designer could know. We mashed our way through some mobs, built a hotrod, and took down a boss. Intense.
But then something interesting happened. For the second time in a year, I was shocked at the different directions taken from a demo. Arkham Asylum‘s preview presented a relatively standard brawler with little differentiation from other licensed properties. What we received finally broke the “curse” and ended up as one of the standout games of the year. In Brutal Legend’s case, however, what was hidden inside the final product, presented a conundrum.
Those “RTS elements”, the significant portions of the game that have split critics and gamers alike, have cracked open the rotten egg, that is hype, and highlights the problems in relation to how a game should be marketed. In most minds, including our own review of BL, many people are happy with the game they received. But others feel not only disappointed, but even a little duped. Was this the game that was drip-fed into our throbbing veins of anticipation? No.
Criticism of the “Stage Battles” aside, it’s interesting to wonder who made the decision to push the title as a h’n's adventure in the vein of God of War. All of the many video spots, screenshots and interviews leading up to its release, provided a singular view of the gameplay. Tim was quoted as saying the game had “RTS influences,” but it was never mentioned more then once or twice, essentially making it a throwaway statement.
Tim’s come out recently, claiming that the game isn’t in fact an RTS, which is true – it’s not. But it’s not in the same way that Fallout 3 isn’t a First Person Shooter – it’s an RPG with FPS elements. It’s one where many people would argue that the FPS “influence” is a pretty significant part of the game. The difference here is that Bethesda, the developers of Fallout 3, were very open and honest from the beginning of how the title would look and play. There were no unpleasant surprises for gamers on release; the game largely played in the way many expected it to.
It’s disingenuous to think that your audience, especially in the day and age of 24 hour coverage, wouldn’t be upset about being sold one thing and provided with another. If you purchased a hybrid car, but then realised when you got home that it was only a hybrid for six weeks before the batteries died, you’d want a refund. EA made sure that this was the case with Brutal Legend. All reviews were embargoed until the release date, the demo pushed the party line, and the hype train ran until the very end.
It might sound like I’m making a mountain out of a mole hill, but I can’t stress it enough that developers and publishers need to handle marketing their games properly. Hype is a very dangerous tool. It’s perfectly fine if you can live up to it. Spore, another EA title that provided disappointment, suffered from the same problem. The damage caused from miss-aligned promises and expectations is much harder to clean up than being honest and forthright from the beginning.
Some people like to call this disillusionment in relation to hype control and marketing the “Molyneux Rule”, where talking up your game to the point of insanity almost dooms it to complete failure. In Brutal Legend‘s case, I think what happened was a simple case of Bring the punters in for a rousing bout of decapitations, Jack Black style, then suddenly introduce them to your mashup of classic gaming conventions.
Designers like Tim should be applauded for taking risks and introducing new ways to play a story. But the key is being honest to your market. Tricking people into taking the same risks with their own money isn’t a method that tends to resonate well with any consumer. Call a spade a spade, and you’ll be surprised how many people will voluntarily come along for a ride.