What happens when developers leave their comfort zones? Part 20 Comments
Every gamer can name a handful or more development studios off of the top of their head, and can likely even list a majority of the titles released by any one of those studios. Speaking generally, when a team produces a game that players like, a sort of collective memory is formed that catalogs those expectations together with the studio's own brand. The effect is such that when a studio announces work on a new project, game fans generally know what to expect. However, that isn't always the case.
There's no obligation for developers to stick to a given mold; it's just what we expect. Broadly speaking, most developers do what we know them to do, and do it well enough that minor variations on the formula either become part of the formula or are forgotten fast enough to be forgiven. Still, sometimes development studios do something different, be it radical or otherwise, and the results often defy expectation.
In the late 90s, Squaresoft (now Square Enix) was riding on what could only be called a tidal wave of success. The company had long been developing games in the Final Fantasy series, and 1997's release of Final Fantasy VII cemented the studio's position as a giant of the gaming industry. By the time of Final Fantasy IX landed in the year 2000, the company had become particularly well-known for their use of Full-Motion Video, which added a cinematic touch that gave Final Fantasy titles a movie-like presentation. Fans were clamoring for more, and Square had something big in the works aiming to satisfy that particular craving.
Though many wouldn't know about it until around the turn of the century, Square had opened up a movie studio in Hawaii known as Square Pictures in 1997. The goal was to use their expertise in crafting Full-Motion Video to release feature-length films composed entirely using their frankly peerless skills in computer animation. Their first foray would almost naturally be based in the Final Fantasy universe, drawing interest from the enormous and eager fan base of the time. The now-infamous first release from Square Pictures would come to be known as Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within.
Despite pulling out all of the stops, and even going so far as to hire a Hollywood-backed, star-studded cast to voice the characters, The Spirits Within was a complete box office flop. Not only did the film have almost nothing to do with any Final Fantasy games or established canon, the story itself was called confusing and clichéd. Even though it received high praise for its visuals, with particular love shown for the model of protagonist Aki, Square Pictures had taken a huge hit, making back only about half of the project's budget. The Spirits Within's reception was so poor, and the financial loss so high, that the entire ordeal came close to severing the upcoming merger between Squaresoft and Enix. Square Pictures didn't enjoy anything close to the company's anticipated success, and in 2002 Square sadly announced that the studio would close down. Fortunately, they were able make a bounce back with the release of a short film called Final Flight of Osiris for the 2003 release The Animatrix, and years later the studio would become a subsidiary of Square Enix.
While a side project as large as a movie studio might be considered a risky venture, serving the interests of fans generally isn't considered a risk at all. It's not always straightforward, however, and that's something Rare learned toward the end of the 90s. The studio had been working on a Conker game for the Nintendo 64, and managed to show fans an early look at their efforts on the title at E3 in 1997. The game was coming along nicely, but Rare was dismayed by players' criticisms of the game's cutesy, family-friendly approach. Since they'd already put in a number of hours developing the title, and didn't want to (or couldn't) abandon the game's assets, they decided their best bet would be to change the the title's overall direction.
Thus, Conker's Bad Fur Day was born. Keeping most of the same visual style but adopting a “mature” tone, the game made a name for itself for a number of off-color and irreverent thematic elements aimed squarely at adult audiences. Specifically, the game made numerous references to alcohol and tobacco, and included violence, profanity, and generous helpings of dark humor and pop culture refereces. The software itself was lauded for its technical achievements, specifically for pushing both the graphical and audio fidelity limits of the Nintendo 64 hardware, and even managed to win an award as GameSpot's Best Platform Game for 2001.
With that being said, Conker's Bad Fur Day didn't really manage to be a commercial success, a result that comes down to a number of contributing factors. The “adult” themes meant that it was not a title meant for kids — Nintendo made very sure that much was obvious — so it lost out on a large chunk of the Nintendo 64 demographic. The juxtaposition of the game's child-friendly aesthetic with the adult humor also meant that the game ultimately wouldn't be mentioned in Nintendo Power, likely in fear of misleading or confusing consumers. Additionally, the controversial nature of the title lead Nintendo of Europe to decline publishing the title at all, a job that was later picked up by THQ. Even though it sold, it didn't quite sell well enough, and despite a 2005 remake after Microsoft's acquisition of Rare, not much of Conker has been seen since.
This is part two of an examination of what happens when game developers step outside of their comfort zones. Look forward to the upcoming part three, which will examine some of the more adventurous moves made by game development studios during the 128-bit era and beyond.