Man, do I love the internet sometimes. With the recent rumours about a potential Star Fox racing game being made by Nintendo’s Retro Studios, a few naysayers have cropped up denouncing the idea. As if the Star Fox fanbase didn’t have enough to be angry about already: Slippy got a girlfriend, and the fans’ demands for a spin-off series, Falco’s Driving Instructor School, have been totally ignored to this day! In all seriousness, I believe that creators are more likely to excel when they aren’t constrained by a fanbase who only cheer when something is returning, and boo at the smallest signs of change.
As I understand it, some fans’ outrage at a potential Star Fox racing game is expressed in terms of a double betrayal: on the one hand, the concept betrays Star Fox fans hoping for a conventional, on-rails shooter experience. The second, and bigger betrayal, is of F-Zero fans – F-Zero of course being a futuristic racing series with floating cars that hasn’t seen a new game release since the GameBoy Advance/Gamecube days. A Star Fox racing game, it is claimed, amounts to a Star Fox spin-off that doesn’t adhere to the traditional gameplay of the series and, at the same, cannibalises the F-Zero franchise and lowers the chances of a new release. Hence, a game that no one asked for, as neither Star Fox or F-Zero fans approve.
So that’s the line of reasoning, and it’s a completely ridiculous one. Let’s start with the obvious: dismissing a product that has yet to be released, or even publicly announced, is always a bad idea. Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle comes to mind as a recent example of a game that saw a backlash when it was initially leaked, but went on to be critically and commercially successful. But there are deeper issues at play here too, such as misunderstanding how capitalism works, and entitled fanbases.
My biggest issue with this argument is the notion that the function of a videogame company is to create games that cater to their fans. While that can and does happen, it may not be a good idea. That’s because, fundamentally, the function of a company is not to create products that people want. Rather the company’s job is to create products that people don’t know they want. To prove that statement, we need to recall that every great success in videogames has meant taking a risk with public opinion – slaying a sacred cow, diverging from the norm, bucking the trend. It’s easy to forget this because when a game succeeds, that success becomes the most normal thing in the world; what was risky quickly becomes safe, the new norm or trend.
Take the evolution of the Call of Duty franchise, for instance. We all know Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare took the world by storm when it transformed from a Medal of Honor knock-off to its own thing. I say knock-off, but I’m sure there were plenty of disappointed Call of Duty fans when it was announced that the series was moving away from World War II battles to ‘Modern Warfare’. Despite this, the game was an enormous success. Only when a product fails do we look for reasons why, and hit upon the “it’s not what the fans wanted” narrative. A convincing narrative sometimes, sure, but let’s not pretend that fans always know what they want or that what they want is best. (Stating the obvious here but fans are rarely united in their opinions, so even identifying which fans’ feedback should be listened to isn’t easy.)
I don’t want to completely disregard the wishes of fans. I think it is in the best interests for game companies to cultivate fanbases, and fans can motivate companies to do better and maintain a high standard of quality. My point is simply that a game that “nobody asked for” is the space where innovation and creativity can happen.