“The game literally no one asked for.”

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.

I don’t generally like discussing the games industry and fandom – basically because I always end up ranting and raving – so please forgive the indulgence here.

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.

This is apparently the case despite prior crossover between the two franchises.

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.)

Anyone remember back when the Call of Duty franchise used to be good? (Confession time: never played a Call of Duty game.)

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.

11 comments

  1. Red Metal

    If it’s one pattern with Nintendo’s fans I’ve seen, it’s that they always seem to be quick to denounce a new, out-there idea only to have major egg on their faces when it turns out to be a hit. Metroid Prime, which they thought would a disaster? It’s considered one of the greatest games of all time now. “A cel-shaded Zelda game? What are we kids?” Now The Wind Waker is considered one of the best games ever made as well. Even that XCOM-inspired Mario crossover ended up being a sleeper hit. Ironically, their biggest disaster this decade (Metroid: Other M) was a game everyone was looking forward to. “A bad game is bad forever”, indeed.

    • veryverygaming

      Thank you for those examples – I’ve been struggling and failing to think of other game announcements that followed this trend other than Mario + Rabbids. Certainly has been a theme for many years, and definitely with Nintendo especially. To be fair, they bring it on themselves to an extent with the emphasis they put on nostalgia in their games.

      Ah… Other M. What can I even say? Misunderstood, in my opinion. Pity the reception was so negative as a sequel (MOther 2) could have been great..

      • Red Metal

        Be that as it may, the onus is still ultimately on the fans to recognize the pattern.

        I completely agree; upon its release, Metroid: Other M was entirely misunderstood. In the mainstream critical circle, I get the feeling their final scores were the result of parsing each individual component of the gam (graphics, music, gameplay, story, etc.). That approach worked when the medium was relatively new, but when games became more ambitious and story became more of an important issue, it became less viable. As such, while critics using the outdated approach came down to the conclusion that Metroid: Other M deserved a 7.5/10, it didn’t work when the experience as a whole was horribly flawed. Some say the company gave into fanboy complaints, but I’d say they were simply dissatisfied with the product. Did some go too far? Sure, but even so, it’s for the best Metroid: Samus Returns abandoned that characterization. I’m not going to miss the gameplay either because while it technically worked, it wasn’t very inspired; controlling a character in a three-dimensional space with a two-dimensional control pad did not a good time make. Long story short, the fans, cacophonous though they may have been, got this one right.

  2. Matt

    “My point is simply that a game that “nobody asked for” is the space where innovation and creativity can happen.”

    Exactly. If it were up to the wishes of gamers alone, all franchises would never evolve past their current format. If this game is indeed real, than I will be looking forward to it very much!

  3. moresleepneeded

    I think I partially agree that computer games companies should only cater to what the fans want. While demands of fans can cause computer games series to use a stale format and repeat the same idea, they can also help the series to maintain an identity and prevent games becoming homogenised. For example, if first-person shooters was a popular genre, it may be a change if Nintendo developed a Mario game that used this format and may lead to commercial success, however, many fans would be upset that the series no longer used elements that they enjoyed and a popular series of platforming games may become another series of first-person shooters instead. There are, however, examples of good games which were very different to previous games in the series and I have enjoyed some games which upset fans.
    What computer games have you enjoyed that used different ideas? Was Majora’s Mask popular among fans when it was first released?

    • veryverygaming

      Good question. I think Breath of the Wild is a great recent example of a game that differed significantly from past entries in the Zelda series, and that succeeded because of those changes. While I may have missed one or two aspects of previous games, it didn’t outway the benefits of breaking from convention. As for Majora’s Mask, at the time I remember the game didn’t have a huge fanfare around its release – it was the end of the N64’s life and PS2 was launching at the time. I remember its reviews being good but not as overwhelmingly positive as Ocarina of Time, and although I greatly enjoyed the game I did find it slightly disappointing. Coming back to the game years later I could appreciate it that much more, and I now think it’s an incredible game.

      Did you play Majora’s Mask close to release and, if so, what did you think?

      • moresleepneeded

        I did play Majora’s Mask when it was first released. I actually enjoyed it, however, I remember that there was a lot of disappointment because it was not considered as good as Ocarina of Time. Recently, it seems to be appreciated as a good game and some fans even say it was better than Ocarina of Time. I mentioned it because it was an example of a game that was initially dismissed as a weak sequel to a well-made game, but had grown in popularity in later years.

  4. Aether

    That idea that you can’t give fans what they tell you they want, you have to deliver what they don’t know that want has struck a chord with me for a long, long while. Particularly when you’re dealing with the internet, where the loudest voices are not usually representative of your total market, that’s a really dangerous proposition. If you work exactly to what they tell you, it’s never going to be as good as it is in their heads, and you’re tailoring things to a market segment that’s probably not your largest. At the same time, you do want to take feedback, because that’s important. So… yeah. Context is important.

    And of course raging at something before it comes out, or if the source of anger is nothing other than that it’s ‘different’, not good contexts to take feedback from.

    • veryverygaming

      Feedback can be such a mixed bag sometimes. I know with my own written work, sometimes feedback is intensely useful and motivating. Other times it can be overwhelming, devastating, almost. I can only imagine what it must be like to be a game developer, hoping for the best but not knowing how your work is going to be received by the public.

      Not saying everyone on the internet ought to walk on eggshells to avoid hurting game devs’ feelings… but maybe that’s not such a bad idea sometimes 😛 Particularly when a game becomes a popular object of ridicule, so anyone who says “I quite like it” has to add that no, they’re not being ironic. The internet is a funny place, that’s for certain.

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