Listen, as far as I can see, the land of the Red Steel 2 release (March 23rd!! 25th in Europe!! 26th in Australia!!) looks pretty okay. Reasonable. Encouraging. And that’s freaking me out a little bit.
Here’s why: it has happened before. I’ve learned over the course of my career that just because things look good right now, doesn’t necessarily mean that they will continue to.
Even so, the fact that said response is (so far) based on the opinions of hundreds of people who have actually played the game (many of them for over three hours) makes it easier to develop some faith. I figure if you can get three hours into the game, and you’re still enthusiastic, something’s working for you. And, really, for this game, the next few hours resemble the first few, except with more stuff, so if you liked that, ideally, you’ll like the rest.
However, it’s still faith. It’s way, way to early to be able to relax. I’ve noticed, for example, that my typing has become more jackhammer-like over the past few weeks, a sure sign of tension.
I’ve mentioned this before. Like, fifteen times. That’s because it’s become the majority theme in my existence for the past several months, and until the game is fled and out there in the wild, rampaging around like a katana-wielding Tyrannosaur (yes!!), it’s going to be the majority theme. Sorry if it’s boring. I ease my conscience by reminding myself that if you’re reading this, it’s by choice. I sleep better that way. You have no one to blame but yourself.
Now, what I want to talk about here, today, is something about how the whole ‘release’ situation is made more complicated by the nature of the factors surrounding it.
See, normally, when you are releasing a new installment of an existing franchise, once the game is done, the team immediately begins planning and developing the next version. Generally, games are planned well in advance, and so you tend to know exactly what the next steps will be at the moment you hand the final disc over to manufacturing.
This case is a little bit different.
[ASIDE] In the press, my answer(s) to the question of “Will there be a Red Steel 3?” has been, shall we say, ‘re-emphasized’. While this is not necessarily a bad thing, it has lead to some misunderstandings. I’m gonna try to straighten out the issues a bit here, while we’re chatting. You’ve been warned. [/ASIDE]
Why is it different?
Let’s talk about the franchise a little bit. And I’m going to try to do this without violating my corporate responsibilities… which is always challenging. Let’s see how it goes.
As a franchise, Red Steel has a surprising amount of affection among gamers. There’s (very vocal) exceptions, but on the whole, people who played it were disappointed, but somehow that didn’t interfere with their hopes for the future. “It could have been better,” they seem to say, “and we’d really appreciate it if you would make it so.”
That’s 100% why we are here now, with a new installment. People wanted it.
Why wasn’t a sequel more of a sure thing? Well, let’s be honest with ourselves here: it’s not the hugest brand in the industry. The name recognition of Red Steel, while quite high among gamers who were early adopters of the Wii, isn’t quite what is referred to in the Intellectual Property biz as “universal”. Add to that the troubles with controls and other factors in the first game, and you get an overall mixed perception.
Still, though. People wanted another Red Steel, and they wanted it to be awesome.
Fast forward to NOW!
[ASIDE] Do you gol-darn kids even know what ‘fast forward’ means, for chrissake? Is that phrase even in common use any more? I’m starting to feel like a dinosaur for using it. It’s a reference to cassette tapes, people, and those haven’t been sold in stores since…
…uh, since before the Wii came out, that’s for sure. Woah. Anyway. Maybe “skips to the current track” would be more contemporary? No, that sucks. Listen, help me out here, if you can. [/ASIDE]
Dammit! Where was I??
RIGHT! Now. Now is when people are still wanting another Red Steel! And how does that relate to the overall topic of anxiety about the release, and the bizarre sub-topic I introduced about what I and the Red Steel team are doing at the moment??
Here’s how: we believe this game will do well. It appears to be moving along a ‘positive trajectory’. See above about uncertainties about that, but here’s the thing: even in a perfect market (which we are not in) it’s very tough to be sure about anything. Very tough, indeed.
So, imagine yourself as a Ubisoft planning person. You’re smart (just trust me, they are), experienced (yes, also true), uncynical (I’m not making this up, I’ve actually met these people), and you really want the company to do well financially (duh) and make great games (listen, I’m serious – have you met them?? no?? well I have, and this is what they are like).
Okay, so you’re this planner, and you’ve got Red Steel, a much-beloved, much-troubled franchise, on one platform (ouch), and the new game requires the Motion Plus attachment (always dangerous), the Wii market is going through these weird contractions and rumbly upheavals… everyone is panicking. And, the team wants to know if we should be going full-guns and dumping a whole new bunch of money into Red Steel 3. And, if you make the wrong call, everyone in the company loses, the stockholders get pissed off, and you get a bad review that year. Your annual raise will be smaller, so your kids’ braces are going to have to wait for another year.
What would you say?
I don’t know about you, but I’m thinking I’d say something like, “Hey, guys – what say we just hang out for a few weeks and see what happens? You know, just to make 100% sure that the market for this game even exists.”
And that would be the right call.
But you know what that means for the dev team? It means that the answer to the question of “so, what are you doing now?” is really complicated to answer. And when people say “will there be a Red Steel 3?” you tend to hem and haw a little. My answer has come down to something like this: “We don’t know. Depends on what happens when this game ships.”
Now, what I’ve learned about that answer is that it is easy to hear it as “The Future Of Red Steel Franchise Depends On Red Steel 2 Success” (to mis-quote recent web headlines).
Let’s take a second, though, and look at that. Ironically, such a statement is, in fact, a tautology – it’s obviously, always, necessarily true. And, not just for Red Steel: it’s true for every product in existence in the markets of the world.
More: I’m going to go out on a limb and say that it’s even true for every product in the entire universe. Even Alpha Centaurian planners use this axiom: prior success often gives you an indication of future success, so plan accordingly.
But it’s not a binary operation. It never is. There are uncountable factors that go into a complex decision like pushing a game into a third iteration: sales, reviews, hardware, economy, other games, individual interest, whim, marketing, appeal… it goes on and on. And, frustratingly, there is just no sure way to know with anything like certainty which direction these market winds will blow.
So, we hire scads of weatherpeople. We hope. We plan. We invest in wind-detecting science. We measure.
And then, one day, we get in our boat, pack our goods for the journey, look to the heavens…
…raise our sails…