Game Design Rebrands – New Core Mechanics vs. Fan Expectations ~ Design Doc


Today’s episode is sponsored by Privacy.com Privacy.com lets you make online purchases
using virtual credit cards, which helps keep your real identity and bank info safe. Congratulations! You’ve just been put in charge of a long-running
franchise. The series is yours, but it comes tied to
both a blessing and a terrible curse: Expectations. The series has a built-in legion of fans ready
for the next installment, but they also expect things to be a certain way. Fans want someone to push the thing they love
to new heights, but they also expect something familiar. They want to return to a place they have loved
before. A game series comes packaged with lots of
expectations – its characters, settings and themes. Its tone, gameplay, and aesthetics. Even down to the creative staff in charge
of making the game will all mix together to create a game’s brand identity. A new game in a series needs to do two things:
First, it needs to add something unique to make it stand out from the other entries. Unless you’re reviving a long-dormant series,
no one celebrates a rehash. But being too experimental is risky too, because
secondly, the new game needs to fit smoothly into the old brand identity. If a game breaks from its brand identity too
much it can alienate its established audience who expected something more familiar. If you take the risk and find something fantastic
it could breathe new life into a series. If the new path isn’t a hit though, it could
cost you your biggest fans, which might leave you with nothing. It’s a minor miracle that any game pulls off
this balancing act, but not all of them do. Let’s dive into three games that took some
big chances. Two that didn’t hit the mark, and one of
them that worked out great, but all three show how much you have to balance for a new
game to meet fans’ expectations. If you’re making a new game in a franchise,
you have to take stock of what you’re working with. What does the franchise do right? What are returning players expecting when
they come back for a sequel? Let’s take, oh I don’t know… Banjo-Kazooie as an example. Banjo-Kazooie is a titan in the 3D platforming
space. It’s about exploration, collecting items,
unlocking lots of new moves to solve puzzles, colorful worlds, light hearted characters,
and a goofy British sense of humor that breaks the 4th wall. Banjo-Kazooie and Banjo-Tooie both checked
all those boxes. Then, after a long Microsoft induced hiatus
came Rare’s third main entry into the franchise: Banjo-Kazooie Nuts and Bolts. Nuts and Bolts was actually the third attempt
at a 3rd entry for the series. The first was a reimagined remake of the first
game. The structure and levels would be very similar,
but with some remixed elements and new challenges. It was scrapped over worries that it would
look too much like a simple graphical update of the older games. The second attempt was still a platformer,
but you raced against the series’ antagonist Gruntilda to complete challenges and find
collectibles. The complexity of designing Gruntilda’s AI
made the game far too difficult to make, so Rare scrapped that idea too. Instead, Rare started looking at how you moved
in a 3D platformer. Over time that idea developed into the game’s
final design. Players would complete missions by building
and piloting custom vehicles. They took an enormous risk with the core gameplay,
something so fundamental to the first game, and changed it to something so fundamentally
different. It tries to appeal to a new audience that
loves building and creative problem solving, but also tries to keep the old audience who
never signed up for that style. The two target audiences don’t really overlap. They definitely tried to appeal to the old
fans. They filled the game with plays on nostalgia
and series traditions. The cast is mostly unchanged. The goofy self-aware British humor is the
same. The general collect-a-thon progression structure
is fundamentally intact. The game’s marquee level is ‘Banjo Land’
– a literal museum full of loving callbacks and iconic memorabilia from the series’ history. Nuts and Bolts’ design is still very much
influenced by its predecessors. The contradicting goals in which audience
to appeal to seems to weigh down on the writing, too. The game praises the series past with Banjo
Land, but jokes about how archaic the old collect-a-thon formula was. And then it’s still a collect-a-thon. The script is chock full of very self-referential
humor, bordering on navel-gazing. One of the new main characters is a video
game designer called the Lord of Games who claims to have created every video game ever
made. The worlds that Banjo and Kazooie travel in
are essentially test builds of the other games he’s created. It feels like a public rehash of the game’s
rocky development cycle. Keep in mind, Nuts and Bolts isn’t even a
bad game! It’d be so much easier to blame poor sales
if the game didn’t work on its own merits, but it did! The creation tools let you approach missions
creatively, and it’s just as satisfying as the best parts of games like Scribblenauts
and Minecraft. But the game isn’t without its flaws. The ranking system encourages first-order
optimal strategies instead of creative solutions, again kind of like Scribblenauts. The physics engine has some mid-2000s jank. Objects are a bit too light and vehicles can
flip over too easily. Aaand the framerate is hot garbage. Nuts and Bolts is a fun game, while not perfect,
but it can’t shake its own past that its fanbase demanded, but couldn’t live up to. After the release of Nuts and Bolts, the Banjo-Kazooie
franchise entered a deadly whirlpool. The new direction alienated old fans. It didn’t sell all that well and couldn’t
attract many new fans. The hype that you get for free when you revive
any beloved franchise was spent and will be very difficult to kickstart, and with each
passing year the original series design seems more and more dated. The failure of Nuts and Bolts made the idea
of yet another new Banjo-Kazooie game very difficult to sell and unappealing to the publishers
who would fund it. The release of one clunker experimental version
of a game made it that much harder for the series to be revived. Nuts and Bolts isn’t bad at what it does, but it was still a boat anchor on the Banjo-Kazooie franchise because of the game’s mismatch with fan’s expectations. Nuts and Bolts is the story of a series revival
gone wrong, but that’s far from the only way games can disappoint on expectations. I want to talk about something much more unusual. What if your game changed its own genre halfway
through? Double Fine’s Brutal Legend is bizarre. Not terrible, but very bizarre. So looking at this what kind of game do you
think this is? Action game? Beat ‘Em Up? Open World? Well you’re kinda right. Brutal Legend was sold as an action adventure
set in a fantastic open world love letter to Heavy Metal. The first few missions deliver on that promise,
playing like an open world hack and slash with some Zelda like exploration. But in the middle of it all BAM! It turns into a console RTS! According to Tim Schafer, Brutal Legend was
designed as a heavy metal themed RTS first, and its more actiony elements added in as
development progressed. There was very little in the game’s marketing that even hinted
at this. A large reason for the bait and switch was
due to some troubles with Brutal Legend’s various publishers. Brutal Legend was originally published by
Vivendi, before their merger with Activision. Vivendi didn’t even want to mention the
phrase ‘RTS’ in any of the marketing. Instead they used using phrases like ‘action
strategy elements’ Tim Schafer: “When we were with Vivendi, they were like ‘You’re not going to say RTS’. and I was like ‘What if someone says Is It An RTS in an interview?’ and they were like ‘You’re going to say no, it’s not’.” They thought the genre was too niche. After Vivendi merged with Activision, they
dropped the project as publisher in 2008. the publishing rights were picked up by EA
in the winter of that year. EA wasn’t against mentioning the RTS aspect
but it was still very much downplayed in the game’s lead up to release. After the first few missions, Brutal Legend’s
true core gameplay is a fusion of hack and slash action and RTS. Like other RTS games you build different units
and capture towers, which let you gather more resources and build more units. Double Fine let you control a character yourself
during team fights, where the battle played out more like a traditional action game. But these two styles never quite mesh together. You’re vulnerable when you’re on the ground
and die super fast. It’s generally better to stay in the air
and let your units do all the work. It’s a console RTS, and as I mentioned in
the Pikmin segment of the fifth Good Design Bad Design, console RTS’s are
notoriously difficult to control. Brutal Legend is no exception and as a result
your easiest and most effective strategy boils down to ‘gather all your units and charge
headfirst into each major structure until you win’. The merging of the genres don’t add up to
more than the sum of their parts, and each part is lackluster on its own compared to
its RTS and action contemporaries. It left Brutal Legend with a hollow core beneath
a clever and cohesive heavy metal setting and theme. It’s not great gameplay, but the marketing
did the perception of the game no favors. Omitting the RTS half of the game in its marketing
campaign is extremely dangerous for a game’s public perception. the game was being sold to players that were
looking specifically for a combat heavy, action based open world game with heavy metal themes. To switch to an unrelated genre after somehow
delivering on the marketing promise for the first few hours is a blatant bait-and-switch. Brutal Legend suffers most from the identity
crisis between what Double Fine had designed vs what their publishers try to sell. Even if the game wasn’t communicated properly
to its audience, it still could have still won them over with a compelling gameplay core. But, the mish-mash of RTS and action concepts
aren’t good enough to make that come true. Without an audience to cater to, and without
the word-of-mouth buzz that a better playing game might have garnered, Brutal Legend managed
to take an over-the-top premise, all the right cameos, and a good performance by Jack Black
and turn it into a forgettable flop. It’s pretty tough to sell a big change in
a series. Nuts and Bolts tried to wrap their changes
in nostalgia, it didn’t work. Brutal Legend tried to hide theirs. Still didn’t work. But it’s not all doom and gloom. It is possible to turn a series shake-up into
a welcome change of pace. The easiest way is to clearly mark the new
game as a spinoff series, like Luigi’s Mansion, Final Fantasy Tactics, or Persona. It’s the opposite of the hide-and-no-one-will-notice
strategy of Brutal Legend. For fans who are willing to be adventurous,
it’s a clear signal about the change of pace. For fans who aren’t interested, the rebrand
still makes clear that the main series they know and love will be back soon. As a bonus, if the new game gains traction,
it can become a major series all its own. But relying on spinoff series doesn’t do
much for a mainline series that could use a renovation. Before you can remodel, you have to know a
series’ structure inside and out. Why did people fall in love with the series
in the first place? What idea is the series built around? And not just the superficial elements, you
have to dig deep. That’s what Banjo Kazooie messed up – they
stuck the superficial similarities on a completely altered core. Without understanding those fundamentals,
it’s difficult to reconstruct the feeling of a game from scratch. For Mario, its core is not stars or Koji Kondo’s
soundtrack and Bowser kidnapping Peach. It’s platforming and colorful obstacle courses. For Final Fantasy, it’s core is dramatic
storytelling in a strange world with progressive RPG combat mechanics. Resident Evil is tension, horror and scarcity. For Zelda, its fundamental core is about adventure
and exploration. Zelda has kept its series trappings around
for so long it can be tough to separate them from the series’ core. Items like the hookshot and boomerang, the
master sword, dungeons, a linear structure. These are things that aesthetically identify
the game as Zelda but aren’t the core of the series’ gameplay. In fact, you can probably think of a few games
that stray away from this formula. They still feel like Zelda because these elements
aren’t part of the essential core. They’re the paintings on the walls. They’re pretty, they round out the experience,
but they are not the walls themselves. There’s one Zelda game that, from the start,
sets out to strip down and change lots of the series’ trappings in order to emphasize
Zelda’s essential core. Breath of the Wild. When Nintendo released Skyward Sword in 2011,
fan fatigue was setting in. The established Zelda formula was starting
to get a little stale. Breath of the Wild director Hidemaro Fujibayashi
said that from the beginning of development, they set out to ‘break the conventions of
the Zelda series.’ They took the linear dungeon-hopping structure
and turned it into a totally free-form one, where you can fight the final boss whenever
you’d like. The world design itself went from a series
of isolated sandboxes to a cohesive and sprawling open world with few limitations. Breakable weapons prevented players from getting
too comfortable with any one weapon set. The classic Zelda dungeon items you’d usually
unlock slowly throughout the game are all now available very early on. Puzzles that have one specific, pre-determined
solution give way to a clockwork world, where systemic gameplay mechanics let you approach
problems from creative angles. You can see the developers building off of
the series’ previous ideas, too. Wind Waker’s Great Sea enticed exploration
with islands in the distance acting as visual breadcrumbs, and Breath of the Wild did way
more of that. A Link Between Worlds had a non-linear dungeon
structure, where you could tackle them in any order, which Breath of the Wild amps up
with its Divine Beasts and shrines scattered throughout the world. But most importantly, Breath of the Wild goes
back to its original, most basic design. A game without many hints, without much direction,
that drops you in a world and expects you to find your own way. Everything is built around discovery of both
the world itself and the mechanics. Even through all of Breath of the Wild’s structural
changes, it still stays true to the foundation, the very core of the Zelda experience: adventure
and exploration. The free-form design is maybe the purest conduit
for player-directed exploration and discovery that the series has ever had. The clockwork world lets your adventure in
Hyrule play out as uniquely your own, guided by your mind and your hand. That’s why Breath of the Wild was so much
more successful as a series reboot. Nuts and Bolts put series trappings on a new,
but shakier foundation. Breath of the Wild brought out its foundation’s
best features. Know what else needs a reboot? Your credit card info if your number gets
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