I am not a naive person, I realize unequivocally that video games are made with the intentions of being sold for a profit and artistry takes a backseat in most cases, especially in the AAA space. The industry tip-toes the line between art and consumerism poorly, with reviewers struggling to judge games based on their intrinsic value opposed to their monetary value, but fundamentally we are writing about products meant to be sold. Companies, like Ubisoft, want to appeal to as many consumers as they possibly can, to sell as many copies of games as they possibly can, and they look to market research firms for help.
Vgmarket is a market research firm that specializes in play-testing, box/packaging testing, ad testing, price testing, even post-launch assessments. They’ve worked with the companies ranging from EA to Microsoft Games Studio to help homogenize AAA games. Vgmarket is a necessary evil, and I wouldn’t be so arrogant as to say what they do doesn’t work. However, I do believe that there is an alternative way to get consumer feedback. In a perfect world ask them directly, and that is exactly what Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag does.
When I initially encountered the feedback system in Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag I assumed it was part of the overarching narrative that puts players in the position of what is essentially a game tester at Abstergo Entertainment. I thought, “well that’s a nice little touch,” but that’s not all the feedback in Assassin’s Creed IV is. Through asking my fictional character how much they were enjoying the mission, Ubisoft was also asking me, the player, how much I enjoyed the mission. Devious, I know, but genius when I pondered it further. Most feedback on games is filtered through several different channels. Be it reviewers, forums, Twitter, Facebook, market research firms the task of finding honest feedback on a game must be daunting for developers and publishers. Even more so when taking into account that most things you’ll find on the internet are the very, very loud minority.
That’s where the idea of asking players for feedback can go wrong. Check Call of Duty: Ghost’s user reviews on Metacritic and you are bound to find something along the lines of, “I regret getting this game, its the same as mw3 just worse. They removed search and destroy, and the graphics look like a game from 2008!” Garrathol, the Metacritic user I stole the quote from, gave the game a resounding one. Again, a one is fine score for a game if Garrathol felt that’s what it deserved, but the average user score of Call of Duty: Ghosts is 2.3, with 356 of the 502 user scores being categorized by Metacritic as negative. Surely 502 user reviews are an infinitesimal sample size of the amount of people who purchased Call of Duty: Ghosts. But Imagine if Infinity Ward, developers of Call of Duty: Ghost, took the loud minorities feedback over the millions of silent presumably content purchasers? The results would be a game unfamiliar to the millions who enjoy Call of Duty as is. A game that could fail I fear the same over Ubisoft’s decision to include the feedback system in Assassin’s Creed IV. You can skip giving feedback altogether, and most will decide not to partake, leaving the majority of what Ubisoft sees being negativity.
In a perfect world Ubisoft would get honest feedback as to how much an individual enjoyed a section of Assassin’s Creed IV, but currently I can’t faithfully entrust the community to craft future Assassin’s Creed games. Game hobbyist are not designers, and in most cases, designers know better. Steve Jobs famously said, “people don’t know what they want until you show it to them,” and this applies undeniably to game design. Assassin’s Creed IV‘s feedback system could potentially take the risk from game development. For example, I remember vividly seeing naval combat in Assassin’s Creed III and thinking to myself, “who wants to shoot cannons at sailboats? Give me some battleships.” Luckily, Ubisoft didn’t ask me what I thought. I presumptuously wrote it off as a gimmick, nevertheless, naval combat was one of my favorite parts of Assassin’s Creed III. I, the consumer, was wrong.
Assassin’s Creed has become a relatively successful yearly installment, and the reason they have been able to do this is familiarity. Consumers know what they are going to get from an Assassin’s Creed for the price of $59.99. This is where I have inner turmoil about my feelings on the feedback system. I am a capitalist, I believe that the video game market needs successful games that appeal to everyone in order to survive. Blockbusters game that match the grandiose of movies like Transformers at the box office. These games, for better or worse, are the reason Microsoft and Sony stay invested in the video game industry.
Games, while being a huge investment, are a money pot when done right. Ubisoft has to make their money back on their investment. Regrettably, the alternative to Assassin’s Creed not selling is lost jobs. This is where my argument of “show people what they want” falls apart. I am invested in gaming, I will spend money on games that take risk, or look innovative, but people, like myself, don’t make up the vast majority of consumers that buy games. Assassin’s Creed IV’s feedback system has the potential (in a perfect world where the loud minority doesn’t reign supreme) to shape Assassin’s Creed games into a product as recognizable as the Big Mac. Something so safe and homogenized its investment is minute, but yields a hearty return to that investment.
I’m still flip-flopping on the Assassin’s Creed IV feedback system. I have been giving my honest feedback on the missions I’ve played, and I hope others do the same. Only time will tell how this little experiment will shape future Assassin’s Creed games, but as of right now I’m going to observe and hope Assassin’s Creed V has ninjas.