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Game publishing should be driven by fun, not sales - Grey Box

New publisher Grey Box and developer Petroglyph share their thoughts on business getting in the way of games creation

"Grey Goo is remarkable not for what it has added to the RTS formula, but what it has stripped away," PC Gamer wrote in its reveal of Grey Goo, a new real-time strategy game from the veterans at Petroglyph. Perhaps the same could be said of Grey Goo's recently formed publisher Grey Box, which is seeking to strip away the more negative aspects of game publishing. Suits and creatives typically will bump heads because the two sides are looking at the creation of games from wildly different perspectives. But what if they actually had the same goals?

Ted Morris, executive producer at Petroglyph, felt an immediate kinship with the team at Grey Box. "As a small [studio] - small being 50, 60 people - we are always talking to publishers to see what deals we can put together. But with Grey Box, I think that we meshed better on a personal level with them as a company and as a group of people than we have ever meshed with another group," he enthused to GamesIndustry International during GDC. "And we've worked with Sega and LucasArts - all the big guys - and certainly talked to everybody else, too - the EAs and everybody - and these guys - man, we just gelled with these guys so well."

Morris said that Grey Box's approach to publishing was noticeably different from the start. While other, larger publishers may immediately come up with marketing plans and sales targets, Grey Box found itself on the same page with Petroglyph: fun comes first.

"There's been such a gold rush for free-to-play right now... but it is driving developers like us to focus on money instead of making great game content"

Ted Morris, Petroglyph

"Every meeting that we have is always a sit down and then people open up financial books and they start talking about what the sales figures are going to be like, and when we sit down with [Grey Box], it's like 'how can we make a great game?' We don't even talk about money, we talk about 'how good can we make this game?' and 'how successful will it be?' You know, let the game drive the sales, don't let the marketing drive the sales, don't let the sales department drive the sales. It's really about, if you make a great game, they will come," Morris continued. "They spoke to that so often, so frequently that we thought, 'man, these guys just want to help us focus on what's really important.'"

One of the defining traits for publisher Grey Box is that they're all gamers at heart, noted Josh Maida, executive producer for the publisher.

"I'm not going to pre-judge any of those other publishers - I mean, for all I know they love games as much as we do. And we do. We all love games. We all come from different areas. I lost a whole grade point in college to Street Fighter, and... we want to be fiscally mindful. You need to make money, but with the money we make, we want to make more games," he remarked.

"So I think at the core of that is we're not trying to take away from the industry. We want it to feed itself and go bigger. Quality over quantity is something that we're mindful of. We also just want to make a good working relationship for our partners... everybody's in here for fulfillment. The talent we work with, they could all be working in private industries for twice the amount they do, but they're here because they love to make games, and so we want to be mindful of that. And when people die, they want to know they did great things and so we want to create those opportunities for people."

Tony Medrano, creative director for Grey Box, criticized other publishers for being too quick to just follow another company's successful formula.

"We're not chasing a trend, we're chasing something we believe in, we're chasing something we like, and we're not trying to shoehorn a formula or monetization model onto things that just don't work because they're popular," he added. "I think from the get-go, it's been all about how can we make the best game, and then everything else follows from that. I think a difference structurally [with other publishers] would be that we have a very lean and mean team. We're not trying to build a skyscraper and have redundant folks. Everybody that's here really cares, has some bags under their eyes from late nights... I think it is just that we look at all our partners as actual partners. We let them influence and make the product better, whether it's the IP or the game."

Speaking of monetization models, Maida commented that there's no "secret agenda to Zyngafy RTS or anything." Grey Goo is strictly being made for the PC, but the RTS genre easily lends itself to free-to-play. Upon the mere mention of free-to-play, however, you could almost feel the collective blood pressure in the room rising. It's clearly not the type of experience that Petroglyph and Grey Box are aiming for.

"It's almost as if the industry has forgotten about the intelligent gamer... They've tried to shoehorn gamers into a formula"

Andrew Zoboki, Petroglyph

For Petroglyph's Morris, in particular, free-to-play hit a nerve. "I'm going to jump in here, sorry. I'm really annoyed!" he began. "There's been such a gold rush for free-to-play right now that is driving publishers - I mean, there needs to be a good balance. There's a great place for free-to-play - I play lots of free-to-play games - but it is driving developers like us to focus on money instead of making great game content. I'm not going to name any examples, but I've been disappointed with some of the free-to-play offerings because it's not so much about making a great experience for the player anymore. It's about 'how can we squeeze them just a little bit more?' or annoy them to the point where they just feel like they have to pay."

Medrano added, "I get frustrated when I play free-to-play games, and if I purchase something, I feel dirty. I feel like 'oh, I got cheated, I fell for the trap.' Or even more modern games where they baby you through the whole thing. There's no more of that, like, 'this is tough, so that means if I get good at this, there's reward - there's something there.'"

Ultimately, while Petroglyph and Grey Box came together thanks to a shared love of the RTS genre, they feel there's a real opportunity to bring back hardcore, intelligent games.

Andrew Zoboki, lead game designer at Petroglyph, chimed in, "It's almost as if the industry has forgotten about the intelligent gamer. They feel like that everyone's going to be shoehorned in there, and I would say even from a design perspective that a lot of design formulas for a lot of things, whether they be free-to-play or what the mainstream is going to, next-gen and such, that all those titles are kind of a little more cookie-cutter than they probably should be. They've tried to shoehorn gamers into a formula and say, 'this is what a gamer is,' rather than understanding that gamers are a very wide and diverse bunch of individuals, everyone from the sports jock to the highly intellectual, and they all have [different] tastes... there's different games that will appeal to different demographics... if you make the games that players want to play, they will come."

And that really is at the heart of it. Morris lamented how business creeps into the games creation equation far too often. "They're trying to balance the game with Excel spreadsheets instead of sitting down and actually playing it and having focus tests and bringing people in and actually trying to iterate on the fun," he remarked about other publishers.

For Grey Box at the moment, the focus is on making Grey Goo the best it can be, but the company does have plans for more IP. It's all under wraps currently, however.

"We do have a roadmap, but it's not based off of the calendar year. We do have another game in the works right now and we might announce that at E3. And we have a road map for this IP, as well," Maida said. "Obviously we want to get it in the hands of players and fans to see what they respond to, but we've got capital investment in the IP with hopes to not only extend this lineage of RTS's but possibly grow out that franchise and other genres as well."

Grey Box plans to release Grey Goo later this year.

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Latest comments (7)

Axel Cushing Freelance Writer 7 years ago
Just to make sure I'm hearing correctly: a publisher is sitting down with the developers and the first question out of their mouth is, "How can we help make the game fun?" They don't want to make trendy games, or push them out on some punishing annual cycle. They believe that there is a demographic of gamer out there that does not consist of mouth breathing, profanity spewing, quasi-homophobic racists.

By golly, I feel like I now have a chance to put that unicorn head in the trophy room.
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Gabriel Islas Associate Interface Scripter, Electronic Arts7 years ago
I suppose some aspects of this is true, but nearly every company is pushing for a fun game.
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Martyn Brown Managing Director, Insight For Hire7 years ago
Do they need to be mutually exclusive? I think not. Make fun games for your audience and you'll make sales, then everyone wins. Try to make sales or fun for yourself and prepare to fail.
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Show all comments (7)
Reza Ghavami Marketing Analyst, NVIDIA7 years ago
Well done Petroglyph and Grey Box, for putting the focus back where it should be!
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Christopher Bowen Editor in Chief, Gaming Bus7 years ago
I think the problem is that even well intended leaders can go down the rabbit hole. They want to make a fun game. They know what players consider fun now. So they want to make sure that they make a really fun game, because those sell; they know the money will follow. So they focus test what's fun, and devote a lot of research to making sure they have the most fun game possible, and THAT is where companies start to go wrong. Because at that point, it's basically an unfeeling, uncaring robot yelling at developers to BE FUN. WE ARE HAVING FUN NOW STOP. THIS IS THE PARTY ZONE STOP.

This is notwithstanding people like Pincus, who really are wholly and singularly driven by numbers and metrics, as well as the lesser people trying to ape his work, who are not relevant enough for me to name. To them, this is just a fad to cash in on. But those people are becoming less and less relevant in this sphere.
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Bonnie Patterson Narrative Designer, Writer 7 years ago
^^ This.

I once saw a man who had a dream and founded a game company to make it. That game was HUGELY successful, at least in the market sector he was aiming for.

Then he had to make another game. He decided to make a game for little girls. Because it was designed to be fun for someone else, not fun for him, it became a robotic exercise. There was none of the passion and imagination in it that went into the other game, by which I mean he'd never sat down and daydreamed the evening away imagining playing it, as he had his first.

He even ignored what his researchers told him were the questions his research subjects had most eagerly asked about the game. Instead, he got his impression of what little girls find fun from forms and tick boxes that got processed through his adult male brain and printed out as a list of what little girls are supposed to like and slapped onto shelves in boxes that might as well have had "You will take what you're given and like it". They didn't.

It didn't help that it was a game they could play as easily on a 20p notepad from a dodgy newsagent either.

Daydreams and empathy are the cornerstones on which this industry is built - disregard them at your peril.
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Paul Jace Merchandiser 7 years ago
Unfortunately, as long as the majority of big game publishers are publicly traded companies their game publishing will indeed be driven by sales first and fun second.
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