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Old 04-14-2003, 11:18 PM   #1
MadOnion
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Default Elite Force Under the Microscope

This lengthy excerpt from Gamasutra's latest feature article (registration required) offers a comparison between the success of Star Trek's Elite Force series and Star Wars' Jedi Knight series.

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Of Intersecting Sets and Elite Forces

A second-tier game will sell its most copies in the first few weeks when the early adopters who have kept on top of all the previews will buy the game. During this time period the online reviews are written up. To my surprise it appears that strong reviews cannot sell a game either. The most excellent Elite Force (not anywhere close to being a second-tier game) developed by Raven received the most stellar press reviews one could ask for, including game of the year from most publications. Built on the Quake engine and developed by a top developer, it had lavish press coverage generating plenty of awareness before the release of the title. The title was reasonably on time and reasonably bug-free. The team behind the game was so into the game, they produced a free expansion pack. Elite Force was firmly expected to be a major hit inside of Activision. I do not know the actual numbers on the internal return-on-investment worksheets, but I have heard they were expecting 700,000 to 1,000,000 units in the first year worldwide. Elite Force went on to do about one-third of those numbers. Why? Why did Elite Force not succeed when not a single person at Raven, Activision, or the press could have set the game up better for success? Is it bad luck? Is the gaming public so fickle?

I have a theory why Elite Force failed to meet Activision's expectations. First of all, the game did sell well at approximately 300,000 units generating a gross revenue of $15 million. That is enough money to make a living for all involved and keep at it. However, I think it is the expectations that were at fault; I don't think the game could ever hope to sell more units than it did. Sure a truly immense advertising campaign with television commercials played 20 times a day on all channels and appearances of the game on all of the late-night talk shows would have sold maybe 100,000 to 200,000 more copies, but Activision would have had to pay for each copy they were selling. My theory is that when you are experimenting with genre crossing and blending, be sure you are creating a union between the two or more sets of players you are marketing to, and not creating the intersection between these markets.

RAY MUZYKA SPEAKS: This certainly is an art form, but I think it can be done; it's just difficult. Creating the correct impression on the fans of both genres and making the parts that don't appeal to the other genre's fans at all times accessible is probably the hardest thing to implement, but this is critical to achieving mainstream success through selling to a few hard-core genres in a cross-genre game.

The two markets for Elite Force were the Star Trek gamers and the first-person shooter gamers. Activision has been working hard for years trying to find a breakaway hit for the Star Trek license they paid so dearly for, and teaming up with world class developer Raven and using the fabulous Quake engine should produce a lavish 3D-game with production values far and above any that a Star Trek gamer has seen before. And for the first-person shooters who are tired of blowing monsters up in worlds freshly created with little or no backstory, Elite Force offered the Star Trek universe, which consumers have had exposure to for over 25 years. Sounds wonderful, so why did this game not sell a million copies or more? Warcraft II was just a sequel to a game of orcs and humans gathering rocks and trees and banging on each other. That sold millions of copies; why shouldn't Elite Force sell a million? The reason is in the key design elements themselves; the very strategy used to make a hit-a cross between Star Trek and first-person shooters-is what held Elite Force back.

Let us first take a look at Elite Force from the perspective of a Star Trek gamer. Star Trek is about a starship named Enterprise exploring the galaxy on romantic adventures that are solved through cleverness, diplomacy, or the gunboat diplomacy that the Enterprise can deliver with photons and phasers. The Star Trek gamer is looking to live the experience depicted in the television episodes and movies. These episodes feature fantastic science, starship combat, and exploring various social themes in a futuristic context. Star Trek does feature combat between individuals in the form of the hand-held phaser, a device that you just point and shoot to disable or to disintegrate. This weapon reveals an utter disdain for prowess of personal martial skill; this hand phaser is almost a nerd fantasy where they can get back at every childhood bully by just pointing their garage door opener-and bzzt!-no more enemies. The Star Trek gamer is not looking for a first-person shooter; there is nothing in the Star Trek universe backstory that leaves the player wanting to explore a shooter. The most successful Star Trek games have been the adventure games 25th Anniversary and Judgment Rites, as well as the starship games of Starfleet Command, Starfleet Academy, and Armada.

From the first-person shooter perspective, an FPS player traditionally looked for the technically impressive and challenging games such as the Quake and Unreal series. However, after the release of the story-rich Half-Life, the industry realized that the FPS crowd would love to have a good reason to exercise their martial prowess. The creepy world of Half-Life is a good reason, the pulse-pounding excitement of World War II through Day of Defeat is a great reason, and hunting terrorists with a submachine is always great fun. But again the Star Trek universe lacks any compelling imagery of personal combat. Sure, Kirk would slug it out with the occasional alien, and Spock could put someone to sleep by pinching them; either way, Star Trek lacks that visceral appeal.

Star Wars, on the other hand, has a glorious tradition of martial combat on the personal scale through the use of light sabers. This style of combat was indeed a strong success with the Jedi Knight series from LucasArts. Finally, let me repeat, Elite Force was not an unsuccessful game; it was a great game, very well produced. And missing the expectations set for it is not a reflection on the execution of Elite Force, but rather a reflection on the key design concepts of the game.

About the Author: Eric Bethke is the CEO of Taldren, where he holds the position of executive producer and lead designer on Taldren's Starfleet Command series published by Interplay and Activision, as well as the upcoming title Black9 published by Majesco. Bethke has held a variety of positions in the game industry including senior group producer at Interplay. He has a bachelor's degree in aerospace engineering and has worked in the Space Sciences division at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

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