Never forget what product you are selling.
“It doesn't feel honest to me anymore… That is why my brain, at this point, is not able to make all-new games that will be satisfying and successful to my audience.”
For all the hardcore realism you’ve always exuded, all the focus on the game’s industry as an industry, this as a job first and foremost… even the Grumpy Uncle of Game Development can’t escape the doldrums of disillusionment poisoning one’s art. Because yes, it IS still a job, yes it is still a matter of markets and product and income and hard questions of capital reality, but… it’s still, STILL an artform, still a creative endeavor, and still vulnerable to all the “flighty” problems that the business mind can’t address or solve.
There’s no logical argument to “solve” or “cure” this – you’ve all the logic and reality you need already if that could be done. But it can’t. And how logical is it to try and “logic” yourself into good vibes and happy endings? …
But I think it’s because you’ve taken to tackling issues that aren’t really meant for nice, “and everyone lived happily ever after.” Exile/Avernum was, in terms of the “issues” a fairly straightforward good vs. evil affair – triumph is simple, doable, obtainable. Slay the dragon, beat the bad guys, avenge the wronged, free the prisoners, and everyone good is there after happy.
But none of your other series have done that.
Geneforge – what is the relationship between creation and creator, and when power is dangerous, where does the line between safety and oppression get drawn? Avadon – how does one balance power and safety and the greater good of all? In the fog of politics and the threat of war, where does one divide authority from tyranny? Queen’s Wish – Nationalism, family, colonialism, culture and conscience get all get drunk at the Independence Day party in your soul – who do you arm with sparklers?
Aside from Avernum, the body of your creative work isn’t conducive to sparkly, happy “simple” endings. You’ve always worked from bigger, thinkier, more complex angles. I can’t fathom anyone playing a Spiderweb Software title expecting a Doom 2016 type experience. From the perspective of perfect narrative resolution “power fantasy” has never been what you do. Even in the original Geneforge, most of the factions were going to get screwed, however you felt about them.
All that said… could Queen’s Wish stand to lighten up? … yeah. Too much focus went into the unyielding, resolution-less misery of the world. There wasn’t just too much you couldn’t fix, and there wasn’t enough positivity to make you want to fix what you could. Fewer unsolveable problems, more enticing factors about the world and its people – perfection isn’t reasonable, but a little less Martin and a little more Tolkien would have made for a more palatable setting. There are problems and imperfections and drama, but there’s gotta be something there worth fighting for. As long as the player has something to love, they'll be motivated, even if it means they need to bulldoze everything else to preserve, protect, or enthrone that thing.
But… if you can’t bring yourself to do that anymore, then you simply can’t. Period. And no amount of random internet discourse is going to change that.
I actually really liked Queen's Wish 2 despite the added realism because if you struggled hard and were exceptionally careful, you could still make things -better- in some way you cared about.
You couldn't make anything roses and sunshine, but if you picked your battles and were very diplomatic, you could at least win whatever you felt most strongly about.
It's something I feel is lacking in a lot of modern games, there's the rawr evil person path and the yay good person path, but it's a rare game that makes you struggle to effect positive change in a system while still dangling the potential in front of you. I really enjoyed trying to drag my fantasy family to being slightly better people while still fighting for my fantasy family and its empire instead of against them. It was really interesting to play a literal role and try to do it well rather than just impose my entire will upon the world.
I don't think I can disagree with you about this being less popular and selling less, but I thought I'd at least thank you for making Queen's Wish more complicated and honest without just making it 'everything is awful always'.
I think a player's desire for mastery/achievement is its own consideration, and separate from a player's desire for control/power. Different players weight these two elements differently (but want both), and different games weight them differently, but a game tends to need both elements in order to be a game.
Mark Rosewater's seminal game-design column about the psychographic profiles of Magic players (Timmy, Johnny and Spike) speaks to how players weigh those two primary considerations - Timmy is your traditional power gamer, whereas Spike seeks mastery. Johnny represents a different execution of 'power' which is more about creatively exploiting the game engine.
I've always phrased this as 'selling the illusion of control'. Games tell you that your existence, decisions and choices matter, because as humans we like to think that's true. All puzzles are solvable, all jumps can be made, all enemies defeated. I think using a lot of RNG violates this, which is why it narks so many people. Oddly, in board games people are a lot more accepting, possibly because they're rolling the dice.
I understand the need for attention-grabbing headlines, but really - saying "all (most) games need to be 'power fantasy' because players like to win" is a bit like saying "all (most) music needs to have some kind of harmony, because it's pleasing to hear". It's mostly a true statement, yet also mostly useless, because it stretches the definition too wide.
And I particularly disagree with the jump in logic from "players like to win" to "all games must have absolutely happy endings". A downer ending where everything goes to shit everywhere might trouble some people enough to avoid the next game in series - though I'd like to see some numbers on that, because I, for one, would like to buy the next game exactly to see if things might get better after such bad ending. But "some things go well, some things go badly" approach to endings is such a staple of western RPGs that I have to disagree about its negative impact on sales wholeheartedly. For a recent example, both Pathfinder games - and especially the second one! - offer quite a number of sad epilogues - both for you, and for your companions, and for the world itself. I don't think it's even possible to get a happy ending for everybody and everything, and even if it is, only very few players are going to achieve it, because it requires a lot of fiddling.
Do players complain? Yes, they do, mostly about one companion character they cannot redeem. Will these people avoid the third Pathfinder game if it ever comes out? Surely not, at least not for this reason.
In general, I think you're being too hard on yourself - or fishing for compliments. Since I can't back Geneforge 2 KS, here's some: your games' endings are actually great and in no way prevent me from buying any more of your games, and in fact one of the factors driving me to purchase them.
I am a crafter. I earn my living making things that people buy. I tell new crafters that they have to get rid of the notion that the dream they have been nurturing and polishing and detailing for the past X many years is going to make them successful; instead, they have to pay attention to and provide what their customers want. Not what they say they want, what they show they want with their hard-earned dollars. That is a universal truth about making things for people to buy, whether it is wearables or food or ornaments--or video games. In gaming, it is the power fantasy for the overwhelming majority of gamers. Or, as you put it:
NEVER FORGET WHAT PRODUCT YOU ARE SELLING.
Good advice. It probably ties for first place as the most important bit of advice with "Don't underprice your work!"
'Power fantasy' definitely feels pejorative, but I take your point.
A somewhat more academic take is in: [Agency as Art](https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/48765399-games) that I heard discussed on - [The Decision Space Podcast](https://decisionspace.podbean.com/e/games-are-agency-as-art-a-new-way-to-talk-about-games-with-c-thi-nguyen/)
But why we play and enjoy games is a genuinely meaningful cultural question.
Do you remember Minsc from the Baldur's Gate series? His battle cry was "Butt-kicking for goodness!" And it's mine, too. I like to feel powerful in a game, but I don't want power for power's sake; I want it to make the world -- depending on the game -- more fair, more just, or more safe.
I loved the FIRST Queen's Wish, because I got to use my power to make the Vol stop keeping slaves. I got to give power to the people in the woods who actually cared about their society, instead of the people who were lost in dreams. I was eager to make the world a better place in Queen's Wish 2 ... and then discovered that I can't. Everybody in QW2 sucks, and I quit halfway through, because I didn't want to help any of them.
Yes, the real world IS unfair and unjust and unsafe. But we play games to get away from the real world for awhile, to live the dream where WE can make the world a fairer place. Sure, I donate to worthy causes, to try to make the real world a fairer place, but the real world is too large and complex for my individual actions to matter very much, especially because I'm partly disabled and can't do much. In the game world, though, I can stand up for the little people and make the world a better place.
Jeff, are you SURE that squashing your players' desire to make the world a better place is the right thing to do? To me it seems cynical and nihilistic.
You sound like you are getting ready to retire—at least in terms of new games.
I'd really like to see EXILE 0: The First Explorers, before you retire.
I think that's a story that hasn't been told, and although they all died as I recall, you could add in a story of the adventurers that managed to survive and felt powerful afterwards.
I'm not sure I agree with you about this as it pertains specifically to your games. Avadon: The Black Fortress was pretty depressing and everything you do is wrong, but I still bought Avadon 2. Avadon 2 was even worse, probably the most depressing game I've ever played. But I still bought 3 (and both Queen's Wishes). Apparently, you have the talent to really screw with us without driving us away.
You know, seeing an effing Yu-Gi-Oh game, of all things, considerably above Overwatch, Team Fortress 2 and all FIFA games in that Wikipedia list of most played games really caught me by surprise.
"The trademark quality of our Geneforge games (Kickstarter happening now!) is being able to summon hordes of disposable monsters to fight for you. Brutal, yes, but very satisfying."
Huh. Guess I played all the way through the Geneforge series without experiencing its trademark quality.
Yes, I played monster-summoning characters. I would wait as long as possible before making a new creature, in order to get my own character's stats up so as to create the strongest "base" monster possible. Then I would spend further points to improve their stats instead of making new monsters. I restored to a saved game if any of my creatures died, with one exception: if the game became insurmountably difficult because I had essence tied up in some weak Fyora that I made at the very beginning, I would reluctantly let them die in battle so I could make a new creature of a better species. I never reabsorbed monsters or created exploding monsters.
I hope this style of play is still going to be possible in the remasters. :)
I loved Queen's Wish 1 but gave up on Queen's Wish 2 halfway through, because I didn't LIKE anybody in the game and didn't feel good about helping any of those folks. That you did this INTENTIONALLY, in order to make me feel bad, makes it all the worse.