Poor, poor Psychonauts

Over at IGDA, Matt Sakey has a column lamenting the commercial failure of Psychonauts. He uses Psychonauts’ troubles as an example of the greater failure of both the video game industry and gamers: to move beyond a franchise- and blockbuster-driven, derivative model of gaming toward a future that celebrates the “artistic and thematic potential of gaming’s creativity.”

Overall, it’s a noble and worthwhile sentiment, one I’ve explored in several different posts. But Sakey’s argument is far too simplistic — and it attaches too much importance to the easily explainable failures of a single far-from-perfect game.

Sakey attributes Psychonauts’ failure to three different groups. First is Majesco for poor marketing. Second are gamers, who he says “didn’t ignore Psychonauts because it wasn’t their cup of tea, they ignored it because they couldn’t be bothered to look more deeply into the industry’s canon than Best Buy’s ‘Games that are just like GTA but not as good’ shelf.” And third — well, it’s not clear who exactly: “Simply put, people didn’t buy Psychonauts because no one told them it was there.” If groups one and three are primarily responsible, then he’s being unfair to gamers: It’s hard to find a game you don’t know you’re supposed to be looking for.

And it’s not clear why he counts Majesco as separate from that third group. There are two primary ways of telling an audience about a product: paid avertising and media coverage (also known as free advertising). Majesco clearly failed miserably on the paid advertising front. As I said in this post, Psychonauts was released for the PS2 on the same day as Destroy All Humans. Two quirky games featuring weird-looking creatures, same day. Destroy All Humans ads were plastered on EB Games and Gamestop windows and showed up in a host of magazines, gaming and otherwise; I feel like it was even on the cover of a gaming mag, but can’t remember for sure. And Psychonauts was advertised … pretty much nowhere. (My hunch is that Majesco’s late pickup of the game, which was originally developed for Microsoft, and Majesco’s overall screwups are responsible for all this.) Few magazine ads, few in-store ads. How were gamers supposed to know about it?

In the case of word-of-mouth movie hits and indie/underground music successes that don’t have big advertising budgets, this is where critics and media coverage come in. Sakey doesn’t mention this at all, but media coverage of Psychonauts was virtually nonexistant at first. By the holiday season, everyone was slobbering all over the game. But where were the Raz covers in July, the Second Looks in August, when it mattered? I know cover real estate is precious and a delicate situation, but you’d think — considering all the retroactive love — that someone would have tried to give a great, unheralded game a boost somehow. I’m guilty of this; Psychonauts sat on my shelf for a few months before I got around to playing it, and then I felt like it was too late for a review so I just included it in my holiday game guide.

There’s something else: Maybe, just maybe, Psychonauts has become a tad bit overhyped. The initial reviews were very positive, but nobody saw the game as a masterpiece: GameSpot gave it an 8.8; IGN an 8.7; and 1up an 8.5. Very good scores, but nothing like what Guitar Hero and God of War got. It’s those 10 and 9.6 scores that really drive an unheralded game.

And you know what? Psychonauts isn’t a masterpiece. It has a vibrant, totally unique visual style — a mashup between Tim Burton and Friz Freleng is the closest way to describe it — Futurama-worthy voice acting, and incredibly imaginative levels and design. It’s one of the few games that clearly is the product of one, unique creative mind.

But it doesn’t have, as Sakey says, “practically universal appeal.” It’s not a simple goofy platformer like Donky Kong. It has a confusing item collection and leveling system (find the PSI cards to increase your psi power, or find the psi cores to jump a level, or find the arrowheads to buy — I’ve already lost track). It takes forever for the story to take off, and you spend the first bunch of levels learning your powers. They’re funny and visually arresting levels, but slow nonetheless. Sometimes it’s hard to know where to go next — a killer if you’re unfamiliar with puzzle adventure games. And the controls and camera — especially in the latter half — range from poor to horrendous.

It’s precisely that sort of game — a bit different, a little hard to get into and far from perfect but still totally worthwhile and fun — that can use a good marketing and media push. And Psychonauts got neither.

Sakey’s larger point is a good one. We should be looking beyond franchises and movie spinoffs. We should be exploring video games’ limitless possibilities. Gamers should try new things. But the success of Nintendogs, God of War, Shadow of the Colossus, Guitar Hero, Geometry Wars, World of Warcraft, The Sims, DDR, shows that all this is happening. Nintendo looks to be building their entire company around such a strategy; EA has talked very publicly about riding Will Wright’s Spore to a new era in innovation. Skepticism and criticism are in order for sure, but things are looking pretty good.

So Psychonauts failed. So what. It’s lame, but what are you gonna do. Whoever puts out Tim Schafer’s next game will know to market it differently; the gaming press will have the story they didn’t have this time — brilliant creator of possibly brilliant game that nobody played returns — to give him some real coverage. But one game’s failure, especially when it’s so easy to pinpoint why it failed, doesn’t really tell you much of anything.

— April 7, 2006

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