One of the most fascinating presentations at this year's Game Developer Conference was given by a man I'd never heard of whose game, hasn't even been released in the United States. The presentation "Making Games for the Other 90%," chronicled the process of developing a game that would sell millions of copies, establish a franchise and get people who'd never picked up a controller to play a video game. The game was considered a joke when it debuted at E3 in 2005, but today, David Amor, Creative Director at UK-based Relentless Software, and developer of one of the best-selling PS2 titles of 2005, is the one laughing - all the way to the bank.
Released for the PS2 in 2005, Buzz!: The Music Quiz is, in every sense of the word, a casual game. Packaged with four brightly-colored buzzer peripherals, the game allows up to four players to participate in the equivalent of a game show in their own living room, using the buzzers to, well, buzz in with their answers. David Amor says that when they set out to develop Buzz!, they originally wanted to make an artful game with a unique, almost visionary design, involving a "crazy alien game show host," a cactus for a hostess and a singing clam. "I don't know what we were smoking," he says. What they made instead was a game which, at the request of Sony, the game's publisher, was "more like television."
"And I think it was the right decision," says Amor. "I think we have a tendency to add more complexity where it's not necessary. ... We had to be brave in a way to say ... we think people will be happy with [simplicity]."
Running counter to what seems to be common sense (in this industry), Relentless held back, safeguarded the envelope and released a game with very little inspiration, almost no "verve" and scored a near instant hit. Yet the game, unsurprisingly, received very little fanfare in the gaming press, and the company's showing at the E3 trade show in 2005 generated little buzz, if you will.
"Nobody really cared about [Buzz]," says Amor. "For some reason it's considered an un-sexy thing to be doing." Un-sexy perhaps, but profitable. In spite of negative, almost ireful reviews ("Buzz? Snore."), Buzz! had a strong retail showing upon release, and literally cleaned up over the 2005 holiday season.
"[Buzz! was] Sony's biggest-selling title of 2005 ... and way up there in 2006," Amor says. "[We] sold over 4 million units of the Buzz! franchise ... in its first 15 months. So by any measure it's a successful title."
In his presentation at GDC, David Amor outlined the characteristics of games that appeal to the mass market. Among them: familiarity, simplicity and approachability. Amor (as well as an increasingly large number of high-profile developers) believes that most games are too complex and too intimidating for non-gamers.
"People have a low threshold for wanting to find out how games work," says Amor. "When you create a game that has a new set of rules and spend a tutorial explaining how it works that's a very intimidating thing to have to do. I think if you make something that people know about already then you don't have to teach them so much."
This may be news to some developers, but not to web-based game developers like New York based Arkadium, one of a growing number of companies making so-called advergames, small, web-based games designed to promote and popularize a product and be fun at the same time. Their site, greatdaygames.com, which doubles as their portfolio and catalog, features over 100 small, efficient web-based games, many of which are quite capable of laying waste to an entire afternoon.
"As a whole there is this ... demographic for the 'not-hardcore' gamer," says Arkadium's Director of Game Production, Jeremy Mayes. "I think of my mom all the time. She emails me links [saying] 'Check this out. I played this for hours.' That sort of thing."