Vision Doesn’t Sell Copies

Founded in the midst of a Capcom shake-up in 2004, Clover Studios was a development group formed to “bring more originality to [Capcom’s] products, thus leading to higher profits and better brand recognition.” Clover’s team was a deep well of talent that represented the best titles in Capcom’s arsenal, from CEO Atsushi Inaba (Devil May Cry, Steel Battalion, Viewtiful Joe) to Shinji Mikami, best known for his work on Resident Evil, and Hideki Kamiya, a director on Devil May Cry. This talented team put together three original, cutting-edge games and, for their troubles, the studio was shuttered and the team dispersed. While most tales of talented developers that collapse involve big promises and little delivery, the fall of Clover is more tragic, largely because they accomplished their goals, furthering the budding Viewtiful Joe franchise and releasing two startlingly original games, Okami and God Hand.

Viewtiful Joe is a side-scrolling brawler on speed, the gaming equivalent of sitting down with a bowl of cereal on Saturday morning and watching brainless cartoons with flashing lights while sugar and bad translations rot your brain. In other words, it’s visceral fun unhindered by any notion of seriousness. The Clover-produced sequel, Viewtiful Joe 2, continued that formula and piled on more madness than any action movie fan could handle. Viewtiful Joe: Red Hot Rumble continued the series’ run on the GameCube, and Viewtiful Joe: Double Trouble brought the franchise onto the Nintendo DS. Reviews for all of the games ranged from good to great, earning the series praise for its old-school action and sense of humor. The DS title won an Editor’s Choice award from IGN, and Clover was quickly making a name for itself.

Their second project, Okami, was much more ambitious. Okami took players through a Japanese fantasy world that popped with color. The quirky storyline featured Amaterasu – the Okami – a sun goddess in the form of a white wolf. Amaterasu travels the world fighting creatures from Japanese myth to recover “brush techniques” that grant her the power to challenge the evil spirits plaguing the world. These techniques are the game’s real standout, as players actually use a Celestial Brush to draw on the screen and influence the course of the gameplay. Instead of mashing a button for a special attack, Okami lets players draw simple symbols. If they’re successful, the result shows up in the game world – a bomb to blow up a wall, a sword strike to defeat a foe, or even the sun itself, which brings the world to magnificent life.

Okami garnered a tremendous number of awards, including Game of the Year, Adventure Game of the Year, Best Artistic Design, Best Story and Most Innovative Design from IGN; a Game of the Year award from PlayStation Magazine; and Game of the Month awards from Game Informer and Electronic Gaming Monthly. Okami amassed an impressive Metacritic score of 93 and ranked 21st overall in Metacrtic’s Best PlayStation 2 Games category, behind the likes of Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence and ahead of Final Fantasy XII, not bad company for the fledgling studio.

Finally, in 2006, Clover released God Hand, the quirkiest game in their lineup. God Hand was a bizarre beat-’em-up with a weird sense of humor, a very original style and a very high level of difficulty. Critical reaction was mixed, but most praised the game’s nifty style and action, and for fans, it featured more in-crowd references than a Tarantino movie, though this was more about classic fighting anime and games than about Quentin’s film collection.

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Clover was riding high with games that were winning awards by the fistful and amassing a cult following of rabid fans. Unfortunately, that same accomplishment ultimately led to their demise. While niche gamers clamor for original titles with stylish graphics and new models of gameplay – and Clover delivered original titles with stylish graphics and new models of gameplay – it seems mainstream gamers would rather buy something else. Okami offered a fanciful adventure through Japanese mythology and sold 266,000 copies in North America and Japan. Inaba’s first Viewtiful Joe, which offered wild, hilarious 2-D action, sold only 275,000 copies against weak competition on the GameCube, and rattled to a stop with 46,000 sold on the PlayStation 2. The Clover-developed sequel, Viewtiful Joe 2, sold 61,000 on the GameCube and 18,000 copies of the PlayStation 2 version through December of 2004. God Hand fared no better than its more famous siblings, and, while hard numbers are hard to come by, sales were poor enough that the studio’s life was on the line.

Selling hundreds of thousands of copies might have been enough to keep a scrappy independent developer running, but for a division of Capcom, they were a stinging disappointment. By contrast, Dead Rising for the Xbox 360 racked up a million sales by the end of 2006. In January of this year, Lost Planet, another Capcom title, racked up 329,000 sales in North America alone. In one month, and one market, Lost Planet beat the entire lifetime sales of one of Clover’s titles. Ironically, the studios with the financial wherewithal to roll the dice on an artistic title can’t afford the low sales figures those games bring in.

At the end of 2006, the Board of Directors decided Clover’s time had come. The press release took the calm distance of an ER doctor, saying, “[While] Clover Studios Co., Ltd. has met the goal of developing unique and creative original home entertainment software,” their current business strategy demanded they focus “management resources on a selected business to enhance the development power of the entire Capcom group.” We like our illusions that everyone likes to make good games, sales be damned, but laid out in stark black and white is the truth of the gaming industry: Publishers will cut away the developers that don’t produce games that make them money.

Game Development by Darwinism demanded the dissolution of Clover, and the board complied, scattering the team. Some moved inside Capcom and some moved to Clover vet-friendly studio Seeds to lick their wounds and try again.

What if you made a compelling, original game and nobody bought it? In a post-shutdown interview, Inaba reflected, “I think that it is becoming almost ‘impossible’ for an original game to succeed financially. This can’t be blamed on anyone, but it’s a simple fact that an original game doesn’t appeal to the majority of gamers.” In other words, to read review sites and look around the community at large, what reviewers say they want are artsy, original games. The “vision” of games and game designers is trumpeted as a catch-all remedy for the heartless money grubbing of the big publishers, but when it comes time for that all important last step – the exchanging of money for goods and services – vision doesn’t sell games.

[em]Shannon Drake is a Contributing Editor for The Escapist and changed his name when he became a citizen. It used to be Merkw

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