It’s an often told story in the fan circles for professional wrestling circles, but bear with me for an instant. In the late 90’s, when World Championship Wrestling (WCW) had introduced it’s New World Order faction, it was setting ratings on fire with Nitro, consistently beating the (then) World Wrestling Federation’s flagship, Monday night program RAW. The WWF needed an answer, and it delivered with what is now referred to as the “Attitude Era” – a time of edgy, risque story-lines, violent matches, blood-letting, debauchery and sex, racial stereotypes, bad-ass anti-heroes, stables and innovation.
Sure, some of it fell flat but the amount that soared, namely the rise of Stone Cold Steve Austin and the Rock, the introduction of Hell in a Cell, the corporate vs everyday man story-line featuring company president Vince McMahon, D-Generation X running rampant, Ken Shamrock schooling everyone and just the sheer amount of compelling content eventually helped the company reach it’s greatest highs. A feat which it has yet to replicate in the “PG Era”, where a smiling, goofy John Cena is now the face of the company (who’s having affairs and shaming women in front of a large, live crowd, mind you).
But the success of the Attitude Era only partly belongs to Vince McMahon. The largest part was his head writer at the time, Vince Russo, who wrote so many of the story-lines that went on to become successful. Needless to say, when Russo and McMahon parted ways, he was picked up for a very handsome sum at both WCW and, several years later, Total Nonstop Action. But we’ll get back to that.
Looking at Bungie Studios’ upcoming Destiny and Insomniac Games’ FUSE kind of reminds me of this classic tale of the benefit of a big publisher lording over the smaller studios.
Now don’t get me wrong: I still firmly believe that some of the best developers like Valve, Gearbox, Bioware and Telltale Games function best without the all-consuming corporate force guiding their every step. Hell, we wouldn’t even have had half the amount of innovations we do today if Valve didn’t take a gutsy risk with Steam, which is a booming success today and yet, still growing. And some of the biggest most successful companies have a sad history of dealing with their studios. How about the time Rockstar declined to give it’s San Diego branch any more money until the game was finished and delivered? How about the time Activision forcefully removed Infinity Ward founders Jason West and Vince Zampella from their jobs with the help of heavy-set security guards? How Microsoft and what it’s done to Rare? The examples are endless.
But it’s always stood to reason that without the big publishers, we wouldn’t have games like Mass Effect, Assassin’s Creed, Call of Duty: Black Ops, Halo, Gears of War or a ton of other successful franchise like we do today. Sometimes, larger than life experiences require larger than life budgets and publishers provide that a’plenty.
However, one thing seems to have escaped our notice that is slowly becoming apparent in today’s industry of multi-million dollar development studios: the role of publishers as filters.
Let’s look at Insomniac’s FUSE first. The game covers the team Overstrike Nine entering a restricted governmental facility yada yada to destroy some mysterious alien fuel FUSE but are under attack from a rival team who wants the FUSE for themselves to…I’m sorry, but I have to stop because I’m falling asleep just typing all of that. Factor in a bunch of cliches such as a character seemingly inspired by Lisbeth Salander from the Millennium Trilogy, a Gear of War style alpha-male leader, four differing characters with their own abilities a la Borderlands, the unhealthy heap of story cliches that seemingly recall Area 51, Independence Day, Aliens, etc, and the typically designed enemies set against environments highly reminiscent of Lost Planet’s tundras, and really, one has to wonder what Insomniac was thinking. If this is them while they’re independent, who knows what they’d create under a big studio?
Except we do know. Spyro the Dragon, Ratchet and Clank, Resistance – franchises which have been very successfully and quite fun. The Ratchet and Clank franchise is arguably one of the best platforming franchises of all time. How then, in the name of God, do you deliver a “brand new experience” as an independent developer with so many cliches then?
Coming back to the example of the WWF, while Vince Russo was the writer, Vince McMahon was the editor. There are still talks today about how McMahon rejected more than a few of Russo’s ideas, and how they would have come out far different if he wasn’t able to translate them for mass consumption. Again, this is neither giving credit to solely the writer or editor, but recognizing that both share a symbiotic relationship. Much like a developer and publisher when it comes to games.
Whatever happened to Russo? Well, after leaving the WWF because he tired of having his ideas filtered, he went to WCW and threw his ideas in there. Unfiltered by the corporate big-wigs and free to air. Unfortunately, WCW was beyond saving at the point and Russo’s writing only hastened it’s death. He then went to TNA, where he proceeded to deliver some of the company’s worst years in terms of content. There are reams and reams of stories about the insane booking decisions that Russo made, the incidents that left many wrestlers injured (including a female wrestler who had to retire because she took – no joke – a fall through a barbed wire table), the completely illogical story-lines that were continuously rehashed, repackaged and rejected and more. Those were the days when fans chanted “Fire Russo”. He has since left the company, his best years being very far behind him.
Now let’s look at Bungie’s Destiny. The game is billed as an MMO “sci-fi fantasy, action shooter”, which be part of a four game franchise and have four DLC expansions. This is part of a ten year publishing deal with Activision, of all people, which will see the first game releasing as a timed exclusive for Xbox 360 and the supposed next Xbox. Bungie, however, is maintaining the rights to the IP and as of now, will be functioning very much like an independent studio. Activision’s benefit from this kind of deal is that for the next ten years, it’ll reap a nice healthy profit. From every perspective, there are reasons to worry – the comparisons to Halo, their partnering with the notorious Activision who’ve milked Call of Duty to the brink of despair, but most importantly, being away from Microsoft.
While we haven’t seen much of anything from Destiny, we still have Bungie’s track record as an independent developer to look back on. It’s hard to believe but yes kids, they existed before Halo. Pathways into Darkness (a first person shooter), the Myth and Marathon series – heck, even Halo was Bungie’s idea before Microsoft bought it out. First starting out as a Myth-like RTS, Halo evolved into a third person shooter, but it wasn’t until Microsoft stepped in that we got the Halo we see today, namely one of the best first person shooter franchises of all time.
Bungie has a lot to live up to, for sure, with Destiny. Maybe they’re just trying to recreate the fabled Halo MMO that never got off the grown at Microsoft? It’s tough to say, and you won’t see Activision reshaping their vision as much as Microsoft did for Halo. The onus is then on Bungie to be able to act as both the creativity behind the game and the editorial side that can objectively view and deem what will be fun for fans. And hopefully, some one over there isn’t saying that it should look more like Halo to appeal to today’s gamers.
Both games are quite interesting, given the legacy that Resistance and Halo have built for themselves. At a point in time, they were in competition (which wasn’t really close) in terms of first person shooters. Now both are independent of the companies that brought them fame and riches, pursuing their own visions. And while freedom may be sweet, the safety net of a publisher who can filter out your ideas, translate it into something fun and relatable, and just help shape ideas and bring out their full potential is missing. How they compensate is up to them, though FUSE doesn’t give us much hope at this stage.