The first article in my column on managing game development went up today. Martin Donlon came up wtih the title: Manager In A Strange Land. (By the way, there should be a name for blogs that have like, two-three entries in them that haven't been updated in months.) I'm nervous. When you put yourself Out There, some percentage of people are going to think you're an idiot. But such is life.
I'm about to take potshots at my own company here, so I should emphasize: the comments and opinions on this website do not reflect the opinions of Treyarch or Activision. I'm a guy in the trenches; I don't get to see the P & L's; I basically don't know jack about the decisions made behind closed doors in Washington.
Anyway, pretty soon Activision is coming out with True Crime: Streets of LA, our attempt at a GTA killer, which will put us in the me-too ranks with other titles like The Getaway, Simpsons: Hit & Run, and Roadkill. Each of these products tries to differentiate itself from GTA a different way, be it "The Simpsons", or "A Post Apocalyptic Future", or "You're In A Movie" or whatever. How is True Crime differentiating? With one simple word: "truth." True Crime is going to be more True, that is, more Real than GTA. The driving, fighting, and shooting are going to be next level immersive stuff.
Sounds decent. GTA but better. I might buy that. I'll give this marketing effort a B.
But still, imagine Joe Sixpack Xbox owner walking into EB and saying, "I heard Grand Theft Auto comes out for the Xbox today." He'll see not only Grand Theft Auto, but also this True Crime game. "True Crime?" he'll say. "Supposedly like GTA but better? Well, how come I never heard of it?" And he buys GTA.
In Differentiate or Die, Jack Trout says if you're not the leading brand with the killer attribute - then you should go "opposite" the leading brand's killer attribute. Pepsi's answer to Coke being the original is "We're for the new generation." McDonalds owns "fast"? Fight back with "We take the time to do it better." (Or - McDonalds is for kids. Be for adults.) Avis's most succesful ad campaign was "We Try Harder"; when they gave that up, they started losing market share. When 3d Realms & Remedy looked at Tomb Raider and asked themselves, "How can we go opposite of this?" They came up with an ugly male cop game, where shooting was emphasized over climbing. They came up with Max Payne. Maybe not as succesful as Lara Croft, but still wildly succesful.
What attribute does GTA own? Crime. It is, hands-down, the leading crime game. How do you go opposite of crime? Law enforcement.
Activision, at some level, knows this. What is really hard to tell from the marketing for True Crime is that it's a law enforcement game! You play a cop who takes the law into his own hands. It really is the opposite of GTA, and it could own the word "Law" in the same way that GTA owns the word "Crime." When True Crime was greenlighted, Activision was taking a play from Trout's playbook. A genius play: imagine walking into EB, and seeing a poster that says, "Sick of being the bad guy?" And the game has some cool law enforcement name, like, Police Procedure or All-Points Bulletin. (Side note: the arcade game All-Points Bulletin, with its top-down mission based policeman-in-the-city gameplay, is the ancestor to GTA. Wouldn't it be fun to bring that title back, and have heritage on your side as well as your good-guy position? "Before there was Grand Theft Auto - there was All Points Bulletin.") And you can keep the "Streets of LA" subtitle, since it's evocative of The Streets of San Francisco. Now people walking into EB aren't making a choice between which is the better crime game. They're making a choice between "Do I want to be a bad-guy or a good-guy?"
I know what you're thinking: "People these days, they all want to be bad." I might be willing to accept that most people want to be bad. I want to be bad. I went the dark side of the force route in Knights of the Old Republic, for example. The thing is, as long as some significant percentage of people would rather be cops than robbers, that's sales for you, almost regardless of which is the "better" or most popular game. Not only that, but you pull in the people who refuse to play GTA because they don't like the moral connotations (I have friends like this. Really.) and you pull in the large segment of mothers who would rather have their kids grow up to be cops than criminals and you get the T-rating instead of the M so you're more likely to get on the shelves at Wal*Mart. Finally, I think a significant percentage do root for the good guy. Consider Bad Boys 2 - by all accounts an atrocious movie, still a box office smash.
Believe me, at it's core, at it's inception, the theme of True Crime - you're a cop who takes law into his own hands - is genius.
But then Activision went and called it True Crime! And buried the law enforcement angle so deep I can barely even tell from the ad copy that's what it's about. All those people who want to play cops, and their mothers, are going to go into EB and they're going to think it's just another GTA. What the hell happened? I'm reminded of the scene in Dr. Strangelove: "Of course, the whole point of a Doomsday machine is lost if you keep it a secret!"
Here's where I pull theories out of my ass. Theory 1: nobody told the advertising/PR department what the plan was. Although a shrewd marketer came up with the idea for a GTA-like game about law enforcement, he may have been part of development, or an executive, and therefore not actually, technically, part of the department that does our advertising and PR, which we call marketing, although that is somewhat of a euphemism, as they don't actually get to pick what products are greenlighted. So when they got their hands on it, they wrote down a list of its features, ran it by a focus group, which probably told them that crime was cooler than law, but realism sounded good, and there you have it. True Crime.
Theory 2: we lost our nerve. It sure looks like crime pays, doesn't it? Hard to argue with those numbers. Are you sure you want to make a cop game in this climate? It sounds risky. If I push for a cop game, and it doesn't sell well, I might lose my job. But if I go with the flow, hey. At least when the game doesn't sell it won't be my fault. I was just going with the numbers.
I wish there was some way to prove that I'm right, and Activision marketing should have pushed the law enforcement thing. No matter how well True Crime does, I'm going to believe it could have done better if we'd pushed the law enforcement thing.
The only way to prove me right will be if somebody makes a law-enforcement game where the marketing rides that angle, and spends a similar amount on marketing it. If it does better than True Crime, then I win, and I should switch careers from programming to marketing. If it does worse, than I should stay in the trenches and keep my mouth shut.