Outsourcing works as a partnership – not a hand-off

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Outsourcing works as a partnership – not a hand-off

Why did DmC: Devil May Cry fail and Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance succeed? What can we learn from the stark contrast of these two very different attempts to outsource popular franchises?

You might argue, of course, whether the former failed at all. After all, the aggregate scores on Metacritic place the two roughly in the same niche – if anything, Rising scored slightly lower than its competitor. But the positive reviews of DmC have not been without controversy, and the sales numbers tell a very different story.

Rightly or wrongly (our opinions on each game can be found here), DmC was viewed as a betrayal by many of the franchise’s fans, and failed to draw in the sales Capcom had hoped. Rising, also an outsourced product initially seen as a divergence from the themes of its parent franchise, has been a strong financial (selling 759,487 units worldwide as of March 2nd) and solid critical success. Why?

Outsourcing, of course, doesn’t have the best history. Sometimes it’s done for reasons of cost, other times to appeal to another market. When done well – and there are examples of overtly outsourced franchise done right, notably Mercury Storm’s Castlevania: Lords of Shadow and Obsidian’s Knights of the Old Republic 2 – the publisher still gets credit for continuing the franchise. But when done poorly, heaven help the unfortunates chosen, who will no doubt receive the lion’s share of the blame.

So first of all: what motivates a studio to risk it?

Whether the medium is film or video games, cutting-edge graphics, high-quality sound and spectacular set pieces don’t come cheap. Producing any AAA title is an expensive undertaking, and most titles are not going to reap the enormous profits of this year’s latest iteration of Call of Honor: Duty Modern Warfighter Ops.

These obstacles are severe enough on a new intellectual property, but become ever more daunting on established franchises. Meeting or surpassing the production values of the title’s predecessors is just the beginning. The story may have been conclusively finished in a prior outing. Critical members of the former creative team may have found new projects or employment. Frequently, the project’s superiors want to expand the appeal of the franchise to new audiences, usually by mimicking the style and content of other, larger-audience titles.

What this means is tremendous, often risky investment. Is it any surprise that it’s sometimes seen as safer to hand the task of rejuvenating a fallow or floundering franchise to another studio? It’s a smaller investment in time, personnel, and capital than an internal development, and in the best case, provides a new perspective that may be sorely lacking in an established team. If they succeed, your brand name is revitalized; if they fail, you can easily blame it on the outside developer or make a clean break with the franchise. Everybody wins.

(Except, of course, when they don’t.)

Neither Rising and DmC would have existed at all without outsourcing, but the motivation behind the two projects was different. For Capcom, DmC’s being handed over to a Western developer was an act of reinvention, drawn to the sometimes-controversial developer for their acclaim on cutscenes as well as their past spectacle-fighter entries. They insisted Ninja Theory make a clean break from protagonist Dante’s classic appearance (to draw in a younger and broader demographic) and emphasized a “sense of reality” to ground a franchise whose exuberant, wish-fulfillment action fantasy had always been central to its charm.

By contrast, Kojima Productions gave Rising to Platinum Games because KP felt unable to realize their existing creative vision with the technical skills available to them, but believed Platinum’s development team had the skills and experience they wanted. (Rising had, in fact, already been shelved in 2010.) Rising’s storyline remained KP’s province under scriptwriter Etsu Tamari, though the two creative teams frequently clashed and many plot and narrative shifts were a result of Platinum Games’ suggestions. While the plot was written for accessibility to new players, Rising was still intended to stay true to the Metal Gear world.

It may be a mistake to overgeneralize – in reality Capcom contributed gameplay design advice and ten team members to the 100-man development team on DmC. And there are certainly flaws to DmC that go beyond a simple question of plot or visual style (Devil May Cry never being known for its brilliant plotting anyways), most notably its comedy-of-errors-marketing debacles.

But the difference of public impressions can’t be understated.

Capcom’s “Westernizing” outsourcing of DmC suggests an abandonment of their series’ creative heritage. It’s damning that they urged Ninja Theory, a studio chosen for its very “Western” style, to jettison traditional series aesthetics, a significant part of the appeal for fans. The mockery of much-beloved titles only made the shift rankle; by the time actual gameplay footage was up, fans had already been quite thoroughly alienated. The choice of a mostly clean-slate reboot is another risky, but telling decision – one that suggests Capcom either didn’t understand or didn’t trust their franchise. Neither of these decisions are bad on their own, but together, they suggest a product made by marketers, not artists committed to a strong creative vision.

What fans heard: Capcom thinks classic Devil May Cry is the problem and has brought on Ninja Theory to “fix” it.

By contrast, Platinum was brought on board the Rising project for a very specific reason: Kojima Productions wanted access to their strong technical skill. They had an idea of the story they wanted to tell, but they knew they couldn’t do it alone. In fact, their key motivation in doing so was to realize a vision tied to their prior work – to allow players to perform the sorts of stunts Raiden had already pulled off in prior games. And rather than simply abdicating the project to Platinum, KP continued to take an active and open role in their specialties (namely, the plot) and took pains to retain ties to the classic franchise for those who wanted them. Rising’s combination of strong creative vision and respect for the series’ canon and fans helped reinforce the idea that this was collaboration rather than a hand-off.

What fans heard was: Kojima Productions and Platinum Games love Metal Gear and want to tell a new story.

Audiences can accept many divergences and reinventions, but only so long as they appear to be made for a creative, not an economic, reason. Developers have an economic incentive to snatch up new playerbases and reinvent themselves to match market trends, but it’s not polite – or reassuring – to make these motives obvious. Collaborations between artists create excitement because of the mingling of styles and skills for a greater whole. Shameless cash-ins and sell-outs build only resentment.

And when you outsource to avoid paying the bills, or in an attempt to broaden your markets at the expense of your creative heritage, the message you send can all too easily be that you care about the franchise only insofar as it makes you money.

Then, you reap what you’ve sown.