The power of the Customer

The customer chooses whether or not you succeed or if you fail. This can’t be overstated, but what has been understated that not all customers are one group. Take a sample of any consumer group, be it fans of a franchise, soda drinkers, candy eaters or whisky juggers, you’ll always find that they have something in common and something very much uncommon with each other. Within your target audience, you can’t appease everyone. You can hit different parts of your target audience with multiple products that appease different varieties of tastes, even if those tastes might clash harshly against each other. There’s a reason one of my random banners at the top is quote from Sam Walton, the founder of Wal-Mart, stating the there’s only one boss, the customer. Money moves almost everything in our daily lives, from the power you’re getting from your wall outlet to the clothes you’re probably wearing. Simple change in spending habits, like going to another chain’s store than your usual one, can affect things rather strongly. While the Internet has made campaigning against and for something so much easier, compared to letter campaigning or phone calling, the best form of stance taking is still hitting where it hurts the most; the wallet. However, wallet voting has taken hit on how effectively it is. The Internet has allowed movements to become louder and more obtuse, especially with the advent of social media. This has obfuscated the real amount of consumers doing anything, as majority of consumers are still silent. That is to say, most companies hear the voice of the minority of their customers, which leads only small sects sometimes impacting production, sales and whatnot of products that would otherwise have normal sales. Reasons vary, from mother’s campaigning to pull out GTA V from Target’s store shelves in Australia or some animal awareness group pointing out how Pokémon is animal abuse, you can take your pick from whatever ideological and political spectrum and you’ll find a group that’s making noise.

The creative industries have a hard time dealing with consumer wants and demands from time to time. Individual entrepreneurs have probably the hardest time finding and keeping a customer base. Individuals have to do everything on their own, and very few realise early on that having sensible finances and being able to keep your own book is highly important. Nowadays it is easier to find your own niche, though competition is even fiercer. Despite the rosy image of an artist giving his heart and soul to the piece and sees the world celebrating it, the reality is that artists still work in a service industry and their work needs to reflect the consumers. While art is culture, it is also a consumable. Only a fraction of a fraction of works that get cited as art will enter the cultural lexicon, something that’s becoming ever increasingly difficult as out 24/7 cycle of everything sees everything getting old within a matter of days. Fifteen minutes of fame has been reduced to closer to five.

The net’s full of comparisons like this

This has lead some to question if fans, a.k.a. consumers, have too much power over the products they consume. Or to put it like BBC Culture did, are fans too entitled? To touch the opinion piece a little bit, it mostly covers history of fans able to change and influence creators, citing examples like Sir Conan Doyle resurrecting Sherlock Holmes ten years after killing him off due to an intense reaction from the readers. For 1893, maybe ten years was long enough time for the books to spread. That, or in reality the considerable large sums of money ultimately changed his mind. After all, that made him one of the most well paid writers of his time. Stephen Kelly, the aforementioned piece’s writer, considers the change of Sonic’s model change in Sonic the Hedgehog unprecedented in modern relationship between artist and fan, something that is false. Video game characters have seen redesigns from time to time for numerous reasons after fans backlash, or have the perceived atmosphere has directly impacted the designs. This most notably has affected female characters, while the male characters have been left mostly alone. From Final Fantasy VII Remake‘s Tifa being more toned down compared to her original design (despite still getting riled by some) to something minor like a win pose being changed in Overwatch. While changing how Sonic looks in his movie resulted in tons of good PR, and the staff have been saying the fan feedback was invaluable. Whether or not this is a positive example is really up to you. Whether or not you prefer the original movie Sonic design compared to the current one.

The point of the piece is whether or not fans have entitlement over the things they buy. One example she cites where a minority of fans hammered down a movie despite critics and other fans liking it is The Last Jedi, though now that we’re two years after the fact looking at the results of the film, and how it affected the franchise as a whole, it wasn’t exactly a minority that rejected the movie. Sure it has its core fans, but the culture and general consumers at large simply for numerous reasons, which all can ultimately be bogged down as They didn’t like it. The franchise is feeling and reeling from the after shakes still, and will be for the foreseeable future. Kelly tying identity politics with Star Wars and the 2016 Ghostbusters is false, as the 2016 Ghostbusters is simply a terrible movie that failed to launch a new franchise for Sony to bank on. Then again, #GG is used as a boogyman in the piece and represented highly inaccurately, and really has nothing to do with anything aforementioned. There is no true conclusion to Kelly’s writing outside Fans are the problem, but fans are also the solution, which really means jack shit.

Let’s take a recent case about fans being split about a character redesign. A Japanese illustrator and character designer named Ban was employed by Flame Toys to redesign a Transformers character named Windblade for their Furai Model line of model kits. Flame Toys is known to redesign characters while working under Hasbro’s license, and these redesigns can be drastically different from the original works. If you check Ban’s Pixiv, you will notice at least two things; clean and smooth style, and that a lot of his works are Adult Only. His works are hard to represent in plastic due to him employing some shading and linework that works only in 2D. After Flame Toys revealed Windblade’s physical prototype in New York Toys Fare, there was a backlash against the design, forcing them to take down their posts on social media. The designer, Ban, still retained the prototype images on his Twitter.

Arguments about this design were conflicted. While a portion disliked it, a larger portion seems to like it. Difference is, most of the detractors on social media were English speaking customers, while the customers with positive feedback shared both English and Japanese. Unsurprisingly, few different posts explaining the backlash to the Japanese fans popped up, to which some Japanese laughed at and some thought the situation was unfortunate. Criticism ranged from it not being aligned with the original design of the character, which should have been a given seeing this is a Flame Toys product and that The Transformers toyline is full of redesigns of all sorts, to all the way how Ban’s design gave the character bikini, despite Wingblade’s bust and crotch always had red accents, as seen on the right. The wings where a sticking point to some, as they seem to be clipped in Ban’s redesign. This is of course natural, as Ban emphasized their nature as the bow in obi, the sash Japanese use with kimonos. I didn’t hear anything about the head crest’s size, but some issues with the second proto photo’s pose, and some were asking why the other, masculine models weren’t put in the same position. This is an example of false equivalency though, as what attracts men and women, and what shows their best sides, is different between the two sexes. The two sexes also value each other in different ways, emphasizing regions of body in altogether different manner, which is very much apparent in most more designed Transformers toys, where masculine emphasizes can be seen on broad shoulders, well defined chest and flat, sixpack stomach regions. Let’s not forget strong chins.

If I’m honest, I never liked Windblade’s design. The head crest is silly, the wings looked dull and generic, turbines everywhere, they manage to make the face look terrible, not much unique body definition after seeing what sort of design Animated series had. Personally, I don’t think Transformers as a whole needed sex, the species is mechanical in nature and could’ve been treated as one-sex or sexless

The fans were split, and not evenly even. This is an example where smaller sections of the target consumer group was split on a character design. You had a section that disliked it, you had a section that was as vocal about liking it, and then you have those who don’t really care. This is a gross simplification, as the reality is that there are thousands of small fractured groups working under similar umbrellas. Some have echo chambers, some don’t even interact with the rest of the fandom, and some simply had no interest on the topic as it was about a model and not about a transforming toy. Considering Furai Model kits are targeted at adult collectors, the niche audience this model was targeting most likely already excluded a lot of voices on both sides. A French Youtuber put many peoples’ thoughts rather well; There is a store package version for children, and this model kit is clearly not for them, but one of the many adult collector’s figurines. It’s pretty funny to use the term “objective” about a machine… Last bit of course refers to the complaint that Ban’s design is sexist and makes women sex objects. It considering this is a robot toy, objectification of a fictional robot is expected, as that’s what making a toy is. The design is sexy without a doubt, with expected curves, but as a friend so elegantly put it, You’re telling me Ban draws something else than boys with dicks? the design is rather held back from what it could have been.

If we are to consider the creative industries, or just arts, as something untouchable by external forces, why shouldn’t Flame Toys celebrate Ban’s redesign of Windblade and sell it to the customers? Or should they listen to the part of their broader possible customers and cancel it, losing whatever money they’ve had thus far in the production? If we were to stick with the idea that art should be independent and ignore both positive and negative feedback, Sonic’s designs wouldn’t have changed and Flame Toys would still have their New York Toys Fare posts up just fine. Some might see this as false equivalency due to supposed ideologies and whatnot, but stripping all the excess fat off and getting to the point, it’s all about customers voicing their opinion on a revealed character design.

Every kind of design and form of media has its customers. One thing has more than other, I doubt anyone really contests that in a serious discussion. However, not all products require to sell high numbers. Prestige and deluxe products are intended to be produced in relatively low quantities but in high quality. Their price tag represents this, often tacking more than few zeros at the end. The main difference between the two main examples in this post, Sonic the Hedgehog is intended for all audiences at an open marketplace. Furai Model Windblade on the other hand is (maybe was at this point) targeted at a niche of a niche market, an adult collector who builds robot models. The two markets are at rather opposite ends in popular culture media landspace, but not quite.

There’s no real stance here regarding the blog. While one of the stances this blog has is pro-consumer, it also supports the idea of companies looking at the cold data over customer response. The reason for this is that the customer doesn’t know what they want. We as customer think what we want, but when we’re given options to choose from, we often find ourselves picking something completely new, something we didn’t expect we’d want further down the line. Despite customers voicing their disagreement at times, offering variety of products is as important to hit all the niches in your targeted customers. This of course leads into juggling with the PR, both positive and negative such move creates, but that’s business as usual, as this is a chance to use both positive and negative attention for net positive gain.

Switch the talk from hardware

I really do sound like a broken record at this point. With the leaks about Switch being less powerful than the PlayStation 4, things have gotten on the overdrive again with calling it a failure on the launch. None of Nintendo’s more powerful consoles have been a success. As Yamauchi said, a game console is just a box to play games on.

Take a look at Nintendo’s history with consoles. NES was underpowered compared to its competitors, yet it came on the top. Well, except in Europe, where Nintendo fucked their marketing and Europeans had their computer games. SNES was ultimately weaker than the Mega Drive thanks to the addons and despite them still came to the top, not to mention the other competitors of the time. N64 failed despite having more powerful hardware than the PlayStation or Saturn. GameCube too was ultimately a failure despite topping the PS2. The Wii was a massive hit despite being weaker. The Wii U on the other hand had jack shit when it came to software (just like the N64) and had that huge controller nobody wanted. The same can be seen in the handheld market. The Game Boy slaughtered all of its competition as did the DS. The Vita could have trumped the 3DS if it had any software worth shit, but SONY repeated the exact same travesty they did with the PSP.

The common consumer doesn’t give jack shit about how strong a console is. Why? Because they know hardware does not mean better games. People absolutely hate paying for new hardware, because it’s the games that matter. The hardware race has always been part of the PC culture, not console. Consoles have been about software race. Tech fans no need to apply for console gaming, if we’re being brutally blunt here.

Because Super Mario Bros. was such a success, you saw a lieu of games trying to replicate its success, most notably Sonic the Hedgehog. The developers just need to do their job and optimise the games, and even better, design games from the ground up for the Switch and all is golden. Of course, because everything just runs on the same engine as everything else and nobody bothers doing any extensive optimisation to ensure the smoothest possible experience (or even know how to do that at worst case) we’ll just get sad and hastily put together ports.

Consumers never bought Nintendo consoles for them being Nintendo consoles. Not outside fanboys. People bought them for the software, for Mario and Zelda. People bought PlayStation for the same reason; it had games they wanted to play, not because the hardware. Nintendo is not a niche as some would assume because of their approach. No, on the contrary. Their consoles tended to be cheaper and smaller than the competitors’ because of matured technology. This is again one of those things we’ve gone over so many times, but seems like people are still ignoring the fact when Nintendo uses Gunpei Yokoi’s philosophy alongside Yamauchi’s, they strike gold. Nintendo, when they are at their best (NES, Game Boy, Wii) Nintendo is far from being a niche. Electronic games isn’t just a hobby of selected group of people, but something all can enjoy, and striking that Blue Ocean should be expected and even wanted, not the opposite. Losing hope over lack of hardware prowess is useless. Your life doesn’t depend on a game console, go outside camping sometimes.

Switch has few points going for it that most seem to ignore. One is the cartridges. This needs more fanfare, as it means the games themselves will be far more longlasting than the optical media. The lack of long loading times helps too. Oh now you care about hardware? Oh you. Secondly, the fact that the Switch is a hybrid also means the games are not required to be connected to the Internet all the damn time.

The biggest problem the Switch currently has is the fact that Nintendo isn’t showcasing any of that software. This is the sole reason why people are talking about Switch’s hardware to the extent they currently are and each and every bit of information is torn apart. There’s nothing else to talk about the Switch, and I haven’t seen anyone else to discuss its design either. The latest The Legend of Zelda got pushed back too, so the media can’t discuss that either. So, hardware it is for them to keep the clicks up. I guess I’m no better, commenting on the fact. Unless Nintendo rolls something significant on the software side with the Switch, there’s no valid reason for me to discuss it any further.

One of my New Year’s promises should be to throw this broken record to trash and just re-blog the sentence Software matters more than hardware whenever applicable.

Get rid of story, replace it with gameplay

People are talking about stories within video games thanks to Skyrim and Mass Effect 3. Some people I’m communing with praise Skyrim for its storytelling and options the game gives the player. They’re mainly computer game players, so let’s give them a little bit of credit.

But video games are games. In their inherent nature they do not need a story. In Mass Effect the first three hours I spent more time trying to skip through the story because I wanted to play the game, and then I ended up with horrible driving sequences. Sure, Mass Effect gives immersion and player is the main character and all that, but why does this come into gameplay’s way?

Video games have their own way of storytelling. It’s a combination of show-do-not-tell and interactivity. What most games use is traditional narration via walls of text and videos, which is sad. It’s easier to use traditional narrative as you have books upon books how to write a story and make a film. How to tell a story through games’ own methods is still an undiscovered country. I can’t really think any good examples, and tells something particular.

However, I’ll give you an example of three games that do not have a story, but then showcase certain level of video game storytelling outside traditional narrative. These three games are Sonic the Hedgehog, Sonic the Hedgehog 2 and Sonic the Hedgehog 3. But Aalto, Sonic does have story! Just take a look at the manual! you tell me now. Now, take a look at Sonic 1 again. In what portion of the game you see a story being told? No story seen.

Sonic 1 is an incredible game even now. It’s balanced, gives the player multiple options to choose from and storytelling doesn’t get into the way. Most likely you’ve played the game without knowing anything of the story, either through your siblings or via an emulator the cheeky bastard you are, where manuals usually are non-existant. When you play the game, you notice the simple and intuitive controls, and animals popping out from defeated enemies. In the end of Act 3 you see this fat Roosevelt-esque man with his own theme trying to maul your with a wrecking ball. After that, you pop a capsule open and release bunch of animals to the wilderness for wolfs to hunt. You don’t need any text or videos to tell what’s going on; the Roosevelt knock-off seems to be trapping animals into robots and Sonic’s there to stop him. It’s all how the game shows it to you.

Similarly Sonic 2 just goes with it. However, there’s more cinematic of sorts to showcase clone-Roosevelt’s mighty array of weaponry in the later levels. Sonic 3 then adds more traditional cutscenes where the player is unable to control Sonic, and we can safely say that from that moment on Sonic series took a dive. However, Sonic 3 keep the story progression extremely coherent, stringing every Act and Zone together in a logical manner. And yes; every stage in the game is part of the story.

I’ve hammered this point before; in games where there is a story, every second on-screen is part of the story. The gameplay is an integral part of the story, if there’s a story given within the game itself.

It would actually be nice to get a mod to Mass Effect where it removes every portion of the story so that it’d string all the proper gameplay portions together. Of course they wouldn’t do that, as it would cut 2/3 from the game. Most people who grew up solely on computer games will always want to see more traditional narrative in their game, as the most revered computer games are text heavy, like Monkey Island and Ultima series. Arcade players value more direct gameplay, whereas console players can really got the bets of both worlds.

Angry Birds is a rare example of a computer game, which doesn’t hold story in its game. This is partially the reason why it has sold so well.

Story is also intimidating. It’s far more difficult to get into a video game when you have Lord of the Rings or Sinuhe level amount of text in there to read from the get-go. When you got simple gameplay as the main dish, it’s much easier to attract customers. Vast majority of customers do not get into games to read and experience vast and complex stories; they get into games they can play. The people who are into games for the stories are small minority, a loud minority to boot.

This is one key for a successful game, a part of the silver bullet into making a hit video game; less traditional narrative, let the players play through the story… or don’t include a story at all. It’ll probably suck anyway. Put more gameplay there, it’s much easier and more rewarding to everybody.

The saying “If I want a story, I’d read a book” hits the mark. Video games are not there to give you a story or drama. It’s films’ and books’ job. Games are not there to make you experience wonders or the like. Games are there to be played and to be enjoyed through that. This is what all players really want from their games, even if there are bunch of them wanting a good story; ultimately these people will also skip the scenes they find boring.

If you look through the video game history, you’ll see that the best games, the most valued, have little to do with stories within them, like such a small game called Super Mario Brothers.