Hard Project: Transformers
One of the thing that fascinates me endlessly when it comes to video games is that there are certain IPs forever being tossed about and adapted into bad-to-mediocre games… despite the fact that the IP in question seems suited to games. Sometimes the games languish in development hell over and over, sometimes they get released and never find any sort of critical affection on account of being crap, sometimes they get adapted by several companies in several forms which are all bad.
So let’s talk about these sorts of project, starting with one near and dear to my heart: Transformers. I’d be lying if I said that this was an IP that’s never been made into a game, and it’s in fact been made into several. They’ve more or less all been fairly terrible; the games with the best reception are the ones that more or less just dropped everything else and turned the game into a more conventional console shooter with optional (and largely useless) transformations. War for Cybertron and Fall of Cybertron received generally acceptable reviews, but the other games have been panned, and Transformers Universe has gone from being an MMO to cashing in on the MOBA flavor of the month. So what makes Transformers so hard to bring in as a game?
Real talk: I am thirty-one years old, and Transformers is a franchise birthed with the intent to sell toys to children around age eight. Which is something a lot of adult fans don’t seem to get. Not all, by any means; most fans seem to get the idea that we’re investing in something meant for children and do so with a wink and a nod, which means that Hasbro, in turn, has a policy of giving the lifetime fans what they want so long as it doesn’t interfere with something more important.
That’s showed over the years. The IDW comic books are aimed at an adolescent audience rather than the younger kids who are meant to be buying toys. It’s debatable where the big-budget Michael Bay films are meant to be aimed. But it’s really hard to say where the video games are supposed to be aimed at all, as not even the company seems to be entirely sure.
On the one hand, this is a series that lends itself quite naturally to purely cash-in-based games, where the real part on display is the fact that there’s money to be made. The fact that we haven’t seen a Transformers kart racing game is both baffling and kind of disappointing. At the same time, the series doesn’t fit comfortably into that archetype of gaming either. Even if you’re enjoying the series as a kid, you’re aware of the fact that the series is about a long-standing war between people who want one another beyond dead, and having a smiling Bumblebee teach you typing just doesn’t feel right.
You wind up with a lot of games that try to be pseudo-open games, that ape some of the elements of games like Saints Row and inFamous without going fully over to that route. Because that route makes sense for the franchise, but the sort of widescale mayhem it implies doesn’t sit nicely with the established demographic (or, more accurately, with the parents of that established demographic). A simple brawler or platformer would seem to make more sense, but…
Transformations and lack thereof
If you’re playing a game called Transformers, you expect everyone to be transforming. But transformation isn’t a comfortable mechanic.
You see it when playing the original War for Cybertron. Transformation winds up serving as a limitless dash and an occasional mechanic to distract people rather than a viable battlefield tactic. And it’s not very hard to see why. The game plays like a (relatively generic) third-person shooter in which you skitter about. Transforming doesn’t have an obvious role in that sort of game. There’s no clear picture about how it’s supposed to aid you or hinder you.
I don’t mean this as a fault on the part of the developers. Let’s take the most common alternate mode, some form of wheeled vehicle. Car, truck, jeep, whatever. The way these modes are usually used in the series is for disguise (not terribly relevant) or transportation. But it’s really hard in a game set up for 4 vs. 4 matches to build a map large enough where driving around for a while is actually a hot issue. If you have to drive for a minute or two just to find where people are, you wind up with huge stretches of empty maps, making the whole thing much less fun for everyone.
Making a game in an open-world sandbox style would fix that problem, but the follow-up problem is that there are a lot of characters who don’t transform into wheeled vehicles. There are a lot of jets, and in an open-world sandbox it’s hard to see a way that turning into a jet wouldn’t be a straight upgrade over turning into a car. And that’s not even counting the more bizarre transformations, which might be more uncommon but are nowhere near unheard of. You can’t tell me that a crane is going to be much good as high-speed transportation, but what can you do with that mode? What about animal modes? Tape decks? The rear half of a space shuttle?
High Moon Studios has solved this, in no small part, by largely omitting the more problematic modes from its games and making the ones that remain into something that (broadly) works within the existing framework. But it hasn’t been an easy ride. And even then, the studio has had to contend with the other major issue presented by the franchise…
The story problem
Pretty much ever since Beast Wars, the Transformers cycle has been fairly set in stone. You’ve got about two years for a given franchise, maybe three if it’s exceptionally well-loved. Then there’s a year that sort of finishes out the last franchise and talks a bit about the new one. And then it’s off to an entirely new franchise altogether, one where all the basic pieces look about the same but the details are different.
That doesn’t leave a lot of time to build a game in there, does it?
Here’s where those demographic problems can start getting even uglier. Sure, I remember the original animated film quite well. I was alive when it came out. There are a lot of children who are fond of the franchise that most certainly do not remember that film, quite possibly because it was released some two decades before they were born. Targeting something that hits my nostalgia isn’t doing any favors for that demographic, which astute readers who can remember what was written two paragraphs ago will note is the demographic most actively involved in the marketing.
By contrast, a game developed on the current property is not going to have a whole heck of a lot of time for development. Assuming you start development at the same point that the series kicks off, you have enough time to release a pretty good game as the series is winding down. Assuming no huge development missteps or anything. Transformers Universe was announced around the same time that Transformers: Prime was starting out, but the series is well and truly over now and we still haven’t seen that game actually come out. It should be doing so this year… but unless the next series is a direct sequel (which would make it the first direct sequel since Cybertron, sort of) it’s going to look pretty darn dated.
So you’re left with the fact that any game you develop is going to have demographic mismatch issues, major problems fitting into the story that helps sell it, and something which demands to be a core mechanic whilst at the same time it obviates being a core mechanic. It’s not that we’ve never seen a good Transformers game, but it’s hard to make one. Even harder if you’re trying to satisfy people who won’t be satisfied with just “but it’s Transformers.“