When Does Fanservice Hurt?

Before I begin, I’d like to apologize for the misleading title: no, this isn’t an editorial on the extremely controversial topic of sexualized females in video games. It just seems like all of the good points on that subject have already been made, and frankly, I don’t have anything unique to say on the subject. This article is about something far less consequential with regards to real-world events, but I’d argue far more interesting and objectively more important with regards to video games in general: when pandering to a fanbase leads to terrible games. Let’s face it, ladies and germs, the sexiness and/or gender of your protagonist doesn’t really have a distinct impact on the quality of gameplay, while catering to hamfisted, moronic fan demands typically does.

We live in an age where fan interaction with the various creators of video games — the publishers AND developers — is at an all-time high. Numerous companies like XSEED, Atlus USA and even some heavy-hitters like the Western branches of Capcom and Namco Bandai games have official channels of communication with the general public. They use them to better understand the desires of their long-time customers, “the fans” if you will (though looking at some communities, fans might be the wrong term). We’ve seen real-life examples of this kind of thing: Project X Zone getting released in the West, PC versions of Dark Souls and Ys I &II, a full HD remake of the NES Classic Ducktales, for Inafune’s sake!

But at the same time, there’s a clear downside to this as well. Not only are we affecting what’s being made, we’re affecting things that were already being made. And quite frankly, sometimes, gamers at large (or more likely, the extremely vocal minority) don’t wield this power with any sort of wisdom. When Eiji Aonuma is aware of the “Zelda Cycle”, clearly there’s some kind of problem. Clearly, there are cases where too much pandering to fans can lead to incredibly shitty games.

What’s that? You’re demanding proof, specific examples of terrible games that were clearly caused by taking fan advice to strange new places? Sure, why not? First on the agenda: the utterly despised Sonic the Hedgehog reboot from 2006 (better known as “Sonic ’06”). Why do I blame the fans on this monstrosity? Well, simply put, many of the non-glitch flaws the game had (mandatory side character missions and the over-the-top serious plot) were the direct result of fans wanting the games to be more like the Sonic Adventure games. And don’t get me started on the Genesis Sonic fanboys who were blatantly pandered to in the first episode of Sonic the Hedgehog 4, a game that Sega said was a letter to hardcore old-school Sonic fans, while the objectively superior Sonic Colors was “just a game for kids”.

Of course, it’s not always that blatant. I’ll never forget how much my fellow writer SNES Master KI complained when ascended fan-game Street Fighter X MegaMan got a save functionality in its second version in the form of…passwords. To be fair, he wasn’t the only one annoyed by that choice, but I personally didn’t mind that myself. Then there was that entire era where portable Castlevanias were trying to find their own identity after the overwhelming success of Symphony of the Night, one in particular was a blatant knockoff and by extension, the blandest of the bunch: Harmony of Dissonance, the second Game Boy Advance entry. Then there was Mortal Kombat Trilogy, a game that attempted to combine the rosters of every 2D Mortal Kombat into such an incoherent mess, it makes Marvel vs Capcom 2 look well-crafted and would make 9 out of 10 MUGEN players blush. Worst still was Mortal Kombat Armageddon, which attempted to recreate Trilogy’s “magic”, but as a result, nixed unique fatalities due to a lack of storage in lieu of the “Kreate a Fatality”, which is far less interesting than it sounds. Worse still, putting every character from the 6 previous games not only made the game daunting to even look at, but also blatantly made it clear how little anyone cared for anything outside of the first 3 games, which lead to future iterations gleaning from those particular rosters, with few exceptions.

Of course, in most of these cases, it seems like the major flaws stem from older, more popular games in each franchise. In fact, all of my examples tend to be based on games that were fairly popular amongst fans, and as such, the companies (and single developer, in SFxMM’s case) in question simply took a myopic view on what made these particular games great, focusing on bringing back specific minor elements from earlier without planning out how to implement it into a new engine which may not support such things. For example, Super Castlevania IV still had sub-weapons, despite the aimable whip making them pretty much worthless. Games like the two aforementioned Sonic games, MK Armageddon and some post-SotN Metroidvanias, on the other hand, just suffer from being pale imitations of earlier games.

But why blame the fans? The answer should be obvious: these companies are trying to pander to an audience that is clearly bi-polar and generally doesn’t even know what it wants. Trying to appeal to your audience isn’t really a bad thing, but letting them dictate your entire vision is a recipe for disaster. One of the opinions all of my favorite creators of any kind of media have all shared is that the primary audience of any work of media should be the creator him/herself. That’s the only way you’re going to be able to get the best work out of anyone.

Besides, if there’s two universal truths in the universe, it’s that only death and taxes are constant and fanbases ruin everything. No exceptions, fanbases are probably the worst possible place to get any kind of constructive criticism. The worst part being that if any singular aspect of your next game even resembles any individual fan’s ideal vision for a sequel, chances are this will enrage them, as you didn’t make the exact game they themselves conceived. And the more elements that match up, the more rage-filled they become. Keeping up with the fans’ ever-changing opinions is a fool’s errand at best. For example, take The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker. When it first came out, the reactions were strictly negative. “Stupid kiddy art style!” “Nothing like Ocarina of Time!” Nowadays, it’s one of the more popular 3D entries in the series, but given the huge fan backlash, the higher-ups at Nintendo literally had to be coerced to greenlight the recent HD re-release. An even better example would be Super Mario Sunshine. Even to this day, Sunshine is utterly despised by the majority of the fanbase, but each time a new Mario platformer (2D or 3D) gets announced, more and more people hold up Sunshine as an example of the kind of unique gameplay they expect out of future Mario games, despite still hating Sunshine to an insane degree!

Worse still is that you’re pretty much always going to have to deal with broken bases on literally anything. No matter what, you’re probably going to be dealing with at least two equal but opposite sects of your fanbase on literally any issue. A really common example would be how to deal with the gameplay for the sequel to a game, especially next-gen sequels. Half of the fanbase will want the new game to resemble the last one (or in some cases, an even older game) exactly, while the other half will want the game to be an entirely different experience. Of course, going forward with either of those options will likely get you destroyed by the fanbase in the end. But this kind of thing applies to literally anything about your game.

Of course, doing the exact opposite and never listening to any fan feedback at all isn’t exactly a good idea either. After all, listening to the fans got us things like Ultra Street Fighter IV as opposed to another boring rebalance, Super Mario Galaxy 2 giving us more of a formula we wanted and the massive improvement on the second episode of Sonic 4. I guess the lesson that all developers should take to heart is that to take all fan requests with a grain of salt. If they’re conducive to the game you’re trying to build, then by all means, implement it. But if it compromises your vision in any way, then just don’t do it. We’ve already seen too many good games get destroyed by pandering to a fickle and feckless fanbase.

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