Every week, we let Jeroen out of his cage to play a game, find something about it that is done differently than most other games, and then write about it. He seems to enjoy it, so we let him do it while we hose down the cage with bleach, fire and holy water.
Before its release, Brutal Legend was shaping up to be one of the best games released in years. An open-world game set in a Heavy Metal-inspired world with a cast voiced by legendary rockers like Lemmy Kilmister, Lita Ford and Rob Halford, along with the likes of Jack Black and Tim Curry, and developed by Double Fine, the guys behind Psychonauts? How could this possibly go wrong?
Well, it did. The game released to very polarizing reception, and many people now remember the game unkindly. Despite the good critical reviews, many savaged the game for being completely unlike what was expected to the point where it’s impossible to find a forum thread of disappointing games without Brutal Legend being mentioned. The main problem was that everyone thought that it would be an action-adventure game, and what they instead received was an RTS game. Not only that, it was a subgenre of RTS that’s rarely played even by RTS fans.
The worst part is that the game is fantastic at what it tries to do, but a perfect storm of bad decisions brought it down. So what happened? There are two problems at the heart of the matter.
The general population thought this game was going to be a hack ‘n’ slash, open-world adventure. Only the few people who closely followed its development from the start knew it was to be an RTS-style game in actuality. Even fewer people knew the game was primarily a multiplayer RTS game. It’s not exactly a small leap between genres, there was a seriously large misunderstanding between developers, publishers and consumers here.
Caroline Esmurdoc, COO of Double Fine and Executive Producer for Brutal Legend, explains in an excerpt from a post-mortem in Game Developer magazine:
“We wanted to make a brawler adventure game, where the player was a heavy metal roadie who evolves into a rock god over the course of the game. Brütal Legend … would have the brawn of an action game and the elegance of an RTS.
We learned early on in our relationship with Vivendi that RTS was a naughty word in the console space, so we stopped calling it by that name and, by extension, so did Electronic Arts — positioning the game largely as an action title in the marketplace.”
For the record, EA has published no less than four RTS titles for consoles. Perhaps they were speaking from experience. Either way, Double Fine clearly took this to heart. I’m not sure whether it was their call or the publishers but the marketing was heavily focused on the action-adventure and open world aspects of the game. Even Tim Schafer’s heartfelt followup guide to the game did its best to tell you how to play the game like an RTS while simultaneously denouncing its RTS nature.
Many of the screenshots, previews and developer diaries were focused on everything but the RTS element. One would have to be actively searching and following previews for the game to even realize that the Stage Battles would play a large part in the game. The demo only made things worse as it only showed off the theme and the hack ‘n’ slash gameplay, along with one of the few non-Stage Battle boss fights in the game. In fact, the CNET network, which includes Gamespot, Gamerankings, and GameFAQs, still only recognizes Brutal Legend as an action game.
A Small Niche
There is a large population of heavy metal gamers who love any and all things metal, and there are plenty of strategy fans who are always interested in games of that genre. While the heavy metal fans are spread all over the platform market, strategy fans usually keep to the PC platform due to heavyweights like StarCraft, Dawn of War, Company of Heroes, WarCraft, Command & Conquer, etc. all being generally PC games exclusively. So the overlap between strategy lovers and heavy metal lovers is already whittled down.
On top of that, Brutal Legend wasn’t the standard sort of RTS; instead it was a game like Sacrifice (Fun Fact: Tim Curry also worked on Sacrifice) or C&C: Renegade, where the player essentially controls a hero unit directly and issues commands out to other units by way of their controlled unit, all while fighting alongside their army. This further pares down the amount of people who would be truly interested in the game to being a small section of the PC crowd, where that subgenre of a subgenre had an established fanbase.
But Brutal Legend was a console game.
That’s not to say there aren’t any strategy and heavy metal fans who play console games. Battle for Middle Earth 2, Halo Wars, the more recent Command & Conquer games all had a decent reception on the Xbox 360, but there isn’t anything close to an RTS like Brutal Legend on it. Even then, the reception for those strategy games was lukewarm at best.
Brutal Legend was as niche as a game could possibly be, and when combined with the misleading advertising, it was a recipe for disaster being released as a console-only game. It really didn’t help that alongside being released to a playerbase that wasn’t experienced with the subgenre, and thus didn’t know how to play it. The game also had a distinct lack of explanation as to its finer points.
It got to the point where Schafer had to release a separate how-to guide on how to play the game in an open letter to the gaming community. The letter tackled everything from how best to compose your armies to what you should be doing with Eddy during the battles. Making it worse, though, was that the earlier “naughty word” concept was used and the game was touted in the letter as “like an RTS but not,” an irony that was not lost on Penny Arcade.
Really, if Brutal Legend was marketed properly and released to the playerbase more appreciative of its style of gameplay, it could have been a solid hit. I’m sure if Double Fine were to release the game on the PC now, it would find itself with a new life much like Double Fine’s other games or other titles in such positions like Alan Wake. This isn’t to say that the game didn’t garner a sizable player base now with its charming and unique qualities, but it certainly wouldn’t have had to overwhelmingly negative reaction gained alongside it.