Is The Industry Being Focus-Tested to Death?

Is The Industry Being Focus-Tested to Death?

The creative process is inherently risky. It involves convincing other human beings that the picture, story, or idea your brain barfed up is worth a minute of their precious time. They might slow down to admire what you’ve done, or they might wave you off with a surly mutter. As for which occurrence is more common, consider that most artists don’t achieve any measure of popularity until they’ve become dust.

Convincing someone that you’ve made a cool thing is hard enough. Getting them to give you money for that thing is ten times as hard. But that’s what the games industry is, really: Someone else’s ideas in electronic form. When a game hits the shelves, the developers run a huge risk of being ignored and losing a great deal of money. Not even the most innovative and creative games are immune to failure. In fact, a completely fresh, new idea is often dwarfed and squashed by the release of yet another predictable entry in a Goliath-sized franchise.

Big-name sequels tend to have innovation crushed out of then by analysts, focus groups, and fan demand for the comfortably familiar. That’s no surprise: Putting together a game often requires a budget of millions of dollars. It’s foolish to spend that kind of money without first conducting extensive research as to what the audience wants. It’s easy enough: Put some kids in front of Brown-and-Grey FPS #487. Record their reactions, fine-tune the game according to their suggestions. Everybody wins, right?

Sure. Financial success is a victory. It secures jobs, makes investors happy, and lets developers take a creative risk once in a blue moon.

On the other hand, shouldn’t developers be taking creative risks far more frequently than “once in a blue moon?” If games is an industry based on fanciful ideas, what will happen if those once-meaty ideas become a pile of bones–too blanched and gnawed to decipher one from another?

When Gunpei Yokoi decided in 1980 that Japanese commuters would love tiny arcade games that could be played with a D-pad, only Nintendo President Hiroshi Yamauchi believed him. And legend has it that when Miyamoto presented Donkey Kong in 1981 as a possible means of revitalizing Nintendo’s sagging arcade presence, some Nintendo employees felt assured of the company’s failure and jumped ship right then. Even Sony took a huge leap of faith when it assumed that people would even look at a game console that didn’t have Nintendo or Sega’s name stamped on it.

Some measure of creative security is understandable in a multi-billion dollar industry, but we have to take care not to forget the risks and seeming impossibilities that first brought us here. Last we checked, if it was as easy to succeed as simply plugging in numbers in a spreadsheet, everyone would be doing it right?

About Nadia Oxford
Nadia is a freelance writer living in Toronto. She played her first game at four, decided games were awesome, and has maintained her position since. She writes for, Slide to Play, GamePro and other publications, and is’s Guide to the Nintendo DS.


  1. I think the title of the article is a little misleading. It doesn’t delve that much into what you are defining as “focus testing”. I agree that you can over test things and that you can drive creativity out by doing design by too big of a committee. On the other hand, testing, if done properly can provide valuable input into things that are or are not working as the creator/designer intended. It seems that you are mostly referring to financial testing which is really a separate issue.

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