Opinion: Game Development Needs Underpants Gnomes!

Over the last decade we’ve been lucky enough to see the game industry change from a focused and “bro-centric” market to a much broader market that encompasses children to retired grandmothers. During this change some developers seem to have lost sight of what their real goal should be; to make great games. Now game developers wear the hats of not only designers and programmers, but of marketing and PR as well. Publishers and investors urge developers to make a game that is highly profitable rather than simply fun to play. This method is fundamentally flawed as it forces design conventions that might not be the best course of action.

World’s Best Game Devs

You may be asking, “What does this have to do with the Underpants Gnomes?” Some would call it erroneous but in all honesty the Gnomes’ approach to making money is brilliant in its simplicity. For those unfamiliar, their process is;

  1. Steal Underpants
  2. ???????
  3. Profit

This doesn’t mean developers should be clamoring to sneak into bedrooms and night and pilfer through people’s unmentionables, but it does bring an interesting philosophy to the table. Your first step should be to accomplish your real goal. If a developer is too fixated on steps 2 and 3, then they end up making a “product” rather than a “game”. Their focus should be to make a great experience and figure out how to make it profitable afterword. The methodology of game development really needs to be;

  1. Develop a great game
  2. ??????
  3. Profit

The Perfect Plan

Publishers and Marketing departments have the job of picking up step #2. If Step #1 is executed well by the developers, the game should succeed. This is assuming the Publisher and Marketing department do their job. A developers’ frustration is understandable when a game is marketed poorly. This frustration can lead to developers wanting to take this process into their own hands, but that is a very dangerous path. Developers, even programmers, are artists and need to be allowed to create their games without fear or concern of another department dropping the ball. Their one and only focus should be on the game, it’s someone else’s responsibility to figure out how make money from it.

Beyond Good & Evil was a great game for its time…but it sold like a hat full of butt-holes

There is a caveat to this philosophy though, and it’s not one that sits well with developers. When a game fails commercially, who do you suppose is the first group to get hit with lay-offs? We’ve seen this happen with companies like THQ, EA, Activision and countless others. The developers often, unjustly, suffer the brunt of an unsuccessful game while publisher CEOs continue to collect multi-million dollar bonuses. So while a developer’s main focus should be on the game, their frustration is understandable when their game fails.

Seems simple enough, yet some people still can’t grasp it

It hurts to put your heart and soul into a game, to spend countless hours away from your family, only to have that labor of love thrown under the bus because another disembodied department failed at their job. That being said, it’s of the utmost importance that developers keep the Underpants Gnomes in mind when creating their game. This goes for developers of all sizes. From the 400 person strong teams working on this holiday season’s triple A titles to the small indie teams with just a few (or sometimes one) members.

Posted on by Daniel Campbell in Features
  • DaveVoyles

    You raise quite a few good points here. It’s sad to see that truth about layoffs, and that we often hear about development studios getting the can, but never hear about marketing or PR feel the brunt of it.

    You also displayed Beyond Good and Evil above, and this is an excellent example to cite, as while it was critically acclaimed, and still is to this day, it sold poorly. Perhaps bad marketing?

  • http://twitter.com/DanielRCampbell Daniel Campbell


    I’d blame marketing. Some would argue that it’s a difficult game to market, but the fact of the matter is that these people are being PAID a LOT of money to market the game. It’s their job to find a marketable angle, and run with it. The developers shouldn’t have to worry about the sex appeal of their characters, size of their explosions or how “Michael Bay” their game is.

  • http://twitter.com/extraguy Extra Guy

    BG&E received no marketing, while Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (released at almost exactly the same time) went on to spawn like five sequels. It was on every magazine, there were tons of ads. Ubisoft really dropped the ball with BG&E.