The State of Rare, and What That Means To The DKU

E3 2010 is fast approaching, and it occurred to me that there's nothing to write about for Pre-E3 2010 (or last year, for that matter). With the way things are going, it may stay this way for a few years.

It's either this editorial, or I'd simply be repeating what I think would be there again in a nonexistent 2010 speculation Feature. Sure, there could be a Donkey Kong Country 4 or a New Donkey Kong Country game for the Wii, but with DK appearing in Cameo games for the past three years, there's a very good chance that Nintendo will just announce yet another Cameo game with DK in it. The Mario Party 9/DS 2 idea has also been done. This (or these) seem even more unlikely now, given that Nintendo announced Wii Party a few months ago. In Nintendo's eyes, it seems that Mario isn't enough of a name to carry on the Mario Party franchise, even if 7.6 million of you crazy people bought it. Nintendo, in terms of the DKU, is highly unpredictable in terms of what we'll get from them every E3. And let's not even get started on Rare or any DS titles from them that most wanted after Pocket Paradise...

You know what? Scratch that. Let's.

For the past year and a half, there has been a lot of debate about Rare's future, and its recent logo change has only helped to lead people into believing that Rare is deader than dead at this point, no matter what they show.

To be fair, most of it was brought unto themselves. Reports of "traditional" games like the non-DKU sequels to Kameo and Perfect Dark were canceled, which, in conjunction with the fact that Rare is focusing exclusively on Natal, barely helps those that still have an interest in Rare. There are a few days left, and there's evidence (theoretical or not) of what Rare could be up to. Rare's website redesign with the sole avatar and the line "One in a Million" could possibly be referencing a Natal tech demo called Living Statue, which, according to the LA Times, is "One small step for Xbox, one giant leap for Microsoft's social media strategy." The other title, Obstacle Course, sounds very much like what Rare's rumored fitness title would be.

Let me try to provide an objective (something that isn't, sadly enough, practiced on the internet as often as it should be) opinion on this. While all signs point to current Natal development from Rare, as well as traditional IPs and games being cut, it's fairly easy to come to this conclusion/crackpot theory:

Rare needs to be relevant again.

Ever since Microsoft acquired Rare in 2002, Rare has been fighting a huge uphill battle not only against its former (and current) fans originating from Nintendo, but from Microsoft's Xbox and Xbox 360 demographic. Let's look in terms of their DKU releases: Grabbed by the Ghoulies was a modern-day beat-em-up. Conker: Live & Reloaded was a port of a 2001 game with a new multiplayer mode based on war. Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts did away with traditional platforming and focused more on vehicle customization. Viva Pinata and its sequel was about maintaining the perfect garden while attracting new pinatas and protecting what was currently there. None of them, with the possible exception of Conker: Reloaded sold well. The way I see it, the culprits come from three sides. As decent (at the least) as those games are, the demographic, as sales have proven, doesn't want anything to do with them, regardless of quality. They would rather stay in their security bubbles of first-person shooters and RPGs than try something different. This leads into it being Microsoft's fault. It should've been clear after Ghoulies (and Conker) that what Rare needed more than other games coming out during theirs was marketing. On a Microsoft platform, any game that involves blood, guns, or a combination of both, is guaranteed to sell. As history has shown, Rare's titles mostly don't. There should've been much more focus on the marketing side of things on games that need recognition and advertising to hopefully produce more sales. This could explain why Peter Molyneux of Fable (not delivering what Peter promised) fame is the head of Microsoft Game Studios in Europe. It's also, in a way, Rare's fault. Rare is notorious for trying different things (which I'll cover later). It's just trying things differently in a demographic that doesn't feel like going outside the box, if you will. It's pretty safe to say that if Rare was still with Nintendo, the titles they've released since 2002 would've resulted in much better sales than what they did on Microsoft's platforms.

Rare is notorious for trying different things, yet they felt that they were in a position to do so in their current uphill battle before Project Natal's reveal. I will argue that it wasn't. Let's use the original DKU game, Donkey Kong Country, as an example. It's been well-documented that if DKC failed, it would've been a significant loss for Rare. Yet, with proper advertising and development, everything came together and produced a game that we all look back on fondly. 14 years later, Rare released Nuts & Bolts. While the actual quality of the game is impressive, it was a risk that Rare could not afford to take, based on its sales. Banjo-Threeie, as Gruntilda called it at the end of Tooie, was a game that many fans waited nearly a decade for. They pretty much guaranteed healthy sales if it came out as the platformer as it was originally intended to be. Instead, Rare went with the vehicle customization route and effectively provided the fanbase with the DKU equivalent of Jungle Beat. In addition to barely any aggressive marketing, it's no surprise that it didn't sell well. Instead of giving what fans have clamored for so long, they went and did things their way on a system where it's been proven that it's not financially viable (with exception to its Xbox Live Arcade titles).

Which leads us to where we are with the Natal-focused development, the cancellation of previous sequels, and the lack of necessity to bring back old IPs. In regards to the cancellation, it's apparent that this was Microsoft's doing because, obviously, they need profit from Rare. The video game business is, after all, still a business. What people seem to forget is that just because past "traditional" titles were canceled, it doesn't mean that we'll never be seeing them again. Consider three things: the first is that Rare (not Microsoft) has not dismissed older IPs returning entirely. The second, while not a DKU example, is that a Perfect Dark sequel may be on its way next year. It may just be me, but neither of those scream "SHOVELWARE FROM NOW ON!" at the top of the lungs. The third, and what I consider the most important, is 4J's XBLA efforts. It's obvious, judging from BK and BT XBLA, that Rare hasn't forgotten where they came from. Whether they still feel the same as of PD XBLA's release is up in the air. If they truly dismissed their old IPs, I ask this: why, in that case, have Microsoft and Rare commissioned another company to port their classics? Why does Rare, as of January 2010, still believe that there is potential for more past titles to be rereleased?

Finally, and what I think is the entire point of this feature, consider this: most of Rare's greatest successes in the Golden Age, the N64 era, took concepts that Nintendo made, and did them better. To give two examples, Banjo-Kazooie and Diddy Kong Racing are much more polished games than Super Mario 64 and Mario Kart 64, and both of the former titles provide more gameplay. Natal is obviously meant to improve on what Nintendo has done for the past three and a half years with the Wii. Put two and two together, and it should be clear why Rare is excited about what Natal can do. If anyone can improve on Nintendo's concepts, it's Rare.

At the end of the day, if Rare and Microsoft think that Natal is the way to go in terms of demographic expansion and financial success, then so be it. Both Microsoft and Rare have tried to develop games they wanted to, and history has shown us what became of that. What wouldn't be okay is if Rare completely forgot where they came from. What would be okay, as evidenced with Nintendo, is if they released both games for the fans and for an expanded audience.

Try to think about this when we see what Rare's been up to since 2008. After all, it wouldn't be the first time doom and gloom has been expressed when Rare announces something. Look at Viva Pinata, after all. I heard that was a pretty addictive game.

And if we're lucky, maybe Roysten will continue to swim into new games to talk about...

A figurative memory-jogger by Mark