It's true, Saints Row was funny as hell and still sold well. Grand Theft Auto used to be funny, then it just got bad.
I’ll be the first to admit it: I take nothing in life seriously. Ever. Not weddings, not graduations, not even national tragedies (I’m often the first to make a joke about them). Apparently, however, I’m one of the few gamers in today’s community that appreciates humor in a video game, because, for the past few months, everything has been very serious (excluding Saint’s Row IV, because that game is fucking batshit crazy). It seems every other AAA release is a FPS, and all of them have gotten deathly serious. It’s not enough to just shoot a bunch of baddies on a screen anymore. Now we have to feel guilty about taking their lives. It’s all getting to be a bit much, in my opinion.
A little back story might go a long way in explaining my current distaste for the current state of games. I grew up in the 90s, an era of extreme experimentation as far as games went. You had your Doom and your Quake, but then you also had your Monkey Island and Duke Nukem 3D. It was a time in games where seriousness could co-exist with wacky, off-the-wall games in harmony. There was something for everyone, no matter if their favorite movie was Rambo: First Blood Pt. 2 or Caddyshack.
Today, however, it seems we’ve lost that wackiness (again, I’m excluding the Saints Row series from this). And why is that? Because “funny” doesn’t sell enough games. Let’s look at a few examples. Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 posted a profit of $1 billion dollars in 15 days, beating Modern Warfare 3‘s record by a day. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Deadpool, a game where much of the enjoyment comes from the quips of Deadpool and his split personalities, has sold roughly 20,000 units on both the Xbox 360 and PS3, grossing right in the $700,000 dollar range for the console versions. Now, granted, Deadpool as a game isn’t all that impressive. It’s generic in terms of game play and overall, if it wasn’t for Nolan North’s voicing of the Marvel comics “merc with a mouth”, the game would be a bargain bin grab. But that’s only one example. Let’s look at another.
Tim Schafer has been making videos for about 20 years now, and in that time has set himself apart from most designers mainly by his liberal use of humor. While he was at Lucasarts (back when Lucasarts made games that didn’t have the words “Star Wars” on them), he was a main creative force behind such games as the Monkey Island series, Full Throttle, and Manic Mansion: Day of the Tentacle. In short, Tim Schafer was, and is, a video game legend. However, we can certainly trace a pattern between Schafer’s career and when games start to lose the funny. In 1998, Lucasarts released the game Grim Fandango, a masterpiece of Schafer’s that won many Game of the Year awards, and was universally praised by critics. The game however, was a flop, selling somewhere between 100,000 units and 500,000 units worldwide through 2003. This was considered by Lucasarts to be a flop, and the company decided to stop making adventure games in 2000. As a result, Schafer left Lucasarts and founded Double Fine, where he went on to produce Psychonauts, a game again lauded by critics, but not by the games buying public. Schafer’s last game, Brütal Legend, a game with voice acting by Jack Black, sold terribly and was panned by critics (tho they did praise the writing). Overall, Schafer’s career was gone downhill for roughly ten years, although there is promise for his Kickstarter-funded project that is set to release sometime in the near future.
So, does being funny doom a game to selling poorly. Not always, as we’ve seen with the Saints Row series. But there does seem to be a relationship between funny and poor game sales. Maybe it’s because funny games don’t spend as much time on game play, hoping the wackiness will let them slide by. Maybe it’s the market growing up, since mostly gamers nowadays are over the age of 18. But whatever the case, being funny just isn’t a priority anymore, and that’s a shame, because a good sense of humor can add a lot to a game. Let’s hope that someone, somewhere is developing the next Monkey Island, and we can all go back to laughing while we play a video game, instead of crying.