Focus groups are like zombies-the only way to stop the spread of stupidity is a bullet to the brain.

I'm here today to talk about the "f" word.  No, this is not an allusion to swearing-what I am talking about is the scourge of all things creative-the FOCUS GROUP.

Now, originally, the focus group had some theory.  The reason? It's the Capitalist Holy Grail, only watered down a bit.  Basically, a focus group exists to tell the people who are looking to sell a product how it will be received...only, and this is the genius in it, the focus group is supposed to be a way to tell companies how good something will eventually sell long before the final product is mass produced and ready to be released.

Now, when it comes to stuff like the usefulness of a new stapler or the taste of a new fast food burger, there's some wiggle room for what makes people go "yay" or "NAY!"

Where the hell do they get these people?!

But when it comes to an experience-like a movie, or a story, (and this includes games to a huge extent as they are basically interactive universes that the gamer can tap into through a console interface), things become complicated. 

When I come out of a movie, what I take away as the main message or feeling is largely subjective.  I've had arguments about what various movies were "actually about," and I am of the opinion that pretty much any romantic comedy can be turned into a creepy stalker thriller with a simple change of music and lighting.

"Oh, the hills are alive and they're EATING CHILDREN!  Let's pray that you'll be eaten first!"

The thing about focus groups is that they leech that creativity right out of a movie.  Entertainment companies are in the business of finding a formula for entertainment-be it music, movies, games, or fashion.  They're looking for a way to "one size fits all" these artistic endeavors because it maximizes profit and minimizes the amount of money they have to spend on developing their product.  If that doesn't sound soulless enough for you, you might be pretty dang jaded, but if you have been noticing that all of the "Big and Popular Things" are looking, sounding and playing pretty dang "samey" lately, it's not just a figment of your imagination.

If only it were that simple...

Enter the (American) focus group.  A focus group is basically the opposite of an empirical scientific study.  It seeks to find some mythical group of "average" Americans (in the range of ages and genders that have the most money and the most likelihood of buying the product), and put them in a room with a bunch of subjective tests.  The hopeful outcome of all these shenanigans is to get the opinions of a small room of people and apply it to the millions of other Americans in the whole of the USA.  Ostensibly, they offer somewhat crappy rewards, like vouchers for something that no one actually buys or a coupon for the eventual product.  And generally, the highest number of people in focus groups are the exact sorts of people you really don't want making decisions for the industry-namely retirees, jobless losers, housewives, homeless people, and basically anyone else who has a high amount of time on their hands and basically nothing else to do.

Like this guy.  He's the reason why Spiderman 3 even exists.

There's a (sad but true) running gag that pretty much ever movie based on an Issac Azimov book is doomed to failure because of the meddling of focus groups and "test audiences." If you actually read his stuff, you'll know why.  While the movie adaptation of "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep" (IE: Blade Runner) didn't totally suck, there were huge problematic parts that completely changed the actual plot and story because test audiences were "confused" about what was happening in the movie (hint: it's not just about blowing things up and boobie-and-butt-shots-there's an actual lesson that's being imparted here), so they cut out the actual reasoning behind the story, and turned it into a straight-up sci-fi action movie with some artsy philosophizing that didn't really come full circle to an actual point.  Unfortunately, most of his other movies suffer from the same "guts and glamor" action movie makeover, which, while it makes the rednecks go crazy with excitement, leaves much to be desired in actual content.

It's not just a comforting lie we tell our ugly cousins.  What's inside is just as important as what's on the outside- a vapid hot moron lady may look pretty, but in 5 minutes you're going to be bored and looking elsewhere.

Azimov was famous for saying, "Science fiction is not really about what it is about."  To some extent this is true with a lot of games.  While early incarnations of gaming were very straightforward, gamers could use imagination to extrapolate on the stories behind the characters and in modern games, the capacity to create intelligent, dynamic, story lines are very prevalent in games such as Mass Effect and Bioshock.

Both of these games respectively gained the adoration of the vast majority of video gaming enthusiasts from all walks of life, even many of those who don't enjoy sci-fi.  But when the second installment of these games came out, it was fairly obvious that many things had changed, and not all of them were good.  In fact, there was a lot of critical boo-hooing about some of the changes that made the game feel more like a mainstream FPS with some story than a heavily story-based RPG with shooting elements in it.  And there was a huge amount of brouhaha about multiplayer-which seemed to be the hot item that all game developers seemed to want to tack onto every game even if it was totally broken and laggy, just so they could brag that multiplayer was an option.

Why did these things happen?

If it ain't broke, don't "fix" it.  Seriously, guys.

Two words: focus groups.  Guess what their demographics wanted more of?  They wanted shootie-shootie bang-bang with fwends and the game developers answered with a hearty YES.  Instead of doing the game justice, they decided that it would be a much better idea to ask a small group of people exactly what THEY wanted, and then changed it for everyone, even the huge mass of people who really liked what they had done before and wanted a similar formula with different story, and just a few tweaks.

Cashing in on the mainstream wants and desires of a small group of people, while ignoring the demographics that like your games, is almost certainly a recipe for backlash and generally, more mediocre sales.  While "shinifying" things and making them more formulaic might be easier, it leads to a very real decrease in quality.  And while it is true that there is a very real demographic of people who will buy the thing that has the biggest explosions and the biggest guns, there are quite a lot of people who want more than that and will tell you so-with their wallets.

Mainstream Normality-horrifying, ain't it?

Making everything similar and simple is the main reason why FPS market is basically saturated, and because of this, people are being picky about what games they buy, even if they hit all the "talking points" that focus groups are so fond of.  Plus, on top of that, there's the simple fact that even after using these methods of feedback, they're still not getting the whole picture, and oftentimes, this ends up meaning that there's a huge variable that's being left unaccounted for in their careful calculations of what ending to use or what elements to emphasize or what portions to cut out.

FPS Killed the Survival Horror Video Game Star

Focus groups also singlehandedly kill awesome games for development or localization.  In the case of the critically acclaimed survival-horror title Nanashi no Game, also known as "the Nameless Game"-a focus group outright killed any hopes for localization because they (and I quote):

"[The basic synopsis of the game is] With only days left to live, you have to solve the mystery in the real world and the eerie 8-bit RPG. Similar to a point and click adventure game, actions, like inspecting an object in the real world, may open a path in the video game world. Since Asian horror movies (well, at least remakes) are popular in North America, I asked Tokita if he considered releasing Nanashi no Game overseas.

"We talked to a focus group and they thought it wasn’t good for the market, so we didn’t do it," Tokita replied. "Maybe as a downloadable title it’s possible." I was surprised since Japanese and Korean horror movies were on the rise, so I asked Tokita to elaborate. "The opinion was you couldn’t shoot anything. Maybe we shouldn’t have been too concerned about it."




In conclusion, I must say that there will always be people who don't like a genre.  Some people will always hate puzzle games, while others give FPS games the stink-eye.  But when a game designer focuses on focus groups instead of focusing on quality and awesomeness while making their game, they're going to end up losing their focus on making the game actually great!

So, do you have any questions, comments or ranty-type things in regards to the focus group fiasco that seems to be eradicating the uniqueness and quality of games, movies, music and media in general?

See ya later, alligators! :D