Legendary Mistakes

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The Mega Man series used to be built on fan input. Maybe you know about the boss design contests that the development team would promote in the NES days, before the next big sequels would come out. They would field submissions from all over Japan (and North America for Mega Man 6). It was kind of remarkable, both then and in hindsight, to ask for the public to help create the defining parts of each sequel, and then to choose and immortalize the work of a select few. It was also perfect timing, as Mega Man was in his prime. Back then, you'd be silly not to expect a new Mega Man every year or two.

Capcom took that to the next level, or tried to, when they announced Mega Man Legends 3 last year. Fans would have been perfectly happy with an MML3 that was already near-done, but Inafune and the team invited Japanese and American fans to get on the web and start sharing their opinions and creative contributions whenever possible. But now that's all for naught, and those now-disappointed fans understandably feel indignant. To them, they were strung along and ultimately gutted, in the end getting nothing but nebulous excuses and wasted time.

In my view, Capcom was in much too deep to cancel it, and shouldn't have. There was simply too much invested in it, mostly from the fan side, but they went ahead and killed it anyway. How could they not? Forgive me for sounding like a scorned fan in denial, but I'm serious. I was saying it months ago, before cancellation even seemed like a possibility. "Can you believe the backlash if they actually canned it?" Not to mention that Capcom has one of the most consistent backlash records of this generation!

Well, I can't say they're bad at surprises.

One type of response to the news was the belittling kind. "It's just the reality of the business;" "It happens all the time, but this time it was just in public;" "No use crying over spilt milk," etc. It's a response that may sound more level-headed compared to the incensed fans, but unfortunately, the situation isn't that black-and-white. What Capcom did was get fans riled up and excited from the get-go, then did their best to maintain that excitement on a regular basis. With announcement after announcement, news post after news post, contribution after contribution, blog after blog, and especially the promise of the "Prototype" demo, the development team wanted, and got, a whole lot of people wanting this game regardless of how many of them were registered in the Devroom.

Capcom went forward with an unprecedented development plan -- one that no company, least of all a Japanese one, had ever really attempted. And on top of that, it was a plan for a sequel in a series that had 10 years of incubation and fostered its own faithful audience. Given that, the mere brushing off of the cancellation as a "business reality" doesn't hold water, because that only represents one side of the story. Again, there was no real precedent, and the company willingly tied in the emotions of hundreds of thousands of hardcore fans and interested observers.

So, how could they not finish it? By cancelling it anyway and continuing to say it's an experiment. However, the public wasn't told that at the beginning. Go ahead, visit the last page of the Devroom blog, keep going up, and see what the tone is like. A whole lotta excitement and recruitment. For months on end, those posts don't even so much as whisper the suggestion that this was not a guaranteed game. It was guaranteed in-development, but you can take that in any dozens of ways. It wasn't until Masakazu Eguchi's February 2011 blog post -- the infamous "Declaration of Resolve" update where it's revealed the project was not even "greenlit" yet -- did people start to feel uneasy. That was seven months after the reveal, and roughly a month since the decision of Aero as the heroine.

They made grand implications of transparency, but this wasn't transparency, it was translucency. And for that, people have every right to be less than understanding of the situation. If Capcom was wanting to involve people in the "development process," they failed out of the gate. Now, I know it's impossible to share everything, because you still have to be reasonable when you're a multinational game publisher. But what's unreasonable about a rough, just-a-few-bullet-points outline of the development schedule? How about any advance notice of Capcom's approval process? Instead, we got blissful ignorance and jumping to conclusions, with a big blister of hurt ready to burst as the months went on.

From USA Devroom Liaison Greg Moore:

The team developing this game provided in-depth articles detailing the various processes that going into this game's creation, from voice recording to the creation of 3D character models. They talked about the office atmosphere and all of the ups and downs of the game development process with a degree of candor that was, to be perfectly frank, often quite concerning for the rest of the company. (via)

That makes some sense. You always hear (if not experience) the big bosses not seeing things in the big picture, acting like the old farts they usually are when a new thing doesn't entirely fit with the way things have always been done. It's understandable that they'd think the Devroom was getting too loose-lipped. On the other hand, no, they weren't. Those aforementioned posts on the voice recording sessions and character modeling were about as inside as it truly got -- and those were the ones with photos. Many significant bits about the game were planned to be announced later and redacted in posts. We got daily updates on other things now and then, and they'd tell us about some meetings, but all with varying degrees of exposition. Sometimes they overdid it: recognizable Capcom producer Jun Takeuchi was only referred to as an "official." If anybody was really worried about exposing trade secrets, I don't think it was happening here -- besides, I doubt anyone at Capcom makes 3D models or character profiles dramatically different than other companies. Most of it wouldn't be out of place in a "making-of" featurette or an art book. So Capcom's explanation comes off as another arbitrary pointing of blame meant to band-aid the situation. I guess that's the level of exposition they wanted all along.

In hindsight, the entire undertaking was woefully half-baked. Infaune and the team should have taken the path of least resistance: Announcing the project when it was already greenlit, and then inviting the fans in to contribute all that they could from that point. With that, you get two things: pre-existing assurance that the game won't fall off the map, and pretty much the same level of fan enthusiasm and contributed talent featured in the final product. After all, it worked 20 years ago when those Mega Man boss design contests went on; when making the story and stages was already going full-steam, and the only big missing pieces were the bosses. But what of Inafune's leaving? Simple enough: if he still left within the same timeframe, then management could have much more easily canned the project privately before it even got to the public phase. And as long as it was kept secret, no tears (or blood) would be shed.

But perhaps the ultimate ideal would be, instead of making Mega Man Legends 3 a game that tried to involve the public in development, they could have just not made it Mega Man Legends 3. If this were a wholly original property, yet went through all the same steps as MML3, then there's no doubt that if it got cancelled, the only people who would take it personally would be the people who actually contributed to it, and not thousands of other fans who just wanted to see a sequel in a series that ended -- with a question mark -- 10 years ago.

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Ah, but that's the catch-22, isn't it? You want to get people fired up, so you go with something big and familiar, but if it was something new and different, the level of excitement probably wouldn't be the same. And to go back to my "advance notice" point, the project would probably would get less attention if the team was more upfront about the approval process -- why pour your heart into temp work? Basically, it was apparent that based on what Inafune has said over the years, getting MML3 made the Crazy Way seemed to be the only way. That's the actual "business reality."

On the whole, the story of Mega Man Legends 3's development makes for a great narrative. A new idea leading to a reconstruction, the will of the people gathered, and then the loss of a leader, mounting struggles, and an eventual collapse, with the same people now furious, and a host of questions that will likely forever go unanswered. Not just the how and the why, but the more cynical questions, as well. Would the game have been any good anyway? Would it have been a highlight of the 3DS library? Would it just be a critical darling? Would anybody but a small percentage of Mega Man fans in their 20s and 30s buy it? Sadly, those questions don't matter, since they're about what could have happened and not what did. What did happen was a year of hope, excitement, fun, interaction, and wishes seemingly come true. And what's left? Disappointment, anger, posthumous PR idiocy, and most obviously: no game, anywhere. All from one mistake. And the lesson learned isn't any better.