Mad Max was released in 2015 after years of rights battles, false starts and tortured development. It captured everything about Mad Max that made it so popular in the first place: it was gritty, ruthless and gruesomely fascinating. It was filled to the brim with bombastic car action and amazing desert visuals. It explored both the madness of a post-apocalyptic world, and the madness within Max.
At this point I could have been talking about either George Miller’s film, ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’, or Avalanche Studio’s game, ‘Mad Max’, released some four months later. But now the road diverges.
Fury Road was an outstanding critical and commercial success. It grossed more than $350 million worldwide and was nominated for 10 academy awards, winning in six categories.
The game, commercially, posted no such high numbers. It won no awards of particular note, and it got somewhat lost in the noise of a year full of more popular open world games.
So why was Mad Max, the game, a project that could not hit the same commercial and critical heights as the movie? What, if anything, went wrong in its marketing? And what could be done about it?
The Mad Max Game was not in development limbo as long as the 4th movie in the series, but it had no easy road to launch either. The story of how the game came to be developed and published by Avalanche studios is a long one, and has been told better elsewhere. But to give you the top level version:
Cory Barlog, a director of the hugely successful God Of War games, struck up a friendship with George Miller, the creator of the Mad Max franchise, back in 2008. Together they worked on a couple of ideas for a Mad Max game that never quite made it off the ground.
Later, Barlog started working as a consultant for the Swedish Avalanche Studios and introduced the idea of Mad Max game. Despite the end of Barlog’s work with the company and his departure to Crystal Dynamics in 2012, the idea and project stuck with Avalanche.
Avalanche Studios eventually received approval to develop the game, with Warner Brothers, also responsible for the latest edition of the movie franchise, playing the role of publisher. Thus, the game was duly announced at E3 2013 for Xbox One, PS4, Microsoft Windows, PS3 and Xbox 360.
That’s the simple version of the story, the game at other times was close to being developed and published elsewhere, but I think – in the circumstances – Warner Brothers and Avalanche Studios were a good marriage for the game.
With the Mad Max movie on its way too, it made sense for the company behind its distribution to take on the publishing role for the game too. And Warner Brothers Interactive Entertainment had a good pedigree of working with already established IP that had a movie running alongside the production of a game.
Thankfully we live in a time where poor quality and rushed-to-market movie tie-in games are not the regular occurrence they once were. Warner Brothers and RockSteady’s, Batman Arkham Asylum, is one of the games I would give the most credit for that.
At the height of the extremely successful Christopher Nolan Batman franchise, Warner invested in a game that could stand on its own merits and capitalise on the brand and popularity of Batman, without being tied to the production schedule of the movies. It had made that mistake with Batman Begins, a poorly received game tied to the first movie. Instead, there were no limitations imposed on the production schedule, design, or story of Batman Arkham Asylum. The game got a bunch of sequels which tells you all you need to know about how successful the approach was.
The same principle was applied to the Mad Max franchise. There would be connections between the game and the new movie, but in no way were the creative decisions and production schedule of Avalanche dictated by the other. This was the studio’s own take on Max and his world. In one interview with Venturebeat, Peter Wyse, the Vice President of Production and Development at Warner Bros put it as clear as you could want:
“It’s a lesson we’ve taken to heart at Warner Bros. We don’t build games that are based on movies.”
Making a game not tied to the film gave it the best chance to live or die on its own merits, but wouldn’t sacrifice the branding bonus and zeitgeist the movie could add.
The Mad Max movies of the 70’s and 80’s were full of mood and atmosphere. They really dropped you into a strange and compelling world. For that reason, an open world game was always going to be the genre of choice for a game based on the franchise – here was a chance to drop you into George Miller’s crazy world.
And of course, over the years, the post-apocalyptic environment has been a favourite setting of open world games. Many have been directly influenced by the Mad Max films of the 70’s and 80’s: it’s there for all to see in games like ‘Fallout’, ‘Rage’ and ‘Borderlands’. It therefore feels only right that the Mad Max franchise got its own attempt at the genre. With so many imitating and paying homage, it deserved a shot.
As such, not only did Warner Brothers seem a sensible publisher of choice for the project, but, the same could be said for Avalanche Studios.
In Avalanche Studios you have a development team with tons of experience and know-how in creating open world games. The over-the-top, frantic, and open world of the ‘Just Cause’ franchise is Avalanche’s bread and butter.
In Mad Max, you’re given a huge desolate world to play within. When you try to go beyond the barriers set by the developers, you’re greeted with a big flashing message:
‘WARNING: YOU ARE ENTERING THE BIG NOTHING’
If you keep heading that way, your health depletes and it’s ‘GAME OVER’.
Every open world game has its own version of this mechanic, a way of keeping you within its walls. But some open world games feel like you’ve entered the ‘Big Nothing’ right off the bat. We’ve all played a game where it feels like the developers have obsessed about creating a huge world, but forget to fill it with anything interesting or engaging gameplay wise. You end up wondering why the game needed to be open world in the first place, with the gameplay in no way improved by the design choice.
Is Mad Max one of those games? Well, yes and no.
Emergent car combat
Mad Max has gameplay and core ideas that make sense for an open world. For a start, one of the main focuses of the game is your car, the Magnus Opus. You spend a great deal of time in it, and when you’re not, a lot of the time you’re collecting the resources that allow you to improve it and customise it to your exact liking. This focus on the car, the thing you use to get around the open world is a great design choice.
In so many open world games, the moment a fast travel option become available, you can easily find yourself skipping the journey between point A and point B, basically creating your own series of levels. Mad Max does have fast travel, but – much more than other games – you don’t use it.
Instead you want to go on that journey yourself, because you’ve just spent an hour collecting resources and upgrading your car. You don’t want to just look at a loading screen to get to your next objective, you want to put your new upgrades and look to the test.
That feedback loop is good design, and helps justifies the need for the game to be open world in the first place.
Secondly, the world of Mad Max is meant to be a desolate place. In many games the impression of a busy and lively world is created. But around every corner is a door you can’t open, a building that can’t be explored or another mindless NPC. Picking a desolate environment helps avoid that disconnect. There’s less in the world than in other games, but everything you do find in the desolate landscape: outposts, sniper towers, large camps, wastelanders and enemy vehicles, can all be played with. Nothing is just for show.
And it’s that last one, the enemy vehicles, that is the most fun. Mad Max’s car combat delivers great emergent action. You get great cinematic car battles. You rub wheels at high speed, dodge and escape from certain death, and blow your enemies into smithereens. They’re not set pieces or scripted events, but exciting bits of action that come about naturally and often.The car combat delivers exciting emergent gameplay that makes the open world design choice rewarding.
A litany of available upgrades to Max, the car and the camps you discover – plus plenty of side missions – keep the player busy with lots to do in the world. And some solid hand-to-hand combat and exploring on foot mix-up the gameplay. But there is no denying the car is the star of this game and the open world.
From a marketing point of view, Mad Max also needed to be an open world game – that’s what the franchise lends itself to and the developers did a good job delivering gameplay that justifies the decision. My criticism would actually just be: bloody hell, they delivered a lot of it.
Ever since GTA 3, open world games have somewhat ruled the AAA space. A battle of escalation has ensued with developers competing to make ever bigger and bigger game worlds. In the year Mad Max came out, Metal Gear Solid 5, Witcher 3 and Fallout 4 all hit shelves as well. Mad Max was probably the smallest of the four, but completing it 100 per cent would still take 50+ hours easily.
Mad Max’s open world is good, but it’s not that good. And it’s arguably not as good or as engaging as those competitors. Eventually the tasks become repetitive and the lustre wears off. There is only so many mines one can disarm and camps one can clear before they become chores. Although that’s not a problem unique to Max I must add. But all those other open world games which released in the same year were more successful commercially and critically. They were bigger fish and IP to compete with. Mad Max is a huge franchise, but it’s not like the core gamer audience is of an age that grew up with the movies.
I played Mad Max for 37 hours, and I have to admit, those last 10 hours were just so I could say I completed the main story missions before writing this. I’m not alone in struggling to find the motivation to see the game to the end.
On the PS4 version of the game, only 0.9 per cent of players have achieved the platinum trophy that would indicate they did everything the game had to offer. There are five acts to the game but only 51 per cent of players completed up to act two. That figure almost halved again for the final act of the game, with just 27 per cent seeing the main story to the end, on PS4 at least.
Such a low completion rate is not uncommon in the video game industry. In fact, the trophy rate for completing Fallout 4’s main quest is 29.9 per cent; Witcher 3’s is 30 per cent; and Metal Gear Solid 5’s is as low as 19.9 per cent. Even story-based games don’t have much higher completion rates. In Uncharted 4, only 41 per cent of players have actually seen the story to the end. But for more than half of users to not even complete half the game seems a particularly high dropout rate.
It seems crazy that so much development time is being sunk into sections of games that a majority of players will never even see. What would happen though, if one of these big open world games dared to make a game half the size? Would there be an audience for a ‘budget’ open world game? Half the size, half the things to do and half the price – but with fewer players burning out before they get to the end. A game in which players actually see everything worthwhile seeing.
So why do developers make games so big?
Developers must know that games are completed by such a small proportion, so why are so many seemingly obsessed with size? Do they make them so big because it’s simply not that hard to anymore? Once you’ve made a base template for a camp or a mission, is it easy in the code to replicate that as many times as you want and just re-skin it? Then you can put a more impressive number or slogan on the back of the box:
‘Our biggest and best – living and breathing – open world yet!’
Well for Mad Max, it doesn’t seem to be the case that making an open world is just easy. In one interview game director Frank Rooke said:
“A lot of effort – and expense, I should add – went into creating unique locations. It’s so easy to fall into the trap of creating templates and just popping them around. We couldn’t do that – everything had to feel like it was unique and fresh, made with purpose in that location, with its own story to tell. To me, that’s what makes it fun to go out and explore.”
No, that’s not it then – making these huge worlds such as Mad Max is no easy or quick task.
Here’s what I think it is: developers are ambitious, creative and want to makes games they want to play. When you play a game that’s so engaging, so deep, and incredibly fun to be in, you devour every last bit of content, and spend 200+ hours in it. There’s no better experience than that in gaming. The people who have the platinum trophy in open world games will be fans of those studios for life. Developers want to make that experience.
However, are there enough of these kind of gamers? Way less than half of the audience got close to seeing even just all the main quests in Mad Max. In a year when so many other competitors tried to capture the same audience, would a smaller game and a shorter production time have been a wiser choice?
I actually bought the game a year after its release (hence the timing of this post-mortem) for £20. After 25 hours, I was very happy with my purchase. I’d cleared about roughly half the game world and had a good time doing it, but I certainly felt no compulsion to see it through to the end. I got burned out trying to obsessively remove every objective and task off the world map.
That compulsion consumed me and I discarded the main story. A main story that I have to say was decent and compelling when I did go back and complete it for the purpose of this case study. The size of the open world actually stops people seeing some of the best the game has to offer. Instead they are clearing yet another camp.
Why not deliver the small something?
I’m not saying Avalanche studios made a glaring error here. But with hindsight, it would have been fascinating to see someone do something entirely different to its competitors in that hectic year of open world games. The developer could say:
“We’re delivering you the same open world gaming experience – but ours is half the size, and half the price. You’ll have time to finish it and you’ll save money”
I’m incredibly intrigued by how that would do in the market. How would a publisher go about selling that idea to its audience? Would the market completely reject it out of hand? Once you label your own game as ‘budget’ – are you limiting your success before you even start. Maybe if you don’t value it, why should the gamer?
It of course would not please everyone, but as the gaming public starts to skew older and older, with less dropping the hobby as they reach adulthood, there is potentially an audience who want the open world experience, but just don’t have the same amount of time they did when they younger. A smaller and manageable open world could be a key differentiator in the market and lead to a winner.
You only have to look at the two biggest games of this year to see that the open world genre is going nowhere: ‘Horizon Zero Dawn’ and ‘The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the WIld’. There’s a place for those kind of games, and Mad Max could have been one of them. But in such a competitive year, Mad Max struggled to gain attention.
It would be harsh to say Avalanche studio delivered a ‘Big Nothing’ of a game, but I would have loved to see how a definite ‘small something’ would have turned out.
What could have been?
Now hindsight is 20/20, but there are a couple of other reasons a smaller game could have worked in Mad Max’s favour from a marketing point of view. As it was, the marketing campaign for the game was lacklustre. If the studio had made a smaller game, first and foremost, the game could have had a shorter and cheaper production time, and subsequently released sooner, before the huge amount of open world competition.
In the end, the game was delayed, and the versions for previous generation consoles were actually cancelled too. It was just PS4, Xbox one and PC now. A smaller game might have allowed for those versions to survive, but maybe more importantly, also allowed the game to release closer to Mad Max: Fury Road.
When it came to researching this, I expected to find a lot more evidence of cross marketing between the two. But it very much felt like both were left to their own devices, despite the Warner Brothers link.
The film was received very well, and I would argue the five month release gap prevented the game from capitalising effectively on the zeitgeist and brand. Despite this criticism, overall I still praise Avalanche and Warner Brothers for not making a crappy tie-in game. It’s best to release a game when it’s ready, not when external factors, like the production of a movie, demand. But if they had made a smaller game, they could maybe have had the best of both worlds.
There would have been another huge benefit of releasing the game earlier. I’ve mentioned the fact 2015 was a hugely competitive year for open world games at ad nauseum. But what I’ve failed to mention yet, which only compounds the point, is that Avalanche released another open world game of it’s own just three months after Mad Max.
‘Just Cause 3’ was released in October 2015. This was the established franchise that proved Avalanche were a good studio to go with for an open world game. Asking their audience to buy two open world games in such a short space of time, doesn’t feel like something that could ever have been the initial plan. Avalanche essentially ate it’s own lunch. Much of its established base audience were always going to prefer the sequel to a successful franchise, over a revival of a 70’s franchise. Why not release Just Cause 3 in the first quarter of 2016 at least and give Mad Max more breathing space and attention.
I like to delve in and analyse the social media accounts of the games that are the focus of these case studies. But, the twitter for Mad Max was honestly quite unnoteworthy, apart from one thing. In mid December of 2015, the twitter account essentially died. When Just Cause 3 came out, activity simply stopped.
While the account was not particularly doing anything brilliant on the marketing front while it was active, it’s early demise is not a good sign. Presumably, Avalanche’s marketing efforts and resources switched over to Just Cause. Again, showing maybe why it was unwise to release two of its game so close to each other.
What really happened?
I’ve talked enough about what could have happened if Mad Max had taken a different approach and released at a different time. But what did it do with the situation it did have in terms of marketing?
Well honestly, nothing out of the ordinary, and nothing that stands out as particularly effective. The game had moderate mainstream coverage, such as a game informer cover; it was reviewed by all the major outlets; and a handful of people’s Twitch streams were promoted by the social media team.
It had a sponsorship deal and competition with Rockstar energy drink. I personally don’t really understand the constant energy drink sponsorship games get. I would love to investigate that a little more deeply at some point. I mean, how effective can these really be – I’ve yet to discover any convincing evidence.
The competition reward was pretty cool, you got to drive a big scary Mad Max car inspired from the game. You entered using codes found on the energy drink’s caps. The Rockstar energy drink facebook page has more than 2 million likes. But the views on the Youtube channel of the grand final of the competition only has 1,800 views. That’s frankly pants, and suggest the deal was not worth it in terms of exposure. I don’t know the number of people who watched it when it was first live-streamed to be fair, but it didn’t seem to set the social media game world alight.
Lastly, on the marketing front, there is a hidden away video on Avalanche Studios website – not the website for the game itself. The TV show, West Coast Cars, a sort of evolution of Pimp My Ride, built the Magnus Opus car from the game. The car they built is pretty awesome. But the video is not of the highest production value, and clearly didn’t reach a huge audience. That video has 48,000 views. It’s a cool idea for a bit of marketing, but not brilliantly executed in all honestly. Maybe that’s why it’s hidden away in the first place.
I’m a big believer on this site that the industry should be doing more for disabled gamers. A simple change in attitude and approach to development is all that is needed to ensure disabled gamers can enjoy a game from start to finish. If you plan for it at the beginning of development, it shouldn’t be a problem.
Mad Max is a game I really wish had included more disability control scheme options for the game. A customisable control scheme is always a good place to start but Mad Max lacked those options. And there a few moments in the game which require repeated button mashing, which is a known challenge that some disabled games struggle with. Uncharted 4 for example, has an option to replace button mashing sequences with a button hold instead. I hope these kind of options start to become standard for all games in the next few years.
The reasons it’s a disappointment in Mad Max’s case in particular however, is the content of the game itself deals with disability so well. Something the entire Mad Max franchise has done well in fact. There are so many characters in the game, including Max, who have a disability (Max’s leg is in a brace and he has a myriad of limping animations in the game).
Not one of the characters in the game is defined by their disability – it’s never who they are. Tauriq Moosa, writing for Polygon, put it better than I ever could – I recommend his article highly. For a game that dealt with disability so progressively and sensitively, it’s frustrating that considerations for disabled players seems to have been overlooked.
Escaping the big nothing
Mad Max is a game I really quite enjoyed. A year after release, in a quiet period for games, I was really happy with the £20 I spent on it. At full retail price, at a time when so many other open world games hit the market, I’m not so sure I would have been as happy with my purchase. Maybe I would have been better off spending it elsewhere. I think that’s the conclusion many gamers came to in that crowded 2015.
I think Avalanche studio made a lot of objectively good logical decisions. They built a game independent of the film and its timeline, they choose a genre that worked for the franchise, and they made a game that they would like to play themselves. I think they did what is standard accepted practice in the industry – apart from releasing Just Cause 3 a few months later – that decision still baffles somewhat.
However, with the benefit of hindsight, I’m really intrigued what the market’s response to something different would have been. Rather than another game that feels like a big nothing, what would happen if someone delivered a smaller open world experience at a more affordable price? Two years later, I still don’t have the answer to that question, and I don’t know of any studio brave enough – or maybe stupid enough – to have tried to find out.
In the meantime, here’s to more big nothings.