Games based on an existing license such as a movie, or sequels to existing games sell well and are traditionally easier to market. It's the reason Bethesda bought the Fallout franchise, why Far Cry 2 was named Far Cry 2 in spite of having nothing to do with the original game and why marketing pushes for Gears of War 2 and God of War 2 seem far less in your face than the first time around. If a game doesn't have an existing franchise or license behind it then your next best bet is being able to simplify it in some way in order to get retailers to push it and gaming journalists to cover it. BioShock, originally touted as a spiritual successor to System Shock 2, later had that tagline dropped in favor of its mantra of 'a shooter with choice'. Assassins Creed, another new franchise started by Ubisoft, had one of the largest marketing campaigns a new franchise has ever received all in the name of making it a success. However selling BioShock and Assassin's Creed to audiences is far different from selling Beyond Good & Evil. While BioShock was often pushed as a shooter, probably in order to latch on to 'the Halo crowd' (as it's often known), Beyond Good & Evil boasts no such similar qualifications. BioShock is much more than just a "shooter with choices", but it can be simplified down to just that. Beyond Good & Evil cannot be simplified down without including the words "journalist", "pig uncle" or "hovercraft". And while those words may pique your interest simply due to how ridiculous they look next to each other, that method is generally not the best way to sell a video game. When a large portion of a game's financial success depends on people who do ten minutes of research or fewer prior to purchasing it. This is why iterations of Halo and Grand Theft Auto are able to maintain their massive sales figures. People see the name and remember enjoying the previous game and little more is required of them.
I confess I never played BG&E when it was released. I simply didn't know it existed. I was a fairly frequent reader of various gaming forums and talked to a few people who considered themselves gamers. I even recall seeing it in stores. Something about a woman dressed in green, holding a camera (the box cover) didn't quite grab me. I bought Sands of Time, a game that shares the same engine as BG&E (the engine written for BG&E, in fact, named the Jade Engine for the game's female protagonist) instead. Why? Simply because everyone was talking about it and praising it. I'm sure there was some talk about BG&E, but it wasn't loud enough that I really noticed it. A number of people recommended it over the next five years and a Steam sale last year convinced me to finally pick it up. After that it essentially sat in my Steam games list for six months while I played other games.
The circumstances that actually caused me to play this game are kind of interesting. I was given a copy of Far Cry 2 for Christmas. Upon returning home and installing it I realized that my computer parts from around 2005 were incapable of running it at an acceptable framerate. It was finally time to upgrade. A few days later I had my new parts but the motherboard turned out to be dead. I sadly shipped it back to NewEgg and awaited my replacement. In the meantime I had nothing new to play. Upon examining my Steam games I noticed BG&E, purchased more or less on a whim so many months ago, and decided that I may as well play it in the interim. The rest, if you excuse the fairly cliched saying, is history. I instantly fell in love with the game and played it for many hours on a daily basis. It was the first game in a long time I actually couldn't wait to go home and play, and I ended up completing it in four or five days.
I actually got my replacement motherboard while I was in the midst of playing the game. I came home, put my computer together, and the first thing I did once Windows and all my files were in order was continue BG&E. It's interesting that I had Far Cry 2 sitting right on my desk, but no amount of nifty explosions or specular highlighting or whatever other fancy stuff could tear me away from BG&E and its 2003 graphics. It's an indescribable feeling, but if you've ever played a game that made you feel this way then you know exactly what I'm talking about. It's a feeling I remember having when I was 11 or 12 years old and playing Sonic the Hedgehog 2 for the first time. I couldn't wait to get home from school and play as much as possible, every time hoping I would get a little bit further.
It's also a game you don't want to end. The sort of realization that comes to you when you realize you've been playing something for four hours a day and that it can only be so long before you run out of game. I considered limiting myself to two hours of playtime but I was simply unable to do it. The game creates this wonderful world and draws you into it so fully that you can't help but become engrossed. It does an amazing job of throwing you into it right from the start. Rather than starting with a boring tutorial or long introduction to the story, you are instantly thrown into a battle with unknown creatures. After defeating them you are then left to wander around your little island home to ponder what exactly is going on. You're surrounded by children, some of them human, some of them anthropomorphic animals, some possibly an alien race. If you look off the island there is ocean as far as the eye can see and a few other scattered islands. Eventually you meet Pey'J, your adopted uncle who also happens to be an anthropomorphic pig, and are given more insight into the planet of Hillys.
However I'm not here to summarize or review the game; others have done that and probably much better than I could. I also feel reviewing a game over five years after its release is perhaps a bit odd. The more interesting thing to me at this point is the plight of the game itself. Its development, its commercial failures, and why exactly Ubisoft decided to let Ancel make a sequel after all these years. The last question is perhaps the easiest to answer. Namely because Ancel is a huge reason for Ubisoft's success. He created Rayman, a very popular character during the PlayStation/N64/Saturn generation which also spawned of this generation's popular Raving Rabbids series (of which Ancel had limited involvement when the design shifted). A lot of Ubisoft's financial success was due to Rayman's success. Ancel was lead designer and writer for the first two Rayman games (released in 1995 and 1999) before he began work on Beyond Good & Evil, a game Ubisoft allowed him total freedom on. It stands to reason that when a designer brings you so much success you are likely to try to keep him happy and trust him to produce something good. At three years BG&E's development time was more lengthy than normal. It was originally planned as a trilogy, though that idea was later scrapped due to Ubi's reluctance to fund second game. Ancel went on to design the game adaptation of Peter Jackson's King Kong, a request made by Jackson himself who is a big fan of Beyond Good & Evil.
As far as the commercial failure of the game, we can look at similarly excellent games with poor sales to get some idea. Psychonauts is an excellent case study. Majesco, the publisher for Double Fine's first game (and Tim Schafer's first game after leaving LucasArts), seemed to have no idea how to market the game. The advertising campaign made it abundantly unclear as to what exactly the game was (or at times if it was even a game) and as a result the game sold fewer than 500,000 copies in two years. Similar to BG&E, Psychonauts was a hard sell. Knocking down the concept of either game to a few words is difficult, which makes it a tough suggestion for a GameStop employee to make to an unsure mother. Both games share a similar life as well. Both suffered from extended development cycles, poor advertising, poor word of mouth and ultimately poor sales.
Word of mouth does work for certain games, but again the tagline created by the game's hardcore needs to make it sellable to anyone who didn't buy it. For example The Darkness, a game based on the comic of the same name and made by Starbreeze (well known for their Riddick adaptation), had almost no advertising and very little media attention. However when The Darkness is broken down into a couple sentences you end up with "guy is posessed by some kind of demon and can totally fuck dudes up with his demon powers and also shoots guys" you get something with much more mass appeal than "female journalist flies around in a hovercraft with her pig uncle trying to uncover a conspiracy that threatens to enslave everyone on her planet" or "psychic kid goes into the minds of various people at his summer camp for psychics in order to uncover a conspiracy". If you are looking for that coveted Halo crowd you are going to need something simpler than that. As a result The Darkness sold beyond expectations and Psychonauts and BG&E remain sleeper hits, which is a fancy way of saying 'great game nobody bought'.
At the end of the day Beyond Good & Evil is still an amazing game. If you haven't played it it's available on Steam for $9.99 and will run on pretty much any computer from the last five years. What you get for ten dollars is a wonderfully open game with a fun, yet simplistic combat, a light-hearted but engaging story, wonderful characters, and a complete universe that does an excellent job of making you feel like you're a part of it. Amidst all the sequels and reboots and safe bets it was a breath of fresh air in 2003, and it remains the same way in 2009. On May 28 of 2008 Ubisoft released a short trailer announcing Beyond Good & Evil 2, headed up by Ancel and his team once again. Very little else has been revealed about the sequel, but it's good to know someone at Ubisoft has a little faith in BG&E as a franchise. Amidst all the safe bets, every so often you get someone willing to gamble, and for such an expensive thing to produce as a video game that's never a bad thing.