Friday, January 15, 2016

Undertale Follow-Up: Where Design and Marketing Collide

Recently, I wrote a post about a few inconsistencies in Undertale's design and narrative.

In the middle of my analysis, I took a moment to make a rather bold statement:

"Undertale's design assumes you're playing the game 100 % blind. The moment you hear the word 'Pacifist', or see that trailer proclaiming that 'no one has to die' in Undertale, the jig is up. One could say there's a conflict between the game's design and its marketing."

Now, I covered what the aforementioned conflict is in detail, but I didn't explain where it came from. I'd like to go over that briefly. First, please take a look at Undertale's launch trailer:

Note that the trailer does indeed stress that enemies can be Spared, that they can be befriended and that 'nobody has to die.' So why is Undertale playing its trump card in its marketing?

Well, quite frankly, because it has to. Consider the PC gaming climate, especially on platforms like Steam. Now, before I go on I want to stress something: this is not criticism. I'll simply look at the circumstances in which Undertale was released, and why those might have influenced the marketing. Undertale has two qualities that could make potential buyers wary of it:

Firstly, the artstyle. Retro-styled videogames, especially those emulating a mostly 8-bit style, are very common. With popular revivals like Mega Man 9, and beloved indie titles like Cave Story, it was inevitable that many devs would follow suit. Just searching 'retro' on Steam, as of writing this article, yields 1021 results, and that's without checking other tags like 8-bit, 16-bit, classic or pixel art.

Unfortunately, pixel art is often perceived as lazy or unoriginal. Its low barrier of entry, as well as many low quality games using it, may have led to this reputation. This, in turn, could've caused problems for Undertale, making it necessary for the developer to distinguish it in a different way.

Second, the game's genre. While larger RPG franchises are rare outside of Square-Enix's, engines like RPG Maker have allowed a lot of fledgling game developers to create and release their own projects on platforms like Steam. Unfortunately, these projects don't usually get very high ratings. While the genre is still appreciated, it's practically never considered unique or original to develop a turn-based RPG. I realize that's a bold statement, but how many times since Earthbound have you seen a top down turn-based RPG be considered an innovator of some kind?

Searching for 'RPG Maker' games on Steam gives you 154 results, while 'turn based RPG' yields 477 results. It's certainly less saturated than 'retro games' in general, but still something for the consumer - and thus, the developer - to think about.

So, those are two reasons why Undertale needs to distinguish itself through its marketing to prevent it from being dismissed at a glance. In marketing, you see, there's a concept called a 'unique selling point' or 'unique selling proposition' (USP). You want your product to be noticed in the crowd, you're going to need at least one of these, and Undertale calling itself 'the friendly RPG where no one has to die' performs that duty admirably.

So, what this all boils down to is that Toby Fox developed an incredible game with a solid marketing campaign, but the former's design ended up clashing a bit with the latter's transparency. 

But a lot of this has been conjecture. What do you think? Am I right about Undertale's design and marketing? Please feel free to respond. I might just write another follow up based on feedback!


  1. 3l H4ck3r C0mf0r7March 23, 2016 at 3:43 AM

    Tbh, I think Undertale's design doesn't conflict with their usp. If you aren't tricked by the game into making mistakes, and shown realistic and sad consecuences of your "actions", there's no way you'll be engaged in the universe, there's no way you actions will matter. Also, you learn the way to spare Toriel when you reach the end of Omega Flowey's fight. Why? Toby wanted to teach you two things through Undertale: He wants to tell you that you can't do everything the first try. Experience is a good teacher, embrace your fails and fix them wherever you get the chance. That's why Flowey gives you tips. He tells you to RESET if you killed anyone, like Toriel, and not kill anyone next time, and if you just have to get Undyne's letter and go on, he'll tell you tips about Alphys. The game doesn't hint you at all about befriending Alphys before that, as Toby doesn't want you to enter the True Lab before having the feels he cooked into Flowey's pacifist tips. They're just that important. At the end of the day, you are capable of not killing anyone, even after many reloads, resets and retries. Thats when Toby teaches you his final lesson. Things will only go the way you want when you work as hard as you are capable of. Happy endings are NOT easy. But... They are also by that same definition NEVER impossible! So stay determined and make them happen! This game is just that well designed imo.

  2. 3l H4ck3r C0mf0r7March 23, 2016 at 4:00 AM

    I mean, you're already determined after defeating Omega Flowey, it's a scary, giant beast made and meant to look unbeatable. It's also way more powerful than you. You will defeat this thing twice, and be overdetermined by that point. If you MERCY'd him the first time (which is most likely after killing Toriel and knowing it was possible to spare her), you'll direct that overdetermination into the RESET and the new Pacifist route. Finding new dialogue this time will make you see progress as you repeat the MERCY option on Flowey, and next time, that feeling of progress won't be needed to help you spare Toriel: You know that's the way. Your determination makes you refuse to FIGHT her. That's the whole purpose. In the end, in the fight against Asriel, finally so much DT shows how far you've gone even in-game: you refuse to die. Finally you get the happy ending you want and you walk away, feeling like you have learned an important life lesson that'll hopefully keep you walking forward in the darkest of times. A lesson at least many people I know lack. This is the real power of videogames. One not many devs take advantage of. Enjoy it.

  3. If you're a game hacker and/or hobby wanna-be game designer like me, you also know Toby asked dataminers/gameplayers to let everyone stay spoiler-free until a year has passed after the game's release. In the genocide run Flowey picks on everyone watching gameplays of him with one of his lines, and there are textures, strings and audio files asking dataminers to not post anything they find online. Those are the only things that can currently be ripped from Game Maker Studio's format. And they are exactly the things Toby added. The audio file is first in alphabet order, the picture is first in the texture IDs, and the string is shown first during decompilation. He's had quite the forethought of what would happen to his game after release. Even to the point that people in the Undertale community are worried about spoilers and if they want you to play the game, they'll keep you from getting spoiled anywhere. That is just... I dunno, genius or magical prediction abilities from Toby's part. He made choice just that important. He's been so connected with things like Twitter that even his game's jokes are basically raw meme fuel. The amount of dank memes Undertale has produced is almost unheard of.

    1. Hey, thanks a lot for taking the time to respond. I actually generally agree with you here, but I feel I should clarify: I don't think Undertale's design conflicts with its USPs; I think its design conflicts with how it was marketed. I think it's puzzling that, like you said, Toby's kept so many things under wraps, and yet the trailers and marketing give away so much.

      Consider reading my first post as well, where I actually talk about the consequences of this design quirk:

      Would love to discuss that in further detail.

    2. I have already read that before finally answering here. I do think it doesn't really conflict at all with anything. The game really lives up to the marketing it had: You do get the choice, kill or spare. Toby did have to find a way to make that matter and have meaningful consequences, getting someone engaged in your game is NOT easy. He made a difficult game. But he made one that doesn't feel unfair or punishing, and one that does keep you invested and makes you want to beat it, even when it's at it's hardest. That alone deserves credit. It's genius.

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    4. Toby did show lots of contents and elements at the trailer and demo, but he did save most for the actual game. From a game design perspective mystery is one of the easiest ways to get players to engage. But the true story behind Undertale is one you don't even know exists when you enter. It's all about the characters.

  4. Something else I'd also like to say. What would happen if the game let you know you could spare Toriel on your first playthrough? Some would spare her, and some would kill her anyways, like you probably did to that Froggit, and then you would maybe think that was meaningless, like the Butterscotch Pie. Toby doesn't want you to think that. So he used what could be considered a tool in a game dev's toolbelt...
    How is a consequece different to true choice in games?
    When do you decide to think about what you do.
    Choice: "Will I make a Genocide Run?"
    Consequence: "Why did I kill Toriel?"

    Of course there are also other ways, like Life Is Strange. A white text that basically says: "WATCH YOUR STEP, CONSEQUENCES AHEAD." But gameplay consequence is more powerful when done properly, so that's the way Toby went when designing that part of the game.