Before I dive into a series of blogs on game design, I'll first give a quick overview of some of the thinking that went into the concept and design of Max Payne. In effect, Max Payne was purposely positioned for success right from the start. Here's how:
o A game's name is one of the most important marketing decisions to be made. It should be non-generic (avoid overused words, like "warrior," "shadow," "dark," "beyond," "legend," "combat," & "destiny") and memorable. A perfect name will convey something about the product (i.e. Doom, Tomb Raider, Grand Theft Auto), have good word-play possibilities for press and news headlines (i.e. "Maximum fun!" or "Duke it out!"), and have a good short-hand version that still tells people what game is being referred to (i.e. "Max" and "Duke"). The game should not be too long, or complicated -- avoid colons and dashes, as these are complications and often indicate a name that's too long (one of my favorite actual examples: Descent: Freespace -- The Great War). There are many more attributes good names should shoot for, and I'll cover them later in a blog on the art and science of game titles.
o Max Payne was conceptualized during Tomb Raider's peak run, and the design purposely avoids the special elements that made Tomb Raider unique and popular, such as swimming, the acrobatic moves, settings, horrible third-person camera, stuff like that. Yet, during this same time, other third-person action games more closely copied Tomb Raider's formula, and were therefore perceived as clones. (Space Bunnies Must Die comes to mind.) Games are labeled clones when they too closely copy previously successful games. One of the most important keys to being noticed and newsworthy is being unique, and this was a key design guideline for Max Payne. Being different is one of the most important principles of positioning. If you're not significantly unique, you're a follower, and by definition followers do not lead.
o Max Payne is a model of simplicity. This means that it's not a hard concept to communicate to press and gamers: You're a fugitive cop, everyone is out to stop you. The story is rampant revenge. The gameplay is straight-forward, too: Max shoots all enemies! Max Payne's gameplay verb is kill. It's not explore (Myst), or build (Roller Coaster Tycoon), or drive (GTA series). (Yes, games can have more than one gameplay verb, but for my point here I'm referring to the dominant verb.) Often, games that try to have more than one gameplay verb, like kill, sneak and negotiate (Deus Ex), can be too complicated for reaching the mass market. Simplicity rules.
o The game was designed with several interesting hooks to help it stand-out and generate buzz. The key hook is bullet-time, which I won't go into further. But perhaps overlooked are other important hooks:  The game's film noir style,  the game's graphic novel story presentation, and  the game's Hong Kong flick cinematic action. All of these hooks are dramatic and relatively unique within the game world, and that's what makes them buzz-worthy and news-worthy.
o The game was originally titled Dark Justice, as this well describes the game's theme. But, we felt it was more important to focus on the game's lead character like we had previously done with Duke Nukem. The comic book industry is smart about naming their comics the name of their lead character (or characters, as in X-Men, Fantastic Four), such as Batman, Spider-Man, Superman and so on. The idea is that when you have a character-focused franchise, it's trivial to put that character in new stories for sequels, or for exploitation in other media. But if you name you game with a setting, such as Tomb Raider, well, then you've a special setting that you must deal with each game. With Tomb Raider, every story you tell sort of needs to involve a tomb, otherwise the title doesn't fit. This is why I think it was a mistake not to name the Tomb Raider games after the lead character (Lara Croft) instead.
o Controversy. Max Payne had a little, though it didn't get as much press as we thought it might. Still, controversy that fits the context of the game is good for stirring up news. Duke Nukem, for example, had only one or two levels with strippers (and no nudity), and yet it generated endless controversy when the game was released in 1996. The bottom-line is that if you can build a little controversy into your game, do it.
o Positioning-wise, Max is the game industry's leading vigilante cop -- this is game category that he owns. The attribute Max owns is "bullet-time," like Volvo owns the word "safety" and McDonalds owns "fast." For a game to be successful, it's critical to have it be either the leader, or the alternative, in a category, such as Coke and Pepsi. It's also important to own an attribute. In fact, game designers would help themselves by thinking in terms of attributes rather than features. When you own an attribute then it's your brand that springs to mind when someone mentions the attribute. If I mention the attribute "cavity fighter," then the brand most people think of is Crest. If a say "document copier," then you think of Xerox. In the game industry, if someone talks about "bullet-time," the game automatically connected with that attribute is Max Payne. That's a very powerful positioning principle at work.
o We had a controlled, deliberate marketing plan for Max Payne, designed to ramp up the game's buzz and news-worthiness. A key way to make a game news-worthy is to give it a news-worthy attribute, and position it as a category leader. Second, do not hype the game -- let press and players do that for you. And third, keep the game exclusive by not releasing too many screen shots or too much news about the game. I've seen too many times publishers and/or developers flood websites with shots and info, and quickly news about the game becomes tiresome. With Max, we teased, but we didn't show too much. And when we did show, we knocked socks off by showing content and effects that were never seen before.
To sum up, Max Payne benefited from deliberate positioning-powered design, with several positioning principles baked into the game's design that were calculated to make the game newsworthy, compelling, unique and properly branded. In a nutshell, this is how to build a franchise, and how to build news-worthiness and buzz. Of course, execution and polish are also paramount, and Max Payne excelled in those areas, too.
Just to be clear that I do not hijack improper credit, Max Payne was developed (all content and code) by Remedy Entertainment (they did all the hard work!), and produced by 3D Realms (meaning we funded a significant portion of the game, handled the publishing agreements, helped guide the game's design, helped play-tested and polished the game, handled the shareware release, and oversaw and co-designed the game's marketing).
3D Realms is currently working with another developer, with a very similar relationship that we had with Remedy, to create another hit series (or so we hope!). In 2004 this game will be announced and it will make a good case study in the making of a franchise, allowing me to discuss our key decisions prior to the game's release, and eventually seeing if we made the right calls.
Unrelated note: Thanks to the many kind words from people who have somehow landed on this blog (including a lot of industry friends), and to the other industry blogs that have sent them here. My plan is to update this blog once or twice per week. And speaking of "plan," I've had it pointed out to me by several people that this blog is just a fancy resurrection of the the ".plan files" that were so common ny developers in the late-90's. Can't argue.