Monday, November 30, 2009

Branding, Games, and Films

You probably know how important branding has been for decades, but you may not realize how much more important it has become in the past several years. Branding is becoming very important in all game markets.

There are several reasons for this. First, the influence of branding on purchases is itself stronger than ever, and this includes all kinds of purchases. For example, Pat Lawlor, a famous pinball game designer, says “In America for the last, oh, say 20 to 25 years, kids are mercilessly marketed to. Then they become adults with those values. We now raise everyone to believe that a well known corporate ‘thing’ is far superior to a less known item.”

Lawlor describes a scientific study. I quote from the report I discovered on the Internet:

Children tasted 5 pairs of identical foods and beverages in packaging from McDonald’s and matched but unbranded packaging and were asked to indicate if they tasted the same or if one tasted better.... children preferred the tastes of foods and drinks if they thought they were from McDonald’s. Moderator analysis found significantly greater effects of branding among children with more television sets in their homes and children who ate food from McDonald’s more often.

In other words, even though the food was identical to taste, children tended to prefer the food with the McDonald’s brand on the package.

So for pinball machines, Lawlor says, “right now we take the easy road to sales and tie in with the well-known item. For the consuming public, it works (and fools them) every time.” ( This is a triumph of advertising, or perhaps of capitalism. We see this in many other spheres, for example in retail clothing, where a factory can make the same clothes for two companies, yet one company will charge far more to consumers because their brand is well-known. (Think “designer clothes” or that most inane of phrases, “designer games”.)

Second, people are more distrustful of products in general–think of the nationwide hysteria that often arises from the latest death or injury from bad food or badly-designed products. Combine this with the conditioning Lawler talks about, and people *trust* well-known brands (even when a well-known brand, like Tylenol, can invite mal-doers such as the Tylenol poisoner of years ago).

People also depend on brands because they’re less able to judge otherwise. The belief in magic and the supernatural, which seems to be much stronger now than in the past, may contribute to this. Recalling Arthur C. Clarke’s dictum that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”, we can suggest that “any technology consumers do not understand seems like magic.” Figuring out which hammer or rake is best, is probably easier than figuring out which cell phone or computer is best. So people depend more on brand names.

Branding in film is expressed in tie-ins, sequels, and remakes. Movies are often made based on well-known books, comic books, and games. The idea is that the well-known brand will help bring an audience to the new film. People are more likely to go see a sequel to a well-known film than to see an unknown film. And even remakes are more likely to be better attended, because some people remember the original. In contrast, it’s more expensive to successfully market a completely new property.

Game sequels are very common in the video game industry, with the excuse that as technology improves, the games will improve (well, sometimes...). Sequels are “safe”, because the market is already established for the brand, be it Halo or Civilization or Metal Gear Solid. It’s not only in the video game world with its sequel-itis that we see the power of branding in games. “Expansions” for games (board and video) are much more common now than 30 years ago. This may derive partly from including less in the first game than we used to, but it’s also because people are more likely to buy a known quantity. Sequels are much less common in tabletop games, though we do see several games marketed that use the same basic systems, and there’s an entire body of games using the “Settlers of Catan” brand.

Why do the Final Fantasy games share that name, even though some have nothing in common with others? Because “Final Fantasy” is one of the strongest brands in video gaming. Why is Blizzard so successful in the video game market? Mostly because they take all the time they need to make their games, but also because their name is such a strong brand that people will buy their games because they were made by Blizzard. Of course, Blizzard has also produced strong game brands such as Warcraft, Diablo, and Starcraft. The MMO World of Warcraft is itself an expression of the power of branding, with its setting derived from a series of three standalone video games.

Many games are “based on” well-known films and books (and even other games). Unfortunately, games based on movies, whether video or tabletop, have a deservedly poor reputation, in part because so many are produced in insufficient time so that they can be published when the movie is released.

Few movies are based on real tabletop games. Nonetheless, a “Monopoly” film is being made, as well as “Battleship” and others, even “Candyland”! These will be “tentpole” movies with a “big immersive experience”! ( ) This is part of what might be called “extreme branding”. According to Mike Gray, senior product acquisition person for games at Hasbro, Hasbro bought half of the Discovery Channel so that they can make TV series upon which they can then base games. Hasbro is also coming out with games using the name of their well-known brands, for example Sorry Sliders (much more dexterity shuffleboard than Sorry) and Battleship Galaxies. Why do we see so many versions of Stratego, Risk and Axis & Allies? Name recognition (branding): “Risk Godstorm” is going to be bought by many more people than “Godstorm”, “Stratego Legends” will sell much better than “Legends”, just as “Sorry Sliders” will sell much better than “Sliders”. (The other major reason is that people already know how to play the wargames, they only have to learn variations, so they are much less likely to take the game back to the store because they can’t or won’t figure it out.)

It is much easier, thanks to improved technology, to self-publish games of all types than it was 25 years ago. Consequently, there are a lot more games on the market. Branding helps differentiate your game from one that no one has ever heard of. Hasbro can spend four million dollars in advertising to try to establish an unbranded toy or game, or they can make something with a known name and associations and save a lot of that money.

Can a beginning designer take advantage of brands? It’s very unlikely. Companies own those brands (in most cases), and they’ll decide for themselves what games to use with them. They’re quite likely to rely on someone with a strong record of well-made games.

In my own experience, my game Britannia (1986 etc.) is a brand, but it’s a brand others can use freely. “Britannia-like” will be a phrase used to describe a game that uses similar systems, even if it isn’t mentioned by the designers/publishers. Those who know Britannia will have an immediate idea of what the game is like, and that familiarity may help sales. That’s what branding does.

(This originally appeared on The Spiteful Critic, 18 Nov. Click on the title of this post.)


Joe Wasserman said...

True that most games based on movies or books tend to be flops, but I think there are some notable exceptions, including a handful of games based on the Lord of the Rings trilogy and Fury of Dracula. I would also count Battlestar Galactica the Board Game, which is terrific in capturing the feel of the TV series, and a great game in its own right.

It's also worth noting that Blizzard has expanded their branding to board games like StarCraft (the Board Game) and World of Warcraft (the Board Game).

Although you are right to point out that beginner designers can't leverage name-brand recognition, they can still use the same semiotic process that is at work in branding to make their games immediately draw in consumers, for example associating their games with valued qualities by using laden words in their game titles (maybe "conquest" or "discovery" or "pirate" or "empire" or ...), of course depending on what audience they are trying to capture, and to whom they are trying to sell.

Lewis said...

Some years ago, while the LOTR movies were still coming out, I talked to a collector who owned 111 different LOTR/Hobbit games, most of them predating the trilogy of films.

Titles are very important (and not always selected by the designer--"Britannia" is Gibsons' title, much more melifluous than mine which was "Invasions of Britain". "Dragon Rage", which was my title, is one I've always liked a lot (and a PS2 game by that title came out a few years after, no connection with my game).