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.)

Saturday, November 21, 2009

What does "game developer" mean?

(This piece, originally on Gamasutra in March 09 (you can click the title of this post to go to it) engendered 89 comments, many of them quite out of line with reality (both the reality of what I actually wrote, and the reality of the importance of programming to games).)

As we all know, words can create the wrong perceptions. As far as I can see, the word "developer," applied to games, confuses the heck out of people who do not actually create games for a living.

For example, recently I spoke with some newly-minted college instructors who teach students to make games.

One of them told me, "Person X says he doesn't know anything about game development." Person X is a major official in the International Game Developers Association!

Later, I heard, "Person Y doesn't know game development." Person Y is heavily involved in game creation education, and ought to know something about game creation, surely, but comes from the art side.

Upon reflection, I realized that the speakers were equating "game development" with computer programming.

But is "game development," as a term used within the industry, the equivalent of computer programming for games, or is it something much broader? When creation of an electronic game was a one-person endeavor, back in the 70s and 80s, every game developer had to be a programmer. But this "one hero per game" style practically ended around 1990 -- so long ago that many college students were born after that date -- as most games became too big to be done by one person.

Game Development Is Not Programming

Obviously, you can know a lot about games in a variety of ways, and not know much about making games. We get students all the time at my school who think they'll be good at creating games simply because they like to play games a lot. Not so, bucko.

On the other hand, you can be an important part of a team that creates video games, and know next to nothing about computer programming.

Nowadays, many more artists than programmers work on electronic games. And there are teams of game designers, level designers, sound people, narrative writers, and so forth working on big games.

Programming is the minority endeavor. So why do we still call it “game development," have a flagship magazine named Game Developer, a flagship Game Developers Conference, and a flagship organization called the International Game Developers Association?

Here are the problems. First, to people who don’t work for video game companies, a developer is a programmer, someone who codes software. Using the term "game developer" to encompass all of the team that makes video games is quite confusing to computer-knowledgeable people outside the industry.

Next, to the non-electronic game industry, a developer is a person who polishes and finishes a game design for publication -- sometimes the designer, sometimes someone else.

Finally, the general populace rarely knows what a “developer” is in any context.

The Difference

For almost all video games, programming is a necessary evil, something that can only result in negatives for the game, not make it outstanding. What makes a video game outstanding is, first, the design, the gameplay or other interaction; second, the look and feel of the game, which is a combination of design and art.

Good programming can certainly contribute, but mostly, programming is there to implement the vision of the designers and artists, and is a fairly mechanical contribution to the game. But if it's poorly done, it can ruin the game. Further, patches can typically fix programming problems, but rarely fix fundamental design problems.

Today, many of the steps programmers used to have to do manually are now done by software tools, but we still have a long way to go. Ideally, we'd like to be able to tell a computer-based tool how we want a game to work, provide it with art, and it would write the software.

Game engines, a form of CASE tool (Computer Aided Software Engineering), take us in this direction, simplifying programming by (in effect) doing some of it themselves. Constantly, people are trying to write tools that will make programmers less and less necessary, less and less important, in everyday endeavors -- though it will always be true that if we want to improve computers, we’ll need human programmers.

We know there is creativity in programming. But once we get past the highly entrepreneurial stage of an industry (which we have), too much creativity in programming causes problems. In games we want programming to be reliable, solid, fast -- mechanical, not creative. (See Cowboy Coders) for more.)

On the other hand, programmers tend to be paid more than the other folks involved in game creation, so it’s clearly a skill very much in demand. Evidently, it’s easier to find good artists or designers than good programmers (supply and demand drive salaries). Perhaps the high valuation of programmers goes back to the bane of so many games, elementary errors: many of those elementary errors are programming errors.

The Core

So what is the core of game development? It's not programming and it's not development, folks -- it's design and art. Programming is a support function, not the heart of an electronic game. And if we look into the world of non-electronic games, we have design very much dominant, and we have some art, but we have no programming at all.

So why do we call ourselves “game developers”? We can continue to be Humpty Dumpty and use a term that often confuses those outside the industry, or we can adjust to the change in reality -- that programming is no longer the heart of game creation. Why not Game Creators Magazine, Game Creators Conference, International Game Creators Association?

Problems in Education

This term and the confusion around it affects education and influences young people. To go back to my original anecdote, it also influences people who teach game creation. These people equate game development with programming, yet they're teaching a generation that tends not to enjoy programming!

Unfortunately, game development programs in colleges and universities are often started by programmers, who have no interest in art and little interest in design (and sometimes, little interest in games!).

In many less-well-known schools, computer programming is fading away as a topic of interest for the millennial generation, or has already been dropped; game development is grabbed as a life-saver for those who want to teach programming but lack students. Unfortunately, these game development curricula are more than fifteen years out of date when they start.

My own experience of this is that when programmers start game development programs, those programs are usually a disaster for artists and designers. Game development education should be in the hands of gamers who are teachers, not of teachers who are programmers.

If you're a student planning to pursue game creation as a career, and you don’t want to be a programmer, find out whether the school you have in mind runs the programming version of game development, or the broader "game creation" version that accommodates non-programmers.

Problems in Perception of Art

Many video game makers are disturbed that video games are not seen as "art" by the general public. John Sharp recently discussed the difference between "mechanical art" (works of the hands) and "liberal art" (works of the mind).

I think video games are seen as mechanical art by the general public, because they are thought to be primarily achievements of programming, which is generally seen as a mechanical art. (In contrast, the non-electronic game industry is not concerned about whether such games are art: they are obviously works of the mind -- they have no programming.)

If we want video games to be seen as liberal art, we need to educate people that programming is a support function, not the principal activity of game making. One way to do this is to call the activity "game creation," not "game development." Why shoot ourselves in the foot?

We use "game developer" as a title out of habit -- a habit now outdated by changes in how video games are made. Why not switch to "game creator," which will cause less confusion to computer people, cause less confusion to wannabe game creators, and even cause less confusion to the populace at large, as well as encouraging people to think of video games as art?

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Miscellaneous Thoughts

Miscellaneous thoughts:

How many free-to-play online games that ask players to pay for additional features are NOT avatar based? (RTS, for example, are not avatar-based.) Something between few and none, I should think. So, are players mostly paying to improve "themselves", their avatar?


AAA video games are "Big Meals", free-to-play and casual stuff are "snacks". So how many people eat lots of big meals any more? A lot more snacking and catch-as-you-can eating happens.


Twitter is less attractive to those who are used to working alone (tabletop game designers), more attractive to those who work in groups (video game designers).


I tend to want to simplify games, which tends to be "anti-atmospherical." (Atmosphere is the flavor, the "chrome", but the kind that is tacked-on and doesn't alter gameplay. When it guides the construction of gameplay, it's theme.)

I make representations, not simulations.


Mike Gray (Hasbro) says the problem with tabletop games is that someone must read the rules. The further problem with wargames is not only the rules, but that there are "too many decisions". People who are quite happy to play games that don't require too many decisions at once, are "Bewildered by wargames".


I saw a question online, "does intuition or theory drive game design?" Neither. Playtest results drive game design, at least, the simple games that Reiner Knizia designs, and that I'm experimenting with.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Interaction in Games

Interaction in games

This arises from class discussions, and as with all such initial attempts, is very much subject to revision. Of course, there's no "right" way to categorize something this complex in such a small space.

In a traditional solo video game you're actually interacting with the designer.

In a tabletop or "newer" video game, you're interacting with other people through situations devised by the designer.

Interacting with the designer: (Often called PvE, Player vs. Environment)
Talking with NPCs
Collecting information
Avoiding obstacles and hazards (which may behave sentiently (with intelligence) or not)
Con them (bluffing)
Blast/smash them
Clever other methods (drive cattle in front of you)
(Cutscenes–but no interactivity)

Interacting with other people (part of the game, not something the game leads to):
Negotiation (persuade or dissuade)
Direct Conflict (PvP, Player vs. Player)
"Beating them to the punch" (in races, collection of objects, as well as in attacking)
Kill-crush-destroy opposing entities
Physical contests
Cooperation (typical of group RPGs)
Bidding against/auctioning
Drafting (selecting the best set of useful items, getting something before someone else does)
Anticipation of what someone else will do (could be tied to “beating them to the punch”)
"Bragging rights"
Telling bad jokes, charades, drawing pictures, and many other kinds of party game activities
Acting/pretending (lying) (bluffing)
Being annoying
Indirect interaction (you cause forces other than yours do do something to harm another player's)(e.g. via "Event cards")

Really indirect conflict--you cause forces other than yours to do something to harm other forces that might be helpful to an opponent

In a sense, a great part of interaction with other people could be characterized as “make the right choice before the other person does”.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Using the best format

When I want to learn history, I read a good book about it, I don't play a game. When I want a good story, I don't play a game, I read a novel (or watch a movie, though the stories are more shallow, less detailed, than in novels--but they take less effort). When I want an interactive and interesting conflict to resolve, I play a game.

If I want an interactive story--but I don't--then the best place might be a video game, though I would do a tabletop RPG first in that case. If I want to "make my own stories", quite a different thing than being fed through an interactive story, then I play a tabletop game.

If you want the best experiences of each type, you choose the best format.

I do the same with computer software: I don't try to do columns of numbers in a word processor (though it can be done), I use a spreadsheet program. I don't try to draw diagrams with a spreadsheet (though I can), or even with Powerpoint, I use a drawing or diagramming program. If I want to play a video game, I'm not going to find it in that drawing program. And so on.

But there are lots of people who play a game to learn history, because they don't want to read a book. And there are people who play games for stories, usually because they want to have something to do during the story. Just as there are people who make drawings with Powerpoint.