A Game Design Dictionary
Concluding Preface

On Branding

Branding_collage_1Branding… it’s the means by which giant corporations thrive, but also the means by which small companies survive. Is it the enemy? A potential ally? Or simply the embodiment of the way we apportion our loyalty in a capitalistic society? Should we be working to resist branding, or striving to make branding work for us? 

Last week, I bought a copy of Kings Blood, the fast paced card game of dynastic marriages originally published by Fujimi Shobo in  Japan. It is likely, given the appealing manga art style of the cards that I would have purchased this game anyway, but my buying decision was motivated to a very great degree by the US publisher: Steve Jackson Games. I trust SJG – I have loyalty to their brand that began with Car Wars but which has lasted more than twenty years on the back of an inventively offbeat catalogue of card and boardgames that has consistently favoured the hobbygamer over the mass market. (Kings Blood, incidentally, its lots of fun, and simple enough for non-hobbygamers to play; recommended for those looking for games with a short play time and relatively simple mechanics).

We are all influenced by brands – both positively and negatively. Brands are the entity to which we attach our emotional investments in the case of a brand that wins us over, and to which we allow our hatred and vehemence to accrue in the case of a brand that offends our sensibilities to any degree. The spectrum of branding can be seen as comprised of many different ‘families’ of brands: 

  • First mover brands: the first game to hit a successful new form of play generally forms a successful brand. It may also be the genre king (to coin Danc’s term) for its style of play, although careless management can lose it this position. Dungeons & Dragons, Magic: The Gathering and The Sims are all examples of genre kings that achieved their position by being the first mover.
  • Licensed brands (or brand franchises): those brands which build up the biggest reservoir of goodwill can be considered brand franchises (like Star Wars or the X-Men),      which can then be licensed to game companies (and indeed, clothing, food and detergent companies) to make what amounts to fancy merchandising in the worst case.
  • Implied brands: these are seldom talked about, but are those brands which exist outside of the statute of limitations for copyright. Most are mythological in nature. Consider, for instance the Three Kingdoms historical setting which Koei use for their Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Dynasty Warriors games. Other people could release games in the same setting (and sometimes do e.g. Dragon Throne: Battle for Red Cliffs), but the first mover on an implicit branding once again has an almost insurmountable advantage.
  • Niche brands: which accounts for just about everything else. This, in effect, describes all the brands which have neither the confluence of popularity of a first mover brand, nor the cross media benefits of a brand franchise.

Notice that Electronic Arts catalogue of games consist entirely of a vast swathe of licensed brands (all the major sporting brands they could buy, plus all the major film brands they can buy each year), a small number of implied brands (e.g. Medal of Honour which is a World War 2 FPS brand) and the odd first mover brand which in EA’s case is usually created by Wil Wright (e.g. The Sims). Niche brands it considers irrelevant, and discards whenever it acquires them e.g. Dungeon Keeper. 

The Hardcore gaming community (as a collective entity) often manages to achieve a degree of staggering hypocrisy in the context of brands, attacking those games which they perceive as empty brand attachments, yet continuing to purchase Star Wars branded product, or Sid Meier’s Civilization sequels, or the latest title in the anything-but-final Final Fantasy sequence. Any claim that it is the branding they oppose seems rather empty: rather, it is the specific brands they seem to take umbrage at.

A counter claim is that it is the attachment of a brand license to a poor game design that causes the offence. Let us briefly examine this claim with a specific point of reference, namely the game X-Men Legends. I apologize to anyone who thinks this is a well-designed game; there is room for subjectivity in all things, but to my sensibilities this is one of the worst game designs I have had the misfortune to struggle through.

I was reduced to slack jawed incredulity when I saw the reviews for this game. Metacritic gives it an overall average of 79 (Generally Favourable Reviews). The first ten of its 48 reviews give it 90% or higher. We must scroll through some 40 reviews before we reach review scores of around 60%, which is honestly what this game probably deserves.   

Lest I seem to be attacking this title unfairly, let me just share a short anecdote that will provide some perspective. I happened to meet one of the people who worked on this project at a convention that we were both speaking at. For obvious reasons, I will not name who this was, or which convention. I asked him, politely, if the project had had workflow problems (politely trying to probe for an explanation for the ultimate mess that resulted). I was somewhat surprised to be regaled with a sorry tale of woes that revealed that, yes indeed, this project had numerous problems from beginning to end. The person in question also revealed that he was amazed at the review scores the game garnered upon release. To this I smiled and said: “The power of the X-men brand.”

And indeed, this is the secret of this game’s success, and also, the reason why publishers are more interested in brand than in game design. Even with a terribly conceived, hideously unbalanced and atrociously constructed game design, X-Men Legends was able to pull in solid sales figures (sufficient for a sequel), and even able to pull in review scores which must surely be seen as disproportionate to the objective quality of the game play (if such a statement is indeed meaningful).

Brand trumps game design in commercial terms, because people will play – and even potentially enjoy – a badly designed game that meets their expectations in terms of branding. I played through this game from beginning to end because I have been an X-fan in the past, and I have an emotional attachment to these characters. And awful game design aside, the artists have wonderfully animated these familiar characters, which further lends attachment to what underneath the hood is very badly cloned from Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance. (A brief aside: they got lucky that the form they chose to copy was a form of Logistical play, as if I am correct, this is the most widely spread play skill set). 

It is small wonder, then, that publishers are more interested in branding and prior success than original concepts and products. A powerful brand can overcome almost all deficiencies in the open market. The audience at large (which can be taken to mean the mass market audience for games) is many times more likely to buy a game featuring a brand they recognise and love than a new game about which they know nothing at all.

I think this is something that new game designers struggle to come to terms with. They often have new and inventive ideas for game settings and backdrops – perhaps ones that they have previously enjoyed in their own tabletop role-playing games. I know this was the case for me when I came to videogame design. But the brutal truth is that we are all too easily blinded by the effects of branding. These settings may have great emotional connections for the game designer, but they mean nothing to the audience at large; they are not even niche brands (yet), but just potential brands, and a potential brand has no inherent commercial value.

Perhaps, if their game design is exceptional, they are lucky enough to catch the imagination of an audience, and if the stars are in alignment, their ideas will bloom into a new and popular brand. After all, even the X-Men were an unknown property once upon a time. But you would be hard pressed to find a videogame brand which shot to prominence without either a long sequence of proven products climbing the market ladder (Metal Gear, GTA, Final Fantasy) or a mighty marketing push and theft of existing popular forms (Halo in respect of the film Aliens; Splinter Cell in respect of Metal Gear). Most original game settings are forever doomed to market obscurity.

Perhaps indie publishing like Manifesto Games can change this by hitting direct to an audience more willing to explore the original, but even this has still to be proven. A Tale in the Desert and Puzzle Pirates suggest it may be possible, but I suspect if it is a viable new market route it may only succeed through the successful creation of an indie brand. I’m certainly hoping Manifesto can be that brand, and am currently backing them to the hilt. Of course, my sword is not particularly long, nor is it especially sharp, but I try to wield it with panache.

When a publisher buys a licensed brand for a game, what it’s really buying is an insurance policy that all but guarantees a minimum number of sales for a game. A good game design has no such guarantee associated with it and, if not backed by strong advertising, will vanish without a trace in the vast ocean of the games market. Strong game design can found a new brand (and indeed, create a new genre king), but usually only by building on the brand from game to game (GTA, Final Fantasy, Metal Gear) or by massive expenditure on marketing (Halo et al). Cases of new brands being created solely by the strength of their design are so rare as to lack an unambiguous example.

Anyone hoping that their original content will form a new brand better hope they are either offering an entirely new form of play (or at least an especially compelling take on existing play), or that they need only a narrow niche audience to survive. It can be done – Steve Jackson Games has hung in for a quarter of a century on a portfolio of niche brands - but it’s an exceptionally tough road. Are you sure it’s the road you want to travel?

Comments

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Excellent piece, Chris. The answer to your final question (at this point) is, "Yes."

Thanks as always for words worthy of chewing on.

I wasn't thinking of you when writing this piece, but as I wrote the final paragraph it did occur to me that it had dovetailed with where you are right now. :)

I just had a few follow up thoughts that I'm going to let gel for a bit. I think I'll be able to better articulate my objections to advergaming by focusing on the branding. It'll turn into a post for next week, I'm sure.

Hi Chris! Great and interesting piece. Taking your example of X-Men Legends, though, which I also didn't enjoy a whole lot(although the sequel is a vast improvement), can its success be ascribed merely to the marketing force of branding, or could it be that, deriving itself from an established cast of characters and narratives, it effectively gets a "free kick" at the element of mimicry? Having fairly neatly encapsulated the key elements of what makes the X-Men what they are ("cool powers", teamwork, lots of attitude, and overwhelming odds) it manages to compensate for its significant narrative and gameplay problems by really being quite successful at being an "X-Men game"?

I mean, you can look at a lot of the other cheap licenses that come out for various properties, and where they go wrong has never been primarily their hideous gameplay (though they have that), their crippling technical issues (they have those), or their often short and repetetive play experiences - the thing that leaves the player feeling most betrayed is that the game didn't capture the essence of the license it was based on. And I think that's what's made the Star Wars and X-Men franchises so long-term successful, while, to name two similar franchises, Indiana Jones and Batman have by and large been losers in the game-license department. (The excellent "Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis" notwithstanding.)

Not only do I tend to agree, but I think the phrase 'a free kick at mimicry' is wonderful! Painful though I found the mechanics of X-Men Legends, I found the act of playing at being the X-men strangely compelling - just playing around with Storm's flight controls amused me to a degree discommensurate with sense. :)

But then, in the case of a branded license, is it not part of the benefit you are purchasing with the licensed materials that you are buying 'a free kick at mimicry'?

I just wanted to point out that I think it's a bit unfair to put Civilization next to Star Wars. Star Wars is just a brand, and a Star Wars-game can be anything from a first person shooter to a strategy title. A game in the Civilization-series, however, will be a specific type of game that's really rather unique. So when someone looks forward to the next installation in the Civ-series, they really look forward to another game which is based on the Civilization-concept.

Ofcourse, Sid Meier's Civilization is a brand just like Star Wars, but I don't believe it's hypocrisy to look forward to the next Civilization-game while disliking, for instance, EA's movie licenses. I looked forward to Civ IV, because I knew the gameplay would probably appeal to me, just like I now look forward to Sword of the Stars, because I know the gameplay will probably appeal to me.

Fluffy: I take your point. Clearly Star Wars is a brand franchise whereas Civilisation is more of a 'first mover' franchise which also exhibits implied brand by being quasi-historical. Naturally, there are many different kinds of brand.

(As an aside, if one accepts the origin of Sid Meier's Civilization in Francis Tresham's seminal boardgame - which I personally believe is undeniable - this brand is only one year younger than Star Wars!)

Nonetheless, the accusation of hypocrisy was only levelled at the Hardcore community *as a whole* - because idle claims of dislike for branding are raised, and yet branding - including specific game franchise branding like Civilisation - are still a more important factor in Hardcore purchasing trends than originality (despite claims to the contrary).

Indeed, your comment somewhat reinforces this point: how many original strategy games lost out in the marketplace because of the domination of the Civilisation brand? That is, loyalists such as yourself (and thousands of others) have stuck with the Civ brand from year to year, thus acting as a barrier for any game wishing to try an original take on this style of gameplay. This absolutely *isn't* an accusation of hypocrisy levelled at Civ fans, though, who are just being brand loyal to a game franchise they love. It's just an acceptance that branding and the encouragement of originality tend to exist in direct tension.

Take care!

PS: I should clarify that I mean no value judgement here. I'm not saying 'brand loyalty' is bad, or 'buying original games' is good - there are merits and issues with both. I am merely stating that these two forces are in tension with one another.

What precisely do you see as the big flaws in XML and by comparison, I guess, BG: Dark Alliance, Chris? Or am I over-reaching there? I found XML and XML2 to be pretty decent, albeit flawed ... but the flaws didn't stumble the game too badly for me.

But I would provide an alternate explanation to the sales. Decent coops are hard to find, especially outside of shooters. The Girl doesn't for the FPS crowd and the BG:DA formula provides a low threshold of entry for people to jump in and play together. It's such a sadly niche market that even truly suboptimal games (want atrocious? Try the sad Fallout attempt in the same vein) will get a whirl.

Add in brand that's done at least decently - and both XML's offered up character representation and plots to please the fans, and it's a recipe for success even for a title with issues.

Josh: It's interesting to hear someone stand up for the game (X-Men Legends). Of course, there is a huge subjective element to play, and therefore it's perfectly conceivable and reasonable for someone to like X-Men Legends.

I agree that there is an annoying shortage of co-op games. In fact, I bought it expressly as a co-op game, hoping it would offer the same low barrier to entry as Gauntlet Legends (Dreamcast version) - which I was able to get a vast variety of people to play and enjoy, including some who were over 40 and would never normally consider a videogame. I was sorely disappointed in this aspect, as two of the four players who I intended to play it with found absolutely nothing fun or entertaining in the play at all and wanted to stop after just one single session.

Even the person I eventually pushed through to the end with didn't like it any more than I did; we put up with it, largely out of loyalty to the X-men, and a certain grim fascination with how painfully everything had turned out.

Among this game's numerous problems are included: (1) The game presents a very basic Logistical play of killing enemies and picking up money. This is just about tolerable in a vacuous hack and slash game like Dark Alliance, drawing on a long tradition of vacuous fantasy hack and slash, but it a woefully unimaginative way of organising a game based on the rich mythology of the X-men. (2) The basic play skill appears to be remembering to press the heal button before your character dies, and perhaps timing one's attack to gain the combo bonus. This becomes tiresome rather quickly. (3) The game's rough edges spill out into excessive frustration; many of the levels include places where one can die very easily - often as a result of poor camera problems - requiring either reloading, or slogging back to the necessary point to regenerate. This lead to excessive fail-repeat play which offered only frustration and no fiero. (4) terrible mechanical and parametric balance remove any Strategic enjoyment that might be had; each character has only a small number of useful abilities to power up, and many extremely ineffective abilities. By a third of the way through the game, there is no decision making to be had, as the weaker abilities are made abundantly apparent. The whole situation is made worse by a clumsy and cumbersome 'level checkpointing' system, which places limits on the rate of growth so severe that rather than providing a genuine choice at each level, the player is forced to read through the list to find the ability which became unlocked for that level. This can only barely be considered play in the Strategic sense, but perhaps still works in a Logistical sense. (5) Large sections of the game are incomplete, or poorly implemented (6) Equipment is largely indisguishable, with very few useful items; the very use of fantasy RPG-style equipment gels very poorly with the X-men setting, leaving a bad taste in the mouth (7) Dialogue is atrocious, and the narrative in general has been beaten to within an inch of its life and left for dead.

I believe this game deserves something in the range 60-70% as a review score. While not awful, it is deeply flawed in numerous areas not reflected in typical reviews. In fact, it takes the already flawed Dark Alliance model which at least made sense in the context of a generic fantasy game, weds it to a background in which this play makes not the faintest scrap of sense and then proceeds to make elementary and gnawing design errors which further erode any hope of an arbitrary player being able to enjoy the play of the game.

But, as ever with games, where one's focus lies will change the experience. For instance, if one enjoys Logistical play experiences it is quite likely that X-Men Legends doesn't seem so bad, as the Dark Alliance model delivers a perfectly solid Logistical experience as far as I can tell - it just fails to deliver anything suitable for a wider audience. Since I estimate about 50% of people do enjoy Logistical play (witness the success of The Sims, for instance, which is very Logistical, or Dark Alliance itself), there are perhaps many people who were able to enjoy the game.

As someone who feels differently about this game, I would be very interested in hearing whether any of the 7 complaints listed above were an issue to you. 1-3 I would broadly classify as Tactical complaints, 4 as a Strategic complaint, and 5-7 as general complaints, just for reference.

Thanks for sharing your view! I hope my distaste for the game has not been too offensive to read about! :)

Point to point responses:

1) The use of money and gear in XML and XML is hands down, without a doubt, my least favorite aspect of the game. It's clearly a leftover mechanic from the framework that a) doesn't fit the motif and b) turns into a nuisance of management with little reward.

In some ways, this was "fixed" in XML2 because you can let the computer handle gear for you. But it's not a complete solution and still not better than simply removing the mechanic in lieu of something which makes more sense (like using XP for purchasing abilities)

2) In some ways, I'd agree .... but there are variations depending on some characters. Jean Grey, for instance, can be built into a brawler, crowd control, or healer. That some of the characters are simplistic in nature is actually helpful, because some players don't want to handle more than the basic button mashing.

3) Yes, the "falling death" of XML. Definately a nuisance, especially when bots decide to go lemming. This was, btw, fixed in XML2. XML2 still had some mission based bugs, however, including at least one which makes the game unwinnable.

4) Like 2, I think this is more true for some characters than others. Iceman is another example - it's possible to max him out as a blaster or as a support role. The "weak powers" syndrome I definately agree with though, some characters have real stinkers and a few - like Rogue's power stealing - truly hurt the overall game and even the brand.

5) Mmmm ... I guess? I think we ended up playing it through twice, so it didn't stumble us too much. In XML, some of the non-linear portions felt off ... XML2 is more linear in general.

6) See 1. I completely agree. I don't think the gear or the money fits nor works and if it did at least one or the other I might be able to forgive it. The auto-management added in XML2 makes me think the developers agree, but didn't bother to remove it with something better.

7) Here is where'd I'd generally disagree the most. It's so easy to do comic book licenses poorly, but both XML and XML2 a) remained generally true to the source material and b) adapted existing storylines from the comics for a generally decent effect. The characters are generally well-represented and while the dialogue might not be great - the voice acting was well-done (particularly considering the wide range of cast).

There are nuances which border on brilliant, like having the teenage form of Bishop appear in XML1 while he appears later as a playable in XML2. The "classic" flashback in XML1 and the handling of Angel in XML2. Deadpool in XML2 is also fittingly hilarious.

I'm not saying it should win awards for dialogue or narrative - it's just nice to play a comic based RPG where you don't feel you need to hunt down the writers and voice actors.

I believe this game deserves something in the range 60-70% as a review score. While not awful, it is deeply flawed in numerous areas not reflected in typical reviews.

Ah, see I though you'd shoot lower than that from your comments. I would probably agree with the 70% range for XML1 and 80% for XML2, which at least made an effort to fix some of the issues (although humorously was, I think, rated lower).

In general, I like the Baldur's Gate: DA formula. It can be lent to both bad and good games, of course, but the Gauntlet a la RPG setup is a good one for coop games that I wish was better exploited.

Thanks Josh, I appreciate the extra perspective!

On the subject of co-op in general and Gauntlet in the specific, do we know anything substantial about the new Gauntlet game? I really need a good co-op game that *anyone* can manage to play, and they're very hard to come by, sadly.

No problem, and thanks for the extra info. XML remains a game in high regard in my library, but definately one that can be acknowledged long and wide for it's (somewhat educational) flaws.

I bought Gauntlet: Seven Sorrows because The Girl and I were desperate for new coop.

Sadly, it's a very undercooked offering. The new combo mechanics work well, the graphics are very good and the coop (like joining in and out) is done very, very well.

But it's way too short (about 5 hours of play) and upgrading the characters doesn't even last a single campaign (except for stat increases). What is there works, but there just isn't much.

I had a mini-review on CT:

http://cathodetan.blogspot.com/2006/04/gauntlet-seven-sorrows.html

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