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
I bought a copy of Kings Blood, the fast paced card game of dynastic
marriages originally published by Fujimi Shobo in
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.
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.
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).
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?