12/01/2008

Gaming Brands

I've been talking about core fantasies and branding a fair amount recently (when I'm not riffing on terrible games), but I think it represents a significant failure in my logic that I haven't spent more time talking about what the connection is here to games. Afterall, Bethesda isn't a brand, it's a company. A good test to see if something is a brand, and therefore has a core fantasy (not all things with core fantasies are brands, but all brands have a core fantasy) is to ask “If I wore a shirt with their logo on it, what would I be saying about myself?” If the message is unclear or non-existent, then either it's not a brand, or it's a poorly managed one.

If I wear a shirt that says “Secret of Mana”, I'm saying... I guess that I like Secret of Mana? I'm not really saying anything else, certainly not compared to the classic Harley Davidson example, or even something as mundane as In'n'Out: In'n'Out is all about the retro feel, and the quality of the good old days. Harley Davidson makes a much clearer statement, and therefore has a much clearer fantasy associated with it, but we can all agree that Squareenix or Blizzard don't have a core fantasy to speak of.

So what if a game company wanted to make themselves a brand? In order to do that, they would need to stand for something more than just great games. If I founded a company that made consistently great games (companies that could be brands without a consistently high level of quality are beyond the pale of this discussion) that also consistently promoted social reform, I'd have a brand on my hands. If you wear a hat with this company's logo on it, you'd be saying, “I'm a gamer with a social conscience”.

When I was first thinking about this, it occurred to me that part of the lifeblood of the game industry is the variety of experiences it can deliver. Bethesda does sandbox RPGs, Blizzard used to stand for a great RTS, Squareenix is RPGs, but within these categories, there's a huge amount of variation, not to mention a huge variety of catagories. On the opposite hand, part of building a recognizable brand is to specialize as much as possible, and deliver the same experience as much as possible. This seemed, at first glance, kind of at odds with the game industry. If you keep making the same game over and over again, that's a recipe for failure, but can you make a bunch of games with varied particulars that deliver on the same feeling over and over again? And more importantly, if you make them, will they continue to be fun/entertaining/edifying?

The is answer is “Of course you can”, and I think Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki are the perfect example. Studio Ghibli in general, but Miyazaki in particular, deliver on the same themes and feeling over and over again. Every single one of Miyazaki's movies (and yes, I've seen them all) are about the essential goodness of mankind, the awe-inspiring complexity of nature, and the magical innocence of childhood. Studio Ghibli isn't a brand because no one in the western world is selling it as such (can't speak to Japan), but it has all of the important characteristics, and movies that meet a high standard of quality and all stand for virtually the same thing are clearly all you need to be successful. So why not games?

Next: Why Gaming Brands Suck

2 comments:

OMIBrad said...

What about nintendo? nintendo is constantly re-issuing the same game with minor tweaks, how many mariocarts have there been? how many variations of super mario-insert random phrase? nintendo is the brand of lighthearted fun, and cartoon violence.

William said...

Yeah, I think Nintendo almost has it. With the introduction of the Wii, Nintendo is starting to mean family fun, like Parker Brothers or Milton Bradley, but it's not entirely there yet, and it can never get all the way there, I think, without giving up some of its market share to Sony and Microsoft.

Example: I own a copy of Okami for the Wii. It wasn't published by Nintendo, but playing it on the Wii is utterly counter to the Wii family fun angle. It's an immersive, exclusively single player experience. A great game, but traditional schools of thought on Branding strongly insist that diversifying into areas that don't support the message of your brand weakens it.

According to this school of thought, Nintendo needs to choose between a weak brand identity, or shedding all semblance of credibility with hardcore gamers, because, let's face it, hardcore gamers are still, on the average, nihilistic and excessively counter-culture.

In a few years, gaming will continue its trend towards widespread legitimacy, and Nintendo probably won't have to make that choice, but I don't think we're there yet.