Do games need brand?
In this article I'm going to talk about something which doesn't yet feel fully understood inside the games industry. Everyone knows what brand is, but very few people know how to apply it to games. Why is it important, and how can it affect your game?
Well, to start with, here's a small anecdote. I was in the kitchen department of a big retail store recently when a cast iron casserole dish, in orange, caught my eye (not dissimilar to the one pictured). It was on sale for half price. I picked one up and headed to the counter, happy and cheerful at the bargain I was getting. In the queue I looked at the box a bit more and suddenly realised that it wasn't a Le Creuset casserole dish at all, but some other brand.
I have no doubt that the item I had in my hand was of equal quality and would happily serve me tasty stews for years to come. But it wasn't the brand I wanted, so I returned it to the shelf and walked out.
Such is the power of brand.
So what is brand?
Brand comes in many flavours, and I'm going to look at the two which I think are most relevant to the games industry.
The first is the brand experience. The aim of this is to assure customers as to what the quality of the product is that they're buying. This isn't to say that every brand is of outstanding quality: this is instead about consumers knowing ahead of time what they'll get. The purpose of the brand here is to remove the sense of risk, and instead instil a feeling of security in the customer. This is why people will go into MacDonald's when they're on holiday - they know ahead of time what they're going to get. That small local burger bar next door is a risk. Some people relish in taking those risks, finding the new thing. Others love the security that a brand will bring.
The second flavour is the brand image, kudos, or bragging rights. I'm wearing Diesel jeans and therefore I must be better. We end up in a situation where there really isn't any discernible difference between brands, but we'll have big fights in the playground to prove that my choice is the best.
How does this relate to games?
I'll get to soon. Before I do, it's important to understand a bit about how the games buying market works. The games that sell in huge volumes, such as FIFA or Call of Duty, appeal to a very wide audience - far more people than the relative few who read gaming magazines, websites and post on forums. So how do they find out about games?
Well, obviously marketing is very important at this point - to sell something you need to tell people about it. And this is where it can be difficult to understand from inside the industry: a small article or review of a few hundred words in a mainstream magazine (in the UK we have Nuts and Empire for instance) can be far more influential to sales figures than a 10 page mega-article and cover in PC Gamer. I know: it makes no sense. It simply shouldn't be.
An important note here is that brand isn't just about marketing clout. Yes, Activision spend a lot of money each year advertising Call of Duty at the Superbowl. But there's something more than just money and the quality of the game. It's to do with the knowledge from the mass market that they know the experience they will get from that game. That's why yearly releases can work, and why we get so many sequels. It's what the market wants.
The difficulty with brand is that it can take a long time to create that brand awareness. A successful brand may have taken a very long time to get there - Apple is now the second largest brand in the world, yet ten years ago they were looked down upon many. So how do you create a brand for your game when you may only release one version of it?
I think that this is where games are the closest to films and, because of this, can learn the most from them. In a lot of films the brand isn't the film itself but its director or its cast. The 1979 Superman film only got funding because it had Marlon Brandoattached to it. Even though he was only in a few scenes his name gave the film the brand it needed to get audiences in to theatres. From that point on the film stood on it's own credentials.
It can be very difficult for a single person to become a brand in the games industry though. And, in fact, it's not necessarily a good thing: it'd be very tricky for Sid Meier to release a first person shooter as his brand is strategy games. And AAA games are made by many, many people.
Building up a specific development team can work really well, Team Ico being one of the biggest that comes to my mind. This isn't always practical though - companies rarely have the luxury of keeping a whole team together for multiple projects as people get pulled off to help on other projects at different times or, indeed, left the company altogether.
So the most obvious course is to build up your company's brand. Take-Two have done a great job in promoting Rockstar (or, possibly, Rockstar have done a great job of supporting Take-Two...). As with a lot of companies it took several goes at Grand Theft Auto before it really took off - GTA3 on the PS2 was the game that really shot Rockstar into the limelight, and from there their brand has been to create seemingly open world, story led, games. Red Dead Redemption and LA Noire weren't made by the Edinburgh studio, but they were branded as Rockstar games and have sold millions of copies. Would that have happened without the brand image attached to it? They would have sold well for sure as they're good games, but I doubt they'd have sold aswell.
To move towards some sort of conclusion then, it is possible to use brand to your advantage inside the games industry. It may take a while, but it is worth building up and will reap huge benefits if you are successful. Your company image should be the strongest it can be, and the only way to do that is to be consistent in the quality you put out. Achieving that quality is not going to be easy when there's deadlines to meet and bills to pay, and the people most important in creating this quality are yourself and your staff. Make sure you should treat your employees well and ensure that they are invested in the company as well: make them feel a part of the bigger picture, not just the next pay cheque.
Looking after your brand
Yes, I know, I just concluded already. Damn it. A final note on brand though - it can also be damaging. This is a tricky area because all you have carefully created can be washed away with a few bad games. The market will forgive you once, but it probably won't a second time. Once your brand is damaged your company could well be in trouble: sales of a great game could very easily be hampered by a bad reputation. This happens across all companies and is a large reason for rebranding, from changing of a logo to a completely new name.
Brand saturation also needs to be considered. Overdo something and people will get bored, or decide not to buy every single year's instalment because they don't see the worth. Once you hit that point you should hit the breaks and ease off a little, and find out how to inject new life into your next iteration.