It has been awhile since I’ve had a good old fashioned rant about the industry. Recently the Spike VGAs have been more than adequate fuel for the fire for commentators about the show. Today’s rant comes from the show but not about the show itself. During one of the many trailers, there was buildup regarding a new game from Bioware which fans would assume meant a new RPG. However, the actual announcement was for a new Command and Conquer: Generals sequel and that it’s being done by a studio which is now known as Bioware: Victory. This is another example of publishers going for uniformed branding with their properties… and I hate it.
Branding is important in any industry, from mega companies like Nintendo, to even someone like me trying to establish his own brand. Brand recognition is worthwhile in the consumer industry as it allows people to know about a product by the company it comes from. There are preconceived notions about quality that come from a brand. Those notions are why many gamers will buy a game that has the name “Blizzard” stamped on the box without a second thought.
Now of course one product does not make a brand and it requires the company to have built up a little history first. Brand loyalty is the ultimate goal behind a brand: having a consumer buy your product or support you based on previous efforts. Very few video game companies have reached this level of loyalty as it requires a lot of work and delivering on quality products time after time. The worse thing any company can do is misuse their brand as it can appear to be a violation of trust by the consumer.
There are two sides to the misuse of brands, first is with the success of the company. Unifying game companies under a single popular brand helps with short term popularity, or with letting a new development studio share the wealth. This is what I’m thinking as to why EA renamed the studio Bioware: Victory. The problem with this mindset is that it makes it harder for individual studios to shine and they lose their identity. How many mainstream gamers are going to know the difference between multiple studios with Bioware in their name?
When Irrational Games had their name changed to 2K “something” (I honestly can’t remember what it was.) The change made it hard for gamers to know that they were the developers behind the excellent Freedom Force series. The other problem is the phrase “putting all your eggs in one basket”, what happens when a popular brand loses its luster and the smaller studios no longer have that brand as support? Game credit and recognition are vital in this industry, if a studio keeps having their name changed due to branding, it makes it harder for gamers to follow the studio and support them.
When it comes to successful series, most of you probably know the name: “Call of Duty”. I’m curious though, how many people, both gamers and non gamers, know that at least 3 different studios have worked on the series? The studios were Infinity Ward, Treyarch and Sledgehammer Games.
Moving on, the other side of branding has to do with failures, and how branding can hide them. This point in the article is where my inner cynic takes over. Another way that publishers can use a centralized brand is to make it harder for negative recognition to happen.
Brand recognition is a double edged sword: good recognition will get people to support your products easier, bad recognition will drive them away regardless of the product. We’ve all read about the things that game companies do that drive away users: DRM, spotty support and so on. Negative brand recognition is a necessary evil as without it; companies that do harmful things to the industry could get away with it.
If a publisher has 5 or 6 smaller studios under its belt, each with the same prefix, would a casual or mainstream gamer know the differences between each one? One of those studios could release multiple horrible games without any signs of improving. Most people wouldn’t be able to tell them apart from the other studios and that would give that one troublesome studio a safety net to continue putting out products. Now in this scenario, the overall brand won’t be hurt too badly, if the other studios release quality games which would cancel out the negative impact. Now of course this is all here-say at this point in time and as I said earlier, this is the cynicism part of the post.
In most consumer driven industries, the most popular brands stay in the forefront, and smaller ones get absorbed and renamed. During my time at Comcast, I heard numerous stories about cable providers I’ve never heard of, who were bought and renamed Comcast to keep the brand unified. However, there is a major difference between the video game industry and other consumer driven industries. There are no pre-defined definitions of quality. Meaning, there is no de-facto perfect FPS, or RPG. No company can say that they make the best FPS and that you should only buy their games.
Just looking at the FPS genre for example, I could drone on about the variety of the genre, from Bioshock to Stalker. Because of the variety of content, it makes unified brands unwarranted due to each company having their own unique voice. We have seen amazing games from 2nd and 3rd party developers: Naughty Dog, Insomniac, Team Ico, Hal Laboratory and many more. We all have our favorite studios and condensing them all under a few banners would undervalue their contributions to the industry.
As the cost of creating retail games rises, publishers are looking to reduce risk and costs by drawing inspiration from other industries. Improving productivity and organization with better structure are noble goals, but it’s a good idea to remember that the developers behind the product are as important as the product itself.