Thursday, March 26, 2009

Branding in Video Games Compilation

This is to compile links to all the posts I have been making on video game branding over the last couple weeks, for easy browsing.

1. Building Brand Equity for Your Game
Discusses the brand potential of a video game title, franchise branding and ways of building up pre-franchise brand equity.

2. Escape from Death Spiral of Franchise Branding in Video Games
Advantages and dangers of common franchise branding practice in the industry. Also introduces and explains the concept of Experience Franchising as an alternative to genre-focused franchises.

3. More on Franchise Branding
Summarizes the comments I have received on my previous post and expands the discussion around them.

4. Other Branding Methods in Video Games

4.1 Designer Branding
Examples and advantages of designer branding, why it is a good thing and why we do not see much of it.

4.2 Developer Branding
Explains the lack of developer branding as a result of the fundamental problems of the industry business model.

4.3 Publisher Branding
Explains why it works for some and why it does not for others, taking other branding methods into perspective. Gives examples to best practice and... not very best practice.
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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Publisher branding in video games (branding alternatives - part 3 of 3)

(Part 1 - Designer branding can be found here. For Part 2 - Developer branding, click here)

3. Publisher Branding
For the last and (for once) the least, publisher branding is another strategy one could take, as an alternative to the dominant franchise branding practice in video games industry. The idea is that a powerful enough publisher brand could come to be associated with high quality, highly entertaining games, so that the games themselves would not have to rely on past iterations of their own to get the idea across. I can almost see people snickering and going "Yeah, right" in response to that and I have to admit my own reaction is the same.

If you look at the industry today, you see that the idea behind the strategy falls apart as a result of the publishers' almost complete abandonment of the previous two alternatives. This abandonment translates into:
  • Squandering of designer brand value
  • Strip-mining of developer talent
  • Over-reliance on franchise names as a direct result of the first two, which creates a positive feedback loop
  • Low-quality, repetitive games being associated with the publisher brand
  • Publisher brand value going down the drain
Add to that the wide variety of games being offered by the major publishers, which dilutes the usefulness of the brand name for communication with the consumer, not to mention the lack of a clearly differentiated market positioning: you end up with the publisher brand meaning squat next to the franchise brand.

Examples to best practice
There are a couple exceptions to the brutal cycle above. Paradox Interactive is one publisher that does have a clearly understood brand essence, as one can easily see from the titles under its banner. If you have played more than one of their titles, though, you would realize most of them are variations of their flagship title Europa Universalis. But since the publisher has filled its niche so well, and have met the expectations of its customers so admirably, they do not have to rely on the Europa Universalis name alone for marketing. The name Paradox Interactive is enough to compel consumers to buy a game they had never heard of before. In some cases the end result may be a disappointment for the consumer, but it does not negate the fact that publisher branding had worked successfully up until that point.

The second exception would be Nintendo. The advantage they have is a headstart of a few decades, building up a consistent brand image where Nintendo = Fun, simple as that. But perhaps it would be wiser to classify Nintendo not under publisher branding, but rather under Experience Franchising.

I say experience franchising because their brand goes far beyond being about the games. It is powerfully integrated with the hardware behind it, strongly associated with the innovative dedication to entertainment. It commands respect and has earned trust due to unequaled consistency in its market positioning. Therefore a consumer does not simply buy a Mario game or a Zelda game to play on their Wii. They buy a Nintendo experience, an experience that was just as relevant in my childhood as it is today, and as it will probably be in the future. So it is no surprise that Nintendo happens to be doing much better these days in terms of growth, compared to their acquisition-fueled publisher competitors.

Can you speak of a positive EA experience that will be relevant ten years later? An Activision experience? Can you find two people who can agree on what their brand essences are and how they are differentiated?
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Monday, March 23, 2009

Developer branding in video games (branding alternatives - part 2 of 3)

(Part 1 - designer branding - can be found here)

2. Developer Branding
There are not many good examples of developer branding, unfortunately, which is not difficult to understand why. As I mentioned before, for a brand to have a functional value to a marketer, it needs to have some sort of continuity that can carry over from one title to the next. Such continuity is hard to come by, when the average life span of a development studio is between three to five years, barely enough time to develop a few titles at best.

Among the very few examples, Bioware is probably the best one. It is a strong brand, having itself associated with the very best RPG titles (western style) ever known to the market. That brand strength is probably the reason why they have enjoyed working on a significant number of diverse IPs over time: Star Wars, Neverwinter Nights, Mass Effect, and the upcoming Dragon Age: Origins.

If you would rank branding strategies according to their allowance of creativity and originality, Developer Branding would probably be somewhere in the middle. As seen in the Bioware example, it relies on a specific genre expertise more often than not. Yet it is still one step above working on the same franchise to death. Despite the genre focus, Bioware has been able to work on three separate franchises, (NWN, Mass Effect, KOTOR) each with their own creative freedoms.

It is also important to note that Bioware is owned by Electronic Arts, which sets them apart from a third party developer. The reason why publishers seem to prefer first-party titles is not difficult to see: more control over schedules, better integration across functional units, etc. Such control, however, often goes too far, resulting in dissolution of the developer brand.

In short, there are two main inhibitions to developer branding strategy:
  • Publisher's own business strategy, which often works at the expense of the developer studio
  • Lack of a sustainable business model on the developer side, which limits the life span of the brand
It is difficult to suggest solutions to these problems as they are rather big ones, other than suggesting that a solution begins with thinking of the problem. Unfortunately too many people see this status quo as an unchangeable property of the industry.
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Thursday, March 19, 2009

Designer branding in video games (branding alternatives - part 1 of 3)

In my preceding posts, I discussed the alternative of experience franchising versus the commonly used genre-franchising way of building up brand equity for video games and IPs. In the next three posts, I want to talk about other ways of branding in the video games industry:
  1. Designer branding
  2. Developer studio branding
  3. Publisher branding
Below is the first part.

1. Designer Branding
One could say The Sims franchise relied on the brand equity of the past "Sim-" line of games such as SimCity, SimLife, SimEarth and so on. Or you could say it was the developer Maxis that connected all the dots in its brand essence. My guess is you would not really say that, for you probably know as well as I do, their latest title "Spore" relied neither on Maxis nor any apparent Sim-anything in its name, as much as it did on the brand name of Will Wright himself as its designer.

He is not the only game designer to have a notable brand value of his own. Sid Meier is another easily recognizable name, associated with Civilization, Colonization and Pirates! games among others. That association is a deliberate marketing strategy, as in some cases he was not even the actual main designer of the games branded with his name. Peter Molyneux is another well-known designer of that generation. Jenova Chen is a more recent brand, building up with titles such as Flow and Flower.

The question to ask is:

"What is it about these people that can turn their names into real brands?"

The answer is heart-warming (at least for me): They are all known for having taken creative risks with positive end-results.

The first three names I mentioned are all old-timers, people who have been in the industry since its fledgling, entrepreneurial times. The last one also shares the same spirit as an independent developer, but has emerged only recently. Maybe it is my own ignorance but my mind draws a blank at large when I try to think of a brand-worthy designer that emerged between those old times and the rise of indie games. This comes as no surprise because that slice of time is known to us gamers as a period of brain-numbing unoriginality.

What this tells us is: by trading off creative freedom for risk mitigation, the video games industry has deprived itself of a powerful branding option. In rare cases where originality does shine through, such as in Portal, we see a missed opportunity in this regard where the designer's name is absent or not associated strongly enough with the IP.

One possible reason for that could be the failure versus success rate in the industry. The names Daikatana and Romero are probably the most memorable ones to remind us creative risk can also bring failure in epic proportions. Yet I still believe there are ways around such a risk. Post-mortem branding is an obvious one. Wait to see how well the game fares. If it does well, go ahead and make a star of its designer. Or put their name on the Gold Edition box.

Another option can be cultivating designer name brands one risk level at a time. In the current market where there is much buzz around indie games, it is no longer difficult to reach fame with a small budget title. Could it be a viable business strategy for a publisher to reward successful designers with gradually increasing budgets and brand names of their own? An incubator for the future rockstars of the industry perhaps?
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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

More on franchise branding, and another alternative: publisher/developer branding

I've read some great comments on my previous posts, and I think a new post will be better to talk about them, rather than addressing each one separately.

There are several common themes in those comments that I would like to summarize:
  1. Multiple genre branding can cause the franchise to lose focus
  2. Not all game universes have enough 'meat' to diversify into different genres
  3. There is room for innovation in a single genre franchise as well
  4. Not many franchises have hit the wall yet
These are all valid points to a certain extent. Yet it is still a dangerous thing to take their truth for granted without questioning that extent of validity.

1. Multiple genre branding can cause the franchise to lose focus
True. Losing focus is bad. Marketing 101 tells us it is important to stay true to the essence of a brand. Yet it is altogether possible to be overzealous in this regard and harm yourself by making your brand a tad too rigid.

Think World of Warcraft. The franchise started out as a real time strategy game, not so different from Age of Empires. When you hear the Warcraft brand name today, however, you think of something else altogether. Is this a loss of focus? Or is it actually a productive, beneficial path of evolution? Compare it to the evolution of Age of Empires, Age of Kings, Age of Mythology and so on. Which path turned out to be a better success? (also interesting to note how the franchise went on with the -craft brand, as in Starcraft. More on this later)

So, the point is: change does not always mean a loss of focus. On the other hand, failure to change can be a bad thing. Look at the gap between the Age of Empires and Warcraft franchises today, for the best example. Or, for a different industry example, think why the Oldsmobile brand is no longer alive today. Loyalty to a core focus is good, but only as long as the core focus is relevant and provides the best leverage to reach business goals.

On the other hand, not all change is good change either. Therefore my conclusion would be: don't squander your brand name with unwise changes, but don't be afraid of changing either.

2. Not all game universes have enough 'meat' to diversify into different genres
Very true. Part of the reason is actually what I happened to talk about in another post of mine; the role of storytelling in games.

In order to have enough meat in your universe, you need to flesh it out. To flesh it out means being able to articulate your universe with creative depth. That, in turn, needs some actual writing talent, an element that is severely neglected in most games.

Back to the first point, such a lack of depth is a strong contributor to that dreaded loss of focus. Simply because if there is nothing else at the core of your franchise but only a genre loyalty, switching genres can ruin your brand.

3. There is room for innovation in a single genre franchise as well
A great point. The example given (by Lee) for this one was the Resident Evil franchise. I have not played a single game of that series, frankly, but I do believe there is room for change within a single genre as well. That potential for change is generally under-exploited by most franchises.

An interesting note, though: Resident Evil belongs in the Survival Horror genre (correct me if I am wrong). The name of that genre itself implies something unique. It is named after a specific sort of 'experience', rather than a specific sort of game mechanic like RTS, FPS, and so on. Could that be part of the reason why Resident Evil 5 had the guts for making changes to the franchise without the fear of losing gameplay focus?

Starcraft is a very interesting franchise to discuss in this context. From a branding perspective, it is an offshoot of the "-craft" franchise which started with Warcraft. It did the job of genre-innovation admirably, pushing the envelope and raising the bar for the RTS genre. A similar impact is hard to find among today's franchise titles.

So when you talk about the branding strategy of Starcraft, you may say "There! An example of a franchise that does well without changing the game genre. It surely defies your multi-genre strategy proposition, so take that!" Please note, however, the Starcraft franchise has all the characteristics of a great starting point for a multi-genre strategy. The universe is rich and detailed, the storytelling component is very strong, and the hero units have personal histories of their own, providing "ground-level windows of perspective" into the game world. This makes the Starcraft experience very easy to transfer into a possible World of Starcraft game.

Let me rephrase my original argument then: a multi-genre strategy does not necessarily mean making games within any and all genres imaginable. Its core proposition is that: it is a good idea to focus on an experience that may provide you with transferability and flexibility across genres, for later. Starcraft may or may not exercise that flexibility, but I am sure the people behind the franchise are glad to have the option.

4. Not many franchises have hit the wall yet
Eventually they will. And some already have. Hitting a wall does not necessarily mean losing sales figures. You may continue to sell five million copies of a franchise with every iteration, but still hit a wall in terms of business growth and market share: things that the shareholders do care about. From that point of view, some publishers have been headbutting the wall for a while now, but it has not been very obvious for two reasons:
  • The overall market for games is expanding, therefore it is easy to paint a bright picture for your investors.
  • Among big publishers, market shares have been primarily modified by mergers and acquisitions in the last decade, rather than organic growth of sales.
So when the video game market reaches maturity, and when there are no more noteworthy publishers left to acquire, it will perhaps be easier to appreciate an early start on flexible branding. Then the publishers will realize: in order to grow, they will have to rely on organic growth. And those that do better at organic growth will be the ones who can transfer their existing brand values into new ones.

An alternative way
I was planning to write about branding with publisher/developer name, but maybe that is better left to the next post. So, stay tuned!
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Thursday, March 12, 2009

Escape from death spiral of franchise branding in video games

This is going to be sort of an add-on to my previous post on building brand equity for video games.

If you look at the most popular games on any mainstream gaming site today, you will see a heavily skewed distribution towards franchise games. I discussed the driving force behind that in my earlier post, which is namely the ease of marketing a known franchise compared to marketing a new IP with zero brand equity. I will take my argument one step further now, and try to explain why the common franchise strategy is something you want to leave behind.

Creativity vs Risk
To the innovative and creative mind, the explanation is pretty obvious. A new IP brings greater creative freedom. Franchises, on the other hand, have the habit of building up over past iterations, forming rigid skeletons over time. Therefore franchises are not really part of the artistic freedom paradise.

The argument on the flipside is that franchises reduce risk of consumer rejection, which is abundant in any new IP. This does make sense and that is why it seems to be the dominant strategy in the industry among big publishers. But at what cost?

The invention of video game genres brought a similar benefit to the industry; it made the product more easily definable and the marketing message more easily communicable. The downside, as we all know, is that the classification did not only shape the minds of the customers, but of the designers as well. The cost was deadlocking the industry into churning out title after title with the same core game mechanics, which you can do for only so long before your customers start taking their leave for new experiences. Hence the rise of independent games.

The cost is similar with franchising, yet far greater. Not only does it keep the experience limited to a single genre in most cases, but it also keeps things limited to a very predictable and same-old version of one particular interpretation. Two things will eventually happen this way:
  1. You will limit your growth: There are only so many hockey fans looking to buy NHL games. There are only so many mainstream sports you can make a game about. There are only so many wars to build a game around (I'm betting the next Total War title will be "Medieval III", and the next Call of Duty will be... "Marginally Further Modernized Warfare with Tanks This Time")
  2. Your customers will start realizing they are buying the same games over and over again.

Risk vs Evolution

Here is my main argument:
Most franchises are so focused on refining their specific brand of gameplay experience, that they expose themselves to the threat of extinction by the way of becoming evolutionary dead-ends.

A good example to this is found in the animal kingdom. A cheetah is a highly specialized hunter, built for speed. Yet its high level of specialization comes at the cost of adaptability. So much that its fate is deeply tied with that of its prey and its habitat; should anything happen to the species it preys on, or should any parameters of the habitat change by even a small bit, the cheetah faces the risk of extinction because it has long lost its adaptability. It is an evolutionary dead-end. Same thing applies to brands.

Therefore the key to building a long lasting brand is leaving yourself room to grow, by choosing values that can transcend your most immediate time and habitat if needed. Failure to do that means losing a brand more often that you would like, and having to start from scratch again. You want to avoid that because it is costly and it draws the scorn of your customers for limiting creativity and variety.

The Solution: Brands built around experience, not genre
I have one name for you as an example to this alternative strategy: Tom Clancy.

Over the years we have seen a number of games with the Tom Clancy name: Ghost Recon, EndWar, HAWX and others. Although the series shows an inclination towards a first person perspective, we have recently been given a strategy game and a flight simulator game as well.

There you have an example of a brand equity that can communicate an idea beyond the limitations of a single genre. The name of Tom Clancy immediately makes one recall the experiences of military operations, what-if conflicts, special forces, political tension, etc. If they announced a submarine simulation game tomorrow, you would know what to expect. Can you say the same if the next Call of Duty game was announced to be a flight simulator? How about a strategy game with the Far Cry title? Any idea?

The vast variety of Star Wars games is another example. Simulators, strategy games, first person shooters, RPGs, all branded with the Star Wars experience. A more recent adaptation of this branding strategy is seen in Halo Wars. With the Warcraft franchise, it took a hybrid step to make the transition from RTS to RPG. Looking at the result, it has obviously paid off.

Perhaps "Experience Franchising" does not have infinite flexibility either, but it is a vastly more adaptable branding strategy compared to most other franchises obsessed with particular genres. Such flexibility is more suited to an industry built around the art of design, as opposed to a focus on genres and features, which are characteristics of ugly commoditization.

Save your game from that fate. Start thinking what your brand should stand for today and tomorrow.
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Saturday, March 7, 2009

Building brand equity for your game

Here is an article about video games companies thinking on innovation. Let me copy the part I found thought provoking:

Wedbush Morgan analyst Michael Patcher was quoted as saying "Few companies perform well when they are focused on so many new games…We haven't seen Activision introduce that many new brands over the last few years."

What caught my attention was the word "brand." Personally I shy away from thinking every title as a separate brand, simply because most titles lose relevance after a certain (and often short) period of time. Semantically you can argue that a title does mean a brand. And I encourage that argument, because for once, arguing semantics might get us somewhere.

For a title to become a brand;
  1. it needs to develop an identity that is distinct enough to be recalled on its own.
  2. But more importantly, it needs to have continuity so that the brand will have functional value, not just for the customer, but for the marketer looking to make use of it.
The second point is the driving force behind franchises. A franchise semantically and functionally represents a brand because it has the quality of having a brand equity. It has a functionality (for the marketer) that carries over from one title to the next. Building a game franchise is essentially the practice of building up brand equity. In that respect, it is easy to understand the preference on franchises over original IPs, because marketing for the former means a greater ROI, whereas the latter might just sink to the bottom with your advertising dollars in its belly.

Survival of the fittest title
Publishers are being increasingly criticised for not backing up their new IPs adequately. Mirror's Edge and Dead Space are the latest examples. This lack of marketing support even seems to be somewhat deliberate. It is a survival of the fittest strategy where new IPs are left to fend for themselves in the market, with minimal support. If the title somehow manages to sell well despite the cruel parentage of the publisher, it is deemed worthy of being a franchise. Then you start to see full page print ads and even TV ads. If not, they say it was never meant to be.

Survival of the fittest concept works very efficiently in nature and evolution. It does not seem to work that well, however, when the new IP in question needs millios of dollars to develop, only to be set up to fail by its own publisher. It is simply too late a stage to use as a filtering mechanism, and it is a Bad Idea for New Product Development(tm).

Alternative ways to build brand equity
How do you build equity without having to pump three or four games into a franchise then? The answer may lie in utilizing media other than the video games medium itself.

The best example I can think of is the game from Penny Arcade, titled Rain-slick Precipice of Darkness. It was hardly a franchise when the first episode came out, yet it did have an identity and equity of its own already, thanks to the Penny Arcade webcomic. Actually the same duo has also done work for video game marketing campaigns, such as illustrations and mini-comics for Prince of Persia and Fallout. The difference, though, is that Penny Arcade comics have represented what lies at the heart and soul of their own game. Their illustrations for other games, though, are simply the requisite humour section of a game website.

So the question is: How can you convey what your game stands for, without having the final product in your hand?

The answer might include:
  • Pin down what your game stands for at its heart and soul, as early into the project as possible: This will give you more time to promote that core idea over the next couple years of development cycle.
  • Look for simple, low-cost ways of promoting the core idea: Titles alone mean little to consumers. Mirror's Edge does not ring any bells just by its name. The phrase "urban ninja" however, immediately creates a mental image of those crazy people jumping from one rooftop to the other. How costly could it be to get one of those guys to endorse the game? Or to post clips of people doing those stunts in real life, on Youtube? There you have a non-digital game demo. It is easier to promote the idea of an urban ninja, than it is to promote the actual brand name of Mirror's Edge. Associating the two might be the thing your brand needs to take-off.
  • Make a playable demo available as soon as you can manage
  • Use other media such as stories, mini-games, animated series, comics, etc: Not as after-thoughts like the comics section of your newspaper, but as focused, consistent efforts to promote your core idea.

I am sure there are more ways that I am missing right now. Any thoughts?
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Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The role (and myths) of storytelling in video games

As I have been told by Kenton Low of New Media BC (whom I had the great pleasure of meeting last week), there are three main reasons why people play games:
  1. For the sake of intellectual exercise and discovery (such as puzzle games)
  2. To satisfy a perpetual need to compete and win (think 'deathmatch')
  3. For the sake of the story that the game tells

It is very easy to think examples of games that satisfy the first two needs. The third one, however, is somewhat rare. For me it is somewhat astonishing that the power of video games as a storytelling medium has been underappreciated so much. Given the high potential of interaction and immersion native to video games, one would think it is an obvious improvement over film, where there is no real interaction between the passive audience and the content on display.

Greater is my amusement when people discuss, with a certain fringe attitude, whether a game can make you cry, or inspire, or impart serious wisdom on you, and whatnot. I say amusing, because people who think the answer lies in the future, are the people who are ignorant of what has already been achieved on that frontier with some very fine examples of storytelling.

Think of games like Planescape Torment: one of the best examples of storytelling for its narrative power and deeply philosophical essence. Think Braid, a puzzle game with a very personal, very humane story to tell, which transforms the game itself from simple block pushing into a genuine emotional experience. Think Portal, another puzzle game that keeps you constantly looking forward to the next level, just to hear the next piece of GLaDOS' crazy monologues.

The cake is a lie, obviously, but the power of storytelling is not.

Myths of Storytelling
  • Storytelling only belongs in roleplaying games: It is true that a story is most integral to the RPG genre (although the Diablo franchize deviates from that). Yet all genres can benefit from good writing. Braid and Portal, as mentioned above, are two obvious examples of games where the experience is much enhanced by a good story.
  • A focus on storytelling needs the player to read too much stuff on screen: A misconception related to the first one. While certain roleplaying games revolve around extensive dialogues that require the player to choose what to say, this does not need to apply to other categories. Half-life delivered a pretty good storytelling experience without a single line to Gordon Freeman's name. Different genres can use different game mechanics to advance the storyline.
  • You need a hero saving the world/galaxy for a good story: More often than not, this actually hurts the immersion factor of a game. You are thrown into a strange new digital world with so many things to explore and immerse yourself in, but no. There is no time. Evil armies are marching. But of course, you are the only one who can stop them. Your typical interactions with the game world characters usually result in a) Them not believing your pitch about evil armies, and continuing to plow the fields as if nothing's happening, or, b) them believing you and sending you alone to deal with it, again continuing to plow the fields. In any case, what you end up with is an experience utterly detached from the game world you were hoping to be a part of. In most cases, for all we know, your hero might as well be a severely delusional village-idiot who hallucinates such evil armies marching, much to the amusement of farmers who plow their fields under any circumstance.
  • A good story needs to be non-linear: Not really. Sure, a non-linear story experience can add a nice touch when pulled off well enough, but a linear story can just as well do the job if it's interesting enough. In fact it may be a better idea to stick to a linear story, rather than a half-hearted attempt at creating an illusion of choice.
  • A good story takes a lot of writing talent: Well, yes. Then again, I'm fairly confident that the kind of money that buys Kiefer Sutherland's voice or Tricia Helfer's acting, would be more than enough to employ top notch writing talent, which would add a lot more value to your game than celebrity appearances.
  • Every story needs to be about a fight between good and evil: Your audience is not limited to the Power Rangers fans anymore. Black and white morality is overdone to death. Fresh approaches with morally ambigious or flawed characters are ruling the day. Look at Battlestar Galactica, Dexter, or House MD. We need more of that stuff in video games too. We need intellectually mature content. Preferably such that does not think being crass equals being mature content.

Well, this is all I can think of at the time. I might post additions later. Let me finish this one with another great example (for me, at least) of storytelling.

Freespace 2, possibly the best space simulation game ever made, also had a pretty masterfully crafted story:
  • for its emphasis on a rather ordinary character rather than a special one,
  • for its empasis, not on a fairy tale victory, but on a gloomy, gritty struggle for survival,
  • for the way it gave the sense of epicness in size and scale without resorting to cliches,
  • and for its appreciation of mystery and leaving things to the imagination.
That was 10 years ago.

Can a video game make you cry? Can a publisher be taught the potential of their own medium?

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