- Designer branding
- Developer studio branding
- Publisher branding
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?