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.


SaintXi said...

The example of StarWars is a little special - as a successful film, and a rich universe. Game franchises based on original game IP are much harder to vary genre without harming their unique 'experience'. For example the Fallout 3 game took on a new gameplay style, keeping the Fallout world while removing a lot of the original gameplay elements that made the franchise strong. Basing a franchise game on the IP but not the gameplay elements may sell games but devalue the brand. Halo Bowling, anyone?

Taylan said...

Thanks for your comment, SaintXi.

I see your point about original game IPs. My counterpoint would be that most new game IPs are not designed with a lot of foresight about how the franchise might evolve into new genres a couple games down the line.

I definitely hear you about devaluing the brand. But surely there are ways of expanding the franchise without going too extreme. Think of it like a high-end fashion designer expanding business into perfumes and colognes. It works because their brand essence can carry over intact. You don't see them selling detergents, however, which is what Halo Bowling would be like.

I think game IPs struggle with such transition sometimes because of two possible reasons:
1) Not enough brand essence to begin with
2) Poor choice of expansion venue

Lee said...

Interesting thoughts. The one problem I see is a lot of these franchises have yet to hit the "wall", so to speak, and continue to sell very, very well. COD4, for example, did some amazing numbers and even their outsourced World at War SKU did really strong numbers.

Given the economic downturn we're experiencing, it won't be surprising to see publishers placing their safest possible bets.

It's also disheartening to see new IP's like Dead Space and Mirrors Edge launch with relatively mediocre reception.

I do think eventually a franchise can end up with so many iterations the customer doesn't really even "see" them anymore and the SKUs start to blur together. I don't want to name names however.

Also, Resident Evil is a good example of finding a lot of ways to explore creative approaches and new ideas while retaining the core experience that fans enjoy. RE5 injects a new take on "zombies", and builds itself around a co-op experience, and manages to feel very fresh despite being the 5th iteration of the Franchise (not including all the spinoff titles they launched on various platforms).

Taylan said...

Thank you for comments! I've decided to compile the feedback I got into a new post and address them there:

Willie said...

"My counterpoint would be that most new game IPs are not designed with a lot of foresight about how the franchise might evolve into new genres a couple games down the line."
New game IP were never designed with foresight to contemplate what you advocating, I don't know of any that started the way.
So what path had your game designed taken?

Taylan said...


There are games, in one particular genre, that have managed that, although perhaps inadvertently. It is a side effect of the RPG tradition of creating worlds to base the game in. Such an effort to create a 'setting' goes hand in hand with gameplay design in RPGs. Once such a setting is fleshed out, it gives you enough material to carry over to almost any genre.

Another good thing about building up a setting is that it forces you to think about the theme, the style of your game world, which can be the glue that links the future games in the franchise. An example would be Fallout, where the post-apocalyptic retro look has carried over to create the same experience despite changes in gameplay.

Other genres could also benefit from such a tradition of equal emphasis on gameplay context and content.

Does that make sense? Does it answer your question?