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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