essay, video games

Why can’t games be like brands?

One of my side projects is to gain a greater understanding of the designing process. It began as a way to consider if I wanted to pursue a career being a designer, be that for video game or otherwise, and has given me the opportunity to read and listen to various ideas I would have never thought to look into and apply. This quest has lead to me various books on architecture — The Meaning of the Built Environment is quite good if not quite written for a layperson — and to listen to podcasts like Design Matters. This post came about from ideas I’ve absorbed from those sources over the last few weeks.

I’m drawn to the idea of encapsulating meaning in the most minimalist way possible. Like in writing poetry, which I also try my hand at from time to time, I like the process of creating a collection of symbols that demonstrates, at a glance, a uniqueness and understanding of what its meaning is or could be. Samuel Taylor Coleridge said it as “Poetry: the best words in the best order.” In the advertisement world, this means using visual language to create metaphors for people. The most equally complex and simplest of these is idea of the brand.

As I understand the process, there are three main priorities in creating a brand that could easily apply to video games as well.

1. Make it understood

This is both the easiest and the hardest task for designers. They have to create some visual metaphor that will portray the idea of the company for years to come. They have to boil down, into some simple visual message, a projection of the goals, mission statement or even philosophy of what a company or product means so that the audience, potentially of many different ethnic and cultural backgrounds, can understand it at a glance. I do not envy those designers.

What this means for video games is that, at any one moment, the current situation should be easily “read”. If the player ever becomes lost in location, mission or even awareness of the story, something has gone wrong. Levels should be created and stories explained in such a way so that players feel like they understand what they are doing, should be doing and how to get to the next destination even if those determinations are still forming as they progress. (Purposely confusing the player can have its place too. However, poor design should not be excused as an intentionally confusing section after the design has been finalized. There is a difference.)

Valve, known for their high degree of product testing, often excels in this area. Within the commentary tracks for both Portal and Portal 2, the developers speak of players having their “Ah ha!” moment in each level and across the games as a whole. Simple combinations of in-game verbs and nouns are built up level by level over time until the player, unknown on a conscious level, has developed a fluency that is then expected at a later level and can be displayed, much to the player’s delight.

2. Make it memorable

Ask Coke or Pepsi if their brands are recognizable and if they would give up their symbols. Ask Nike the same question. A brand comes to mean both the product and the company overall. If people like the items and have a positive experience, they will associate that feeling with the logo or symbol that brought it to them. In other words, if people can remember your brand without much effort, they are more likely to remember it the next time they shop too. The easier the brand is to recognize, the greater the chance it will be remembered and understood in the future.

This should be obvious but I am going to say it anyway: make the video game experience unique. One of the worst things a developer can do is copy a technique wholesale from one game to another without changing the context and associated movements. In the best case, this is failing to understand an idea and in the worst case, it’s infringement if from another company. Consider what the player is coming to this game to find: is it the same mechanics they can find somewhere else or is there something more? Especially in this climate of sequels, what does this game add that the last game did not have? (I’m also highly annoyed by indie developers who have copied game mechanics of the past without taking time to understand their meaning. One of the reasons Braid was such a success was that Jonathan Blow understood the idea of 2D platforming and was able to make it his own through using time manipulation to tell a story.)

3. Evoke but do not define a narrative

Think of the vehicle commercials you have seen recently. What were the vehicles doing? In the ones I can recall at the moment, the cars were driving fast and the trucks were carrying heavy loads. The suggestive narratives of both were that, if I were to buy that vehicle, I too could drive fast or carry heavy loads. They both evoke what you could do with that certain product and make the comparison in the process that whatever you are driving now cannot do those things. The goal of a brand is to suggest a narrative for the customer but to not completely define it. The idea is to be inclusion — I could be driving fast too — while, simultaneously, avoiding a situation where it becomes too unbelievable for their customer base — I’m not athletic like that guy, I can’t own that car.

Video games share this. The goal of a developer is to create a world where the verisimilitude is blurred. Since a complete re-creation cannot be made, some loss will happen in the approximation of buildings and people. Developers then should know this and plan around it to justify and explain actions for the in-game continuity. Just as the goal of writers is not make the places and people as real as possible through a flood of descriptions but, with often very few words, evoke the place and person, developers can give the player enough to understand why their character is important without locking out the ability of the player to bring their own opinions to the table. (While some may be impressed with the latest life-like graphics, developers can do just as much with very little and create an equal if not more compelling experience. Just ask Limbo. )