It's time-warp time again. You are back in the early 1990s, a time that will no doubt come to be known as the pre-PlayStation era in years to come, and you are picking out a game for your Sega Mega Drive, or perhaps your SNES. There are ten, maybe eleven different games on offer on the shelf of the local Woolworths, where you make many of your gaming purchases, as games-specific shops do not really exist yet, nor does Internet shopping. What is it that you're looking at as you cast your eyes over the display boxes? The box artwork or the game's title? Possibly. The words 'Made by Nintendo/Sega'? Perhaps, but not necessarily. A recognisable brand name? Quite probably not. It's too early in the evolution of videogames and brands have not really had the chance to establish themselves yet; you're as well looking for a favoured developer as you are for a favoured series.
Fast-forward to 2005, and every second or third game on the shelves of your local well-stocked games-specific store is a sequel, prequel or continuation of a franchise. Names like Zelda, FIFA and Disney spring out at you from the packaging, immediately recognisable because of the prolific advertising that you have seen out on the streets and in mainstream media. It's a very different situation from that of twelve years ago. It's clear that a quite phenomenal change has been implemented in the intervening years; what is perhaps not so clear is what influenced that change, and how exactly it has affected the industry that, twelve years ago, was as familiar with popular franchises as the average fifty-year-old.
It's easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of titles that flood the shelves of videogame stores on a monthly basis. The ever-increasing variety of games on offer must seem especially daunting to the Christmas mothers and first-time console owners of the world. Even once the arduous console selection process is complete, there is still a mind-boggling amount of choice available when purchasing the actual games; much of the market relies on branding in order to distinguish between the reams of software presented to them. It's easy to pick out a FIFA or a World Cup football game from the dozens of less familiar names of which non-games-players have seldom heard, and people always like to think that they know what they are buying.
Brands and the familiarity that they bring with them are important to consumers in any industry, whether it be food, films or video games. Consumers feel far more comfortable when they are familiarised with the product that they are buying, either through having played a game in the same series, had it advised to them by a friend or through having seen it advertised in mainstream media. Buying less familiar names feels like a stab in the dark.
Advertising, of course, is tremendously important to the process of familiarisation. If the public has heard about your product, more people are likely to buy it, quality regardless. Ten years ago, gaming was still a relative niche market; the launch of the PlayStation played a fundamental part in gaming's transition from hobby to popular pastime. Thanks to its launch, the market that games were being presented to, as well as the image of the games industry, changed significantly, bringing about a proportional increase in the importance of advertising. Choosing a recognisable name provides today's average customer with a security net, as if a game's name is familiar, it's easy to assume that lots of people must be playing it and, therefore, that it must be reasonably good. For this reason, it's important for publishers to try and get their game's name Out There, which, especially for smaller developers, can be quite a formidable challenge.
Advertising has without a doubt changed the way in which the industry works. As well as budgeting for development costs, publishers also have to think about advertising costs as well. If a game is to sell well in this day and age, it has to be recognisable. Of course, a way to save money and ensure that a game will be familiar to the average customer is to use a licence from outside of the games industry; hence the increase in film, book and TV-licensed games in recent times.
In such cases, the popularity (or, indeed, the mere existence) of the associated film or television series acts as free advertising for the game. Lord of the Rings, for instance, was practically guaranteed steady sales because of the enormous popularity of the films, as was the average-but-best-selling Enter the Matrix videogame, which is as much proof as will ever be needed that branding strongly affects the market success of games. Enter the Matrix offered a crossover between games and film, thereby appealing to both film fans who play the occasional videogame and videogame fans who watch the occasional film, as well as drawing in the average customer through the use of an extremely recognisable name.
Film-to-game conversions are somewhat notorious for their often-questionable effectiveness (and the fact that, somehow, the themes and plotlines of every single film in the world can be translated into a platformer with some shooty sections and a racing bit). Rare's GoldenEye was one of the first film-licensed games that managed to achieve both very decent sales and widespread critical acclaim, managing as it did to be both an exceptional videogame and a fantastic tie-in with the film. More recently, Enter the Matrix, though widely condemned for its bug-ridden, somewhat generic gameplay, was successful in its own way; it provided a level of integration with its parent film that had never been seen before, including film sequences and bits of plotline that did not appear in the film whilst also managing to tie its entire premise into that of the second instalment of the Matrix trilogy to an unparalleled extent. SCi's recent Futurama games are also worthy of mention; though belonging to the aforementioned ever-growing clan of shooty platformers, they include material written by the producers of the television show and use the voices of the actual actors. It is becoming increasingly evident that license distributors are taking a greater interest in the games that are created based on their brands, due to videogames' greater level of mainstream significance.
Games often need to associate themselves with some other medium in order to make themselves recognisable, due to the relative obscurity of their medium in comparison to those of films and television, but occasionally they become widely recognisable upon their own merits rather than borrowing those of an associated film, television show, football team or other license. The most prolific case in point would be Pokèmon, which though it spawned several television series', trading cards, stuffed toys, dress-up costumes, miscellaneous bits of plastic and almost anything else imaginable, originally made a name for itself as a videogame and nothing more. Of course, its expansion into a greater cultural phenomenon came at a price, as eventually most of those who watched the TV series and bought the toys had never even heard of the games; Pokèmon remains, however, one of the few game franchises that are recognisable in a wider cultural context. Mario, too, once famously proved himself more familiar to American kids than Mickey Mouse; that gaming franchise, too, went on into television and film as opposed to the other way around.
Without the advantage of a licence that holds relevance outside of the world of gaming, it's often difficult for games to make names for themselves. Developers often rely heavily on sequels of successful games to ensure profits, profiting from the benefits of association. This results, unfortunately, in an unfortunate propensity to milking successful titles absolutely dry; as all Tomb Raider and Mario Party fans will know, there's nothing more painful than watching the slow and poisonous descent of a once-loved games franchise into half-hearted, barely-updated sequels and cash-cow spin-offs.
There are always exceptions to every rule; though most franchising in the industry is heavily reliant on external licensing and other medium-to-game transitions, there have been a select few videogame franchises that have made their way out into the big wide world. Lara Croft has made the transition from video game character to film star and household name. Pokèmon, of course, went from Game Boy game to world-wide obsession. In a world where, according to a recent pre-Christmas survey, 58% of British people think that Nintendo's current console is the GamesCube, these cases have proven themselves to be especially exceptional.
Indeed, games series can only rarely be relied upon to retain their quality and avoid the obvious pitfalls of same-old sequels and below-par spin-offs. Very few franchises have managed to continue without eventually dying off through loss of interest, and not one has continued without a single bad game to its name. Sequels, however, act again as free advertising, especially in the case of successful titles, and so are crucial to the creation of market awareness of the product in question.
Of course, it's not just the less informed who are to blame for the explosion of advertising and the increase in its importance; everyone relies on branding or franchising to some extent when making a purchase. If a developer has a good reputation, it is always going to have people taking an interest in its games and snapping them up on release. Developers can often sell games on the strength of their name alone; the UK ex-Nintendo developer Rare would be a prime example. The words 'Game by Rare' were sure to ignite a spark of interest in any halfway-informed N64 gamer, and despite the company's failure to produce anything really interesting in more recent years, the name still cocks the ears of members of the industry and its more informed consumers.
It's arguable, in fact, that informed gamers are likely to be just as susceptible to a favoured developer name as the average consumer is to a recognisable brand. Up until fairly recently, for instance, the brand 'Nintendo' was associated in the eyes of many with an assurance of quality. Though this has changed somewhat in recent years as Nintendo has struggled to live up to its fans' ever-increasingly heaped expectations, the company's Zelda and Mario franchises still command a formidable amount of sway, even if its company name alone does not.
Nintendo's recent difficulties in terms of financial success perhaps illustrate the effects of branding on the industry better than anything else. Zelda and Mario still sell well, but not nearly as well as something like Enter the Matrix, because those two franchises have little relevance outside the world of gaming. The GameCube (and, indeed, the Xbox) finds it increasingly hard to compete with the seemingly indestructible brand name that is the PlayStation, a word that is synonymous with the word 'videogame' in most households.
No brand, though, can ever act as an absolute assurance of anything. The importance of a brand's impact, however, is undeniable; the name FIFA, for instance, will always be the name of the football game that nobody should own in the mind of any informed gamer. Despite whatever changes the series undergoes, it will be forever tainted by memories of its earlier instalments. Similarly, whatever happens to the Mario and Zelda franchises, their names will still be associated with its most famous products' quality for many years to come.
Association is the key to any franchise or brand, whether it be association with quality, with a film or TV series, or with another successful game. Association breeds familiarity, which in turn helps a game to become recognisable, whether to the mass-market or those who take gaming more seriously as a hobby.
Has branding perhaps devalued the importance of quality and encouraged consumers to go instead for a recognisable brand name instead of a game that's actually better than average to play? Many would say it had. However, branding has also brought into gaming a greater degree of mainstream integration; with the same names appearing in films, games, TV and books, it's helping videogames to become more recognisable in themselves to the public at large. It's perhaps bringing games to a wider cultural context - branding is a part of 21st century culture, and if gaming wants to be fully accepted into the world, whether as a form of entertainment or as an art form, it's an important part of the process. It's something of a misconception that licensed games always have to be below-average games - perhaps, in years to come, brands and franchises will turn out to be indicative of more than just how much money the game's developers have paid for them. Perhaps, as the mass-market develops more discerning tastes, developers will be more concerned to ensure that their franchises do not decline in order to maintain interest. However negative the implications, branding and franchising has made its impact on the videogames industry, and it looks set to remain a fundamental part of it.