[8 September 2010]
PopMatters Multimedia Editor
The last 10 or 11 months have seen an awful lot of twos. Assassin’s Creed II, Bioshock 2, Kane & Lynch 2, Mafia 2, Modern Warfare 2 were all fairly big ticket sequels, and with the arrival of a plethora of sequels, very often comes the discussion of the lack of creativity on the part of developers and lack of courage on the part of publishers in developing original intellectual properties.
Some of these titles received initially positive critical and fan response (though in some cases, this initial adulation faded once the “newness” of a follow up to a beloved game wore off). However, much as fans of movies often do, fans of video games also very often question the potential quality of follow ups, wondering if the creative types might find their time better spent working on a new idea, rather than merely attempting to polish up (or more cynically put, cash in on) an older one.
Unfortunately, for fans of particular creators, like Ken Levine or Hideo Kojima, or specific development houses, like Rockstar or Irrational Games, this medium (again, much like film) is one that is marketed on the basis of content recognition and much less so on creative recognition.
People buy Call of Duty games in droves, most frequently not knowing whether Treyarch or Infinity Ward was responsible for the particular title that they picked up. Likewise, a movie goer is more likely to buy a ticket for a known quantity, like, say, an Iron Man 2 than for some movie called Kick Ass. For that matter, I went and saw Inception this summer because Christopher Nolan was involved with the film, I suspect that most of the other folks in the packed out movie house that I sat in were there because they saw those mind boggling special effects on television, not because they admired the director of Memento (they may have even seen it but have no idea that this is the same guy’s work). It’s the content promised (as a known quantity, an adaptation, or just flashy or sexy visuals) that tends to sell games and movies, not the creator. Thus, things like sequels (especially sequels in my list of other content-related marketing) are an obvious go to for distributors and publishers that want to make a buck.
However, there are other mediums in which creative is the product, much more so than content is.
Grab a paperback off your shelf. Take a look at the spine, take a look at the cover. Notice anything about the way that the creator is presented?
If you’re looking at the spine, most likely you’re seeing the book’s author and title. The author’s name is probably about the same font size as the title. It might also be bigger. If you’re looking at Moby Dick or Paradise Lost, the authors might be dwarfed by the title, but you are looking at the exception, not the rule. The fame of these particular “classic title” outweighs the fame of authors like Melville or Milton. However, this is more often not the case. James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, and Edith Wharton, for instance, are likely to get equal or greater billing than their titles. In the case of more contemporary novels, this is likewise the case. Grab a few other paperbacks, you’ll see what I mean.
Now to the cover. That name above the title? Yeah, again it is probably around the same size or larger than the title of the book. If it is a Stephen King novel or something by Elmore Leonard, that name is almost certainly larger than the title. You may find some exceptions to these instances. If you have a Star Trek novel or something from the Dragonlance series, then, yeah, the authors’ names are itty bitty, but these are novels built around “sequelization.” Novels sold as content, not creative interest. Again, they are more exceptional than normative in the medium.
Want to know why the authors of books tend to produce fewer sequels? You’re looking at it. The way that the book is sold is as a product of a particular creator; that’s the hook. If you liked Carrie, then what the huge name above that title is telling you is to go check out some other titles by this guy named Stephen King. King doesn’t have to produce sequels (nor do lesser known authors necessarily either). His name is a huge part of the product that the audience is being told that they should be looking for.
(I should note that there are always exceptions. J.K. Rowling and Stephanie Myer are very much a part of the sequel machine. They did begin on such ground on their own terms though. I believe that they intendedd sequels from the start. These two are not typical authors though, like, say, a Norman Spinrad or a Mark Helprin or an A.S. Byatt or hundreds of others, folks with less gargantuan fame that are not driven towards sequels; they just sell books with their names on the cover and their fans follow their stuff. Of course, Rowling and Meyer’s works are not targeted towards an adult audience, which might explain some of the difference in marketing as well.).
Of course, films and games struggle a bit with the issue of the name above the title simply because there are probably too many names involved (most often, barring your indie stuff) to easily adjust a poster or DVD or game cover to equalize creative with content. (Of course, in reality there is some truth to this in regard to novels as well—you don’t think that Stephen King edits all of his novels by himself do you? Joe Editor is simply not getting any billing at all.). Movie production and marketing got started in a studio driven system, and while movies are sold in part on star power (slap a “Harrison Ford” or an “Angelina Jolie” above or below the title) or on the name recognition of the director and possible “auteur” of the film (how about an “M. Night Shymalan presents” or “by the director of The Dark Knight”?), the collaborative effort of creative was often subsumed by the studio’s title. Additionally, those names were rarely given equal size in comparison to that of a title on a movie poster. Even Alfred Hitchcock’s movies featured posters on which the title was larger than the name (though it was frequently closer to the size of the title). Auteur theory never became a marketing standard in the industry. Though one wonders if it had, what non-“sequelized” films by directors that historically had only one or two hits might have ended up selling better than they did if movie titles were generally associated with director’s names in this way?
Similarly true is the tendency of games to be boxed with the inclusion of the names of development houses on the cover, but they are usually in much smaller fonts at the bottom of a box. Even those marketing efforts that have attempted to suggest an auteur status to individuals or a corporate authorship for studios have tended to make the name above the title really small by comparison to the title itself (I’m looking at you, American McGee’s Alice).
In a nutshell, what I am trying to say is that in order to shift the audience’s perceptions of why they should buy a game from content (which tends to produce a lot of sequels, adaptations, and the like) towards creative (which might allow developers to experiment a great deal more with what they do next), one way that games are marketed could be changed in a very simple way that would simply educate their audience in a different (and again, very simple) way. This is a model that is not contingent on any especially intelligent audience. In fact, it presumes quite the opposite in its simple nature.
I would suggest, for example, that if Hideo Kojima’s name had appeared as large or equally as large as the words “Metal Gear Solid” did that we might not have seen largely Metal Gear Solid games as Kojima’s output over the last ten years. I’m not saying that I don’t appreciate the series’s sequels. However, there might be other games that would have developed that might have been equally good or even greater. This, of course, may or may not be something that Kojima wants, but it would provide the option for him, as Konami would be more open to try out a title that could simply sell under a Kojima banner, rather than only being able to count on the Metal Gear name.
I also suspect that a game like Bully would have benefitted greatly from a huge “Rockstar presents” appearing equally large above the previously released Grand Theft Auto titles. That way fans would associate this new title with the older one. I am not saying that it would have sold as many copies as GTA IV, but I am betting that a few people that browsed right by it in 2006 would have stopped to take a look at a more obvious yellow Rockstar logo than the smallish one that they seem to have not noticed that appears way down in the right hand corner. Of course, that is assuming that the previous GTA games had been marketed to begin with by equalizing the name Rockstar with the game Grand Theft Auto III.
Frequently, fans are assumed to be too dumb, apathetic, or at the very least not “appreciative” enough of creative to keep track of creators or studios. Intellectuals remember directors names, not standard movie goers. Well, there is kind of a reason. They haven’t been educated by marketing to think that way. Sure, readers of books seem so much more intellectual, but if you assume that the kajillions of people reading King or Danielle Steele are a bunch of bookish intellectuals, you’re nuts. Some of the same seeming “bozos” who are forking out cash for Saw VI are also forking out cash for their sixth novel by King. Strangely, it isn’t a copy of Cujo VI; it’s just another book with King’s name on the cover. In other words, they have been taught that what they like in a novel is not merely what it is about (unlike the films that they enjoy), instead they know that this guy named King is somehow responsible for their pleasure.
Like the concept of the sequel, which builds on name recognition, creating clear associations with creative is the way to create a recognition of the appeal of creative over the appeal of mere content. It ain’t rocket science; it’s just basic book marketing.