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Of Monkeys and Shiny Things
by Armando Marini on 06/17/09 12:02:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


For years, my game development choices have been driven by a simple four word rule of thumb of my own making:

“Monkeys like shiny things”

I’ve used this rule of thumb for the better part of my entire career and it has never failed me.  It tends to generated quite a lot of controversy so I expect it to do the same here.  None the less, I feel it’s a great tool for decision making at all levels of game development, so it’s worth stepping through the reasoning behind it.

I grew up in the heartland of the Canadian automotive industry.  I was never too far from a friend or family member who worked for one of the big three.  Early on in my childhood, discussions about the auto industry and the competition from Europe and Japan were as common, if not more so, than discussions about politics and sports. 

I heard these discussions in several Italian dialects, Greek, Quebecois French, and a smattering of Eastern European languages all punctuating the broken English that formed the cohesive body that allowed people to communicate their ideas to each other.  For the record, where I grew up a minority was not someone who had a different colour of skin .  A minority was someone whose family had settled in Canada prior to the sixties, unless you were a native.  Having parents and grandparents who were Canadian, well that was just weird.

In the seventies and eighties, it was very apparent to us what drove the American auto industry.  It was the superficial elements of a car.  That Trans Am screaming chicken hood decal is campy now, but at the time it was sweet!  The complete irrationality behind superficial appeal seemed to be something that caused many to discount its importance.  None the less, desireability in all its subjective and contextual glory, moved a lot of cars.

Then, one day sitting around the table with in-laws, my father in-law mentioned an initiative that was happening at his GM plant.  The plant had an issue with tool theft.  Their best efforts in security simply could not curb the disappearance of tools.  Then something made a dramatic impact.  They switched from chrome tools to flat black ones.  The tools were ugly, simply put, and the theft of these tools was almost nonexistent.

Let me emphasize this.  Sleek chrome tools = Stolen tools.  Ugly flat black tools = secure tools.  These were the same tools with the exception of the color.

At the time, I was in University and happened to be studying human evolution.  I was exposed to some interesting behaviour from primates, especially those living in close proximity to humans.  In a very literal sense, the monkeys were attracted to shiny objects in and around human beings.  They had no rational need for these items, but they were inexplicably drawn to them.  Indeed, they even attributed great value to these items exibiting protectionist behaviour.

This confluence of information caused me to draw a conclusion of basic human desires.  (By the way, I’m not a scientist so I’m perfectly happy to make inferences.  If you feel the need to explore my conclusion in a scientific manner, give'r).  So in a stereotypical sense, we humans are monkeys.  Like our primate cousins we have an irrational attraction to items that are superficially appealing.  Ergo, monkeys like shiny things.

Who amongst you have purchased a game based on the graphical prowess of screen shots?  Even after literally decades of photo-shopped images and nonrepresentational assets, the buying public is still driven by box shots and covers.  Even the hardcore gamers are susceptible.  I still read with great frequency posts along the lines of “That looks awesome, I’m so getting this!!”  The Wii audience operates at this level more so than the PS3 and Xbox 360 group.  None the less, something that looks appealing draws a great deal of attention.

Take for instance the behemoth that is EA Sports?  What is the great motivation behind buying the new release of Madden or FIFA?  Why is a previous year’s version valueless once the new version is out?  Actually, why is it valueless once the real life season is over?  Let’s face it, for the most part the most important difference year on year are the roster changes, not the gameplay. 

I’ll put on my Captain Obvious hat for a moment and state that those roster updates make the new release new, and the old release old.  In this context, old is not shiny.  It doesn’t matter how much fun the game is or what great features it may have.  Once the season is over and done with, its old news.

Why are there games based on current films?  Because that’s what’s hot.  Big budget movies are shiny.  The industry is now slowly realizing that they can make a good game with a movie tie in and spin it into something more valuable but it’s been a long road.  Games as movie tie-ins are almost synonymous with poor quality, but they make them and sell them none the less.  Something that is hot is something that the public perceives to be desirable at the time.  If that item is feeding off the interest of the buying public, then it continues to be hot until it ceases to be of interest.  This is a powerful motivator that can overwhelm rationality.

Sega’s Iron Man is a great example.  Its hook, that element that everyone with the word “producer” appended to their title is constantly pecking at you to find, was that it was based on Iron Man the movie.  That’s it!  Don’t believe for a moment that the buying public cared for anything more than that.  To the public, press releases read like this “Blah blah blah Iron Man the game, blah blah, Iron Man the movie, blah blah blah, to be released...”  That game sold a boat load of copies.

Now, I am not in any way advocating the creation of superficial games devoid of earnest, well crafted content.  I am putting faith in you, the reader, to be a stand up professional game developer and craft a proper piece of work.  As with anything superficial, if you do not support the promise with quality and depth, then it will not hold its value in the eyes of the public.  Actually, what you will do is break the promise to the player, which leads to bad mojo.  Again, look back at the US auto industry or the reputation of movie tie- ins.

So how is this rule of thumb applied?  It’s pretty simple, when a choice needs to be made, always go with the item that has the most “shiny appeal” to it.  It’s a completely irrational choice but it will make complete sense.  In fact, the more you view the world in the context of this rule of thumb, the more obvious the choices become.

I know, this rule of thumb does not frame the audience in the best way possible.  Rules of thumb aren't meant to be philosophical positions or a basis on which to construct one's outlook on the world.  This one rule is simply a way to help you pick between dull option A or bright and shiny option B.

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Tony Ventrice
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Ultimately, this is the fundamental question posed to all but the strongest dev houses: with limited time and money, do you put your remaining effort into making a game that 'looks' good or 'is' good. I think the answer boils down to what you are aiming for. If you are aiming for mediocrity, by all means, give the user his shiny baubles; your chance of failure will be limited. But keep in mind that games like Tetris, Starcraft and Sim City were nowhere near pushing the envelope in visual effects when they came out. Quality is a difficult concept, certainly more complex than 'flashy=good', and certainly not worth pursuing if you don't understand it, but if you don't understand quality, you probably need to ask yourself, why are you even in the game business?

An Dang
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Sad, but true. The audience is overwhelmingly monkey-like.

Jonathon Walsh
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To me shiny, as talked about in this article, is more than just graphical bells and whistles. Starcraft, Tetris, and Sim City are all shiny games to me. Sim City has the flashy self-caused disasters, Starcraft's rendered cut scenes gave it a shiny front to draw people in, and Tetris has the iconic music. A lot of what goes into a game has a certain amount of shine to it. The rule of thumb is to just go with the most shiny appeal.

Your target audience also influences what's shiny. Indie and 'retro' gamers have a very different concept of what's shiny than a mainstream-blockbuster gamer.

Ian Morrison
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Aye, that's how I interpreted it. Shiney can be fancy control schemes, innovative gameplay, or just "cool" stuff, not necessarily graphics.

An Dang
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You guys (Jonathan and Ian) are being entirely too subjective. The folks Armando is referring to aren't some niche, target audience. He's referring to the video game market as a whole; the majority, the mainstream.

I would guess the majority of gamasutra frequenters would not fit into the mainstream gamer populace. We are more specialized and refined in terms of what we look for in video games (not to toot our horns or insult the mainstream... too much).

The market responds to certain "shiny" things particularly well, including games that are described as "party games," celebrities (See Madden, UFC, NBA, WWE, and movie tie-ins), and badass space marines.

Alexander Bruce
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I completely agree with An. Tetris is definitely not a shiny game, even though there's a whole lot of people that love it. Compare a game like Tetris to a game like Super Puzzle Fighter (still not the best example of shiny), where the screen has Street Fighter characters doing special moves against each other and the screen going nuts when they do super finishing moves, and Tetris is definitely looking a hell of a lot more bland with a couple of blocks falling. You can't portray music in a screenshot.

Essentially, I think the way you guys approached it would be similar to saying "but the black tools are shiny because they have a better texture when you hold them. They're more slick". Entirely not the definition of shiny being described in the article, which is talking about visual attraction to something that is perceived to be good based purely on how it looks, when contrasted against something identical in quality that is undesirable because it doesn't look as special.

Benjamin Quintero
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Nice post Armando. It is a sad truth. What's more sad is that it may likely never change. I don't often advocate the use of "never", but I'm pretty certain about this one. As long as we have marketing hype machines, enthusiast media, and pop TV culture, the big sellers will always be the shiny ones... On the bright side, if all those things go away then there is a chance ;).

An Dang
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We need to nurture refined gamers. Then again, people still watch blockbuster movies even though they are, for the most part, accepted as lacking in depth and artistic value. The same thing goes for pop boiler novels. If presented with the fact that the "shiny" games most people buy aren't the deepest or necessarily the best, most gamers would probably shrug and say, "Well, I guess I do like shiny things."

Honestly, I like the "shiny" games as well, to a considerable extent. Just like how I enjoy shallow movies and television shows. It still entertains. Novels, on the other hand, I don't think I can get through a shallow novel without becoming irritated.

Toby Hazes
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@ Benjamin: it's not the marketing hype machines, it's not the enthusiast media, it's not pop TV culture... it's US! it's we, the monkeys!

(+ as An said, most Gamasutra folks won't fall under this 'us' but a grand majority of people will)

Jesse Boessel
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I am much like a monkey when I buy a new game. In my defense though, a lot of my buying decisions are based on what happens to be on the local department store rack when I happen to have an extra $60. Pretty much everything there is "shiny". Unless I feel like waiting 3-5 business days for a carefully selected game to come in the mail I just pick the "shiniest" game that I see, grab a banana, and I am on my merry way.

Benjamin Quintero
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Toby, I think we are talking about the same thing. It's a full circle; those things exist because we allow them to exist, because we listen to them and are just as much the sucker for believing in them. I'm just as guilty at times, though my better sense doesn't actually put down the cash until it has received approval from like-minded gamers. I ignore Previews, and read only the lowest scores to see what their gripes were. It's not a perfect system, but I haven't had buyers' remorse in a long time; that must count for something.

Lance Rund
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I gotta admit, seeing "everybody else... but not me... the public... but not ME..." is kinda funny. What would make it perfect is a follow-up article on how developers have little connection to their audience, which is why many games fail.

Good games are shiny AND have depth. They are not mutually exclusive. And they tend to be developed by people who can be developers and gamers at the same time, without looking down their noses at either.

I like shiny things. Oo oo ah ah ee ee tookie tookie!

Jonathon Walsh
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"Tetris is definitely looking a hell of a lot more bland with a couple of blocks falling. You can't portray music in a screenshot."

I don't think Puzzle Fighter and Tetris is a fair comparison given the decade of time between the two (1984 vs 1996). I still contend that for its time Tetris was a rather shiny game.

Even if the original article is specifically talking about the market at large that doesn't change it's message or application to niche groups. The simple fact is that if you are designing for the market overall then the shiny features you need take some common form.

The principal still applies to niche genres if you've already accepted them as your limit. Even specialized gamers have their itch for shiny superficial things. How is, "Still Alive" anything but a shiny bauble at the end of the road? Likewise who wasn't drawn to Braid for it's beautiful art style? Or the torn paper style of And Yet it Moves?

An Dang
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Lance: You said, "What would make it perfect is a follow-up article on how developers have little connection to their audience, which is why many games fail." That would be somewhat true. However, I believe many developers give in to the incentive of profit (and keeping their jobs). They stray a bit away from what their ideal game would be to make a game they think would sell.

Jonathan: This all turns on our individual definitions of "shiny." For me, it basically means "something that appeals to the mainstream" (or lowest common denominator). A "shiny" feature is not necessarily a bad feature, but it is not necessarily good either. And I strongly believe the true quality of a game can be improved if the budget was moved away from making it "shiny" and more evenly distributed to other aspects.

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