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Better to be Sexy than Worthy.
by Tadhg Kelly on 11/27/09 01:52:00 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.


The Opposite of Remarkable is Very Good - Seth Godin, Purple Cow

I've recently been doing a lot of reading about how to be successful in the age of retweets, viral successes and exploding choice, and trying to apply that to games. In so doing, I've come across an idea (first from Seth Godin, but repeated elsewhere also) that  products need to be remarkable as a first step to success and if they are not remarkable then they are average. Average things are very hard to market and sell because people don't really talk about average. 

In the television age, average was what worked best because television advertising was expensive but also mass-market. There were only a few channels, so products that got on TV got sales, bought more ads, more sales, and so on.

In the internet age, advertisements don't really work any more. There are so many ads vying for attention across a billion potential channels that we simply ignore them. The response from business has been to try and overcome that with many more products, but that simply compounds the problem. The result is a whole lot of average or very similar products all clawing at each other for market share.

So there's a real impetus for developers to work on the unusual rather than the usual because the unusual is frequently where the fun happens and users who become fans of fun unusual things are much more likely to spread the word. The unusual gets word of mouth recognition, which in turn magnifies through sharing and social networks into a torrent of attention and that leads to sales.

I think most developers essentially understand this (even if their bosses don't) and so it's not especially controversial reasoning. But something interesting happens when they are confronted with this idea: They assume that remarkability and quality are the same thing, that what's required of them is to compete even harder in genres, to get better graphics, better gameplay and better sound in known genres and that's what gets you talked about, and that rewards accrue to those who are worthy. Developers who think like this (which is most of you) think that it's all a matter of building a better boat.

What is worthiness?

To be worthy is essentially to look for approval. It essentially assumes that there are various steady states in the industry that bestow mana from heaven onto those who have tried harder enough. In the worthy mindset, what it takes to beat a World of Warcraft is an even better World of Warcraft. To beat Oblivion? An even better first person fantasy roleplaying game. To beat FIFA, an even better football game.

In some cases worthiness does indeed win: World of Warcraft is a better game than Everquest and took its crown.  Most of the time, however, worthiness loses. The problem that being worthy engenders is that the empowered class who are the ones to deliver said worthiness (such as journalists) are actually bored by seeing the same thing. There is generally only so much room for improvement in any given genre (without a dramatic shift in technology) that a kind of inertia builds up around the chosen successful competitor. That's why back in the day the leap from Quake to Counterstrike was dramatic, whereas the differentiation between first person shooters these days is largely stylistic and average.

Secondly, the perceived influencers in the hardcore gaming culture (again, journalists) are often far less influential than they appear. This is true in any medium, but increasingly more so when anyone can write a blog game preview and anyone can tweet their opinion, those voices just don't carry as much weight any more. 

The problem is that the core assumption is wrong: Rewards actually accrue to those who are sexy, and sexiness and worthiness are often not the same thing.

So what is sexiness?

Sexiness is difference. Not just difference, but passionate difference. A few years ago while everyone was coming out with more of the same action adventure games, Guitar Hero showed up with a cool game idea that was sexy. Everyone likes music, everyone has a secret inner air guitarist inside. Put two and two together and boom. Sexytimes. Now, many releases and competition from Rock Band later, the whole music game genre is becoming as average and boring as everything else and there's probably very little room in which to usefully experiment. Now its all about developers obsessing on how to build an even better guitar. 

I think there are 3 C's that essentially define sexiness. Important to remember in all this is that sexiness is inherently the act of being unusual - so there is no path to follow to get there. Developers thinking that they can be the next Will Wright if they can just make an even better person-simulation game just don't get that that isn't sexy any more because Will Wright already did that. And nobody really thinks tribute acts are sexy. Worthiness leads to a lot of point-proving ("our AI is twice as complex as theirs") to try and attract attention but it's all just so much mush. 

So, the 3 Cs:

1. Creativity: Do you have an original idea that isn't just X meets Y? That's a good start. Also very hard of course.

2. Credibility: Do you have fans that you talk to directly, be honest with, love and respect? If you don't, get some. Don't PR them to death either with brain-dead business-led press release style posting. Build communities through credibility.

3. Courage: Can you commit? Can you project an identity that not only do you know what you're doing, you know what everyone else is doing wrong? Can you pick a public fight in the industry because you have passion that someone or some company is making a mess and you can take a stand?

What sexiness is really about is vision and confidence. It is about finding the niche in which you can make a difference. Many developers pooh-pooh niches, regarding them as cast-offs from the mainstream and a sort of bolt-hole in which loser companies hide. They are completely wrong of course. Niches are what feed the mainstream and become the mainstream and create change. To be "niche" is to be at the forefront.

As long as you're not making the mistake of serving a "worthy" niche. So for example, there are communties out there who's interest is essentially in relics, and there are some developers who have trapped themselves into essentially serving the forces of retro gaming. Retro gaming is a bit like folk music. It had its day, everyone respects it, it has some die-hard fans. Folk music is a niche obsessed by worthiness. It will never be sexy again. A musician cannot go and be sexy by being a better Bob Dylan. Even Dylan realised this and got out of the folk busines in time. 

Set the pace, don't chase the pack.

A lot of developers' heroes are guys like Richard Garriott and Shigeru Miyamoto. They want what those guys had. What those developers don't realise is that the reason Garriott and Miyamoto (and Molyneux, Wright, etc) were successful because at the time that they were coming up in the world, they were doing the brand new thing. They were sexy.

Screw Miyamoto. Screw Garriott too. Screw all of them in fact. Seriously.

You can't ever get to be as sexy and successful as they were by doing what they did because they already did it. Follow in their footsteps and you become at best a tribute act. You have to go to the edges, not the middle. If you want to get to be rich enough in games to fly to space like Garriott then the only thing that gives you a chance to do it is not to do what Garriott did because he already did it.

The worst sin that any developer can commit, therefore, is to be worthy. Worthy is boring. Nobody cares about average, boring, safe and worthy any more. 




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Luis Guimaraes
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That's it. Excelent read, Tadhg.

Reid Kimball
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Very inspiring. Made me feel good inside because this is the same advice I follow. I don't use the word sexy, but it is better to offer something unique instead of copying what everyone else does. At the very least, if you do unique work that you believe in it and are passionate about it, you will be happy.

Bill Reid
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Will do Tadgh, will do...

Bart Stewart
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Who could disagree with the basic point here? The rampant "me, too!"-ism in game development makes me crazy; it's such a waste of the wide-open spaces of game design possibilities.

But to be fair:

1. Somebody has to be willing to underwrite the costs of turning new ideas into products... and money people hate risk. This is the old practical question that gets brought up over and over again whenever someone talks about making a game based on a new idea. It's pretty annoying when you're just trying to brainstom, but if we're going to talk about the larger question of actually getting games based on new ideas into the hands of gamers, then the practical question of funding innovative ideas has to be addressed.

2. Sometimes it's better not to be first. We're all using VR goggles and sensor gloves today, right? No? No -- that technology turned out to be ahead of its time. Similarly, World of Warcraft didn't succeed by being first; they succeeded by using the "second-mover advantage" that comes from seeing what others have done that worked and then integrating those successful features into a single coherent and polished package. So sometimes it's better to be second. (Note, however, that there is no such thing as a "third-mover advantage.")

3. "Different" is not enough. ("Change" is not always for the better....) Being different from what has come before is necessary, but it is not sufficient -- there's no guarantee that the new idea is qualitatively better than the old ones. To extend Tadhg's metaphor, "sexy" sells... but commitment requires true love. For that, you need actual substance -- the new idea has to be demonstrably *good*. Putting lipstick on a pig makes it sexier, but it's still a pig.

So now that we've seen a definition for "sexy," what about some ideas for how to determine whether a sexy new idea has a real chance of being critically or commercially successful? In other words, how can anyone know whether there's some staying power behind the sex appeal of a new idea for a game?

Timothy Ryan
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This is idealistic and naive, but I wish more thought like you. Your plea will fall on deaf ears.

You'll never see publishers invest $20M in something that isn't largely derivative of something successful. Once upon a time, when the teams were smaller and budgets were 1/10th of what they are now, publishers had a larger line-up and used the scatter-shot approach to manage risk, where one hit in ten would pay for the rest. They just can't afford to do that any longer.

For this reason, we're relying on self-publishing independents to prove out new ideas.

And for the record, before Guitar Hero was Frequency (I produced it), but without the guitar controller and on-screen concert stage people didn't get it. So sometimes being derivative helps - it means keep trying until you get it right.

Tristan Pilepich
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Yep, agree with this article, but the problem is; In this age of tweets and retweets, the majority of influence is held by relatively few. Information does not pass from the bottom up, its essentially a pyramid, and if you dont get your product high enough up the pyramid, it will never realize its potential.

At least when people actually noticed advertising, anyone could put some ad's out there and have a shot of being noticed.

These days you can have a game, push it to as many people as you know, send it to all sorts of game-revew sites or industry high-up's, try to post about it wherever you can, and while the niche you are filling likes it, nobody else bats an eye.

I just have a sick feeling that another developer with a bigger name will see it and steal the idea before anybody really notices that we did it first (and for free too).

Tadhg Kelly
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I think you're falling into the worthiness trap:

"I think most developers essentially understand this (even if their bosses don't) and so it's not especially controversial reasoning. But something interesting happens when they are confronted with this idea: They assume that remarkability and quality are the same thing, that what's required of them is to compete even harder in genres, to get better graphics, better gameplay and better sound in known genres and that's what gets you talked about, and that rewards accrue to those who are worthy. Developers who think like this (which is most of you) think that it's all a matter of building a better boat."

You don't need $20m to be sexy. You don't even need $2m.

And sexiness does not equal a linear scale of "who built what function first". Too many developers are inclined to think "but game X s just game Y with added/subtracted mojo" and thus not really get it. In short, wanting to believe that sexiness is the truth, but still actually seeing the world in "worthiness" terms.

Enrique Dryere
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While you certainly make valid points, and this article is wonderfully written, the path to success is never as clear cut. There is not one strategy or attitude that can guarantee it.

Just as you can fail or succeed by bringing something new and "remarkable" to the market, you can fail or succeed while trying to improve existing genres. As well-trodden as the mainstays are, I believe there's plenty of room left for improvement.

Innovation doesn't have to be about radical change. It can come as a series of minute improvements and changes to established gameplay paradigms. You may not get a game that "explodes" onto the scene, but if the game is "good," it will accrue a following over time. Sometimes the establishment of new genres are simply X meets Y, sometimes they are even less.

You are absolutely right about timeliness though. But I think the trick is finding what's relevant amongst the "worthy," not dismissing it altogether.

Tadhg Kelly
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Well the counter-view there is that if you fail, it turns out what you were making was not remarkable in the first place even though you thought it might be.

The one thing that can be said with any surety about sexiness is that it doesn't have rules. When all fashion models are identical, a buxom look becomes en vogue. And vice versa. The one thing that most sexy games have in common is that they have nothing in common.

As to "Innovation doesn't have to be about radical change" that's just another way of looking at games from a "worthiness" perspective. It's like saying that a musician becomes 2% sexier if she just gets the right shade of lipstick. Sexiness doesn't work like that.

If you make a Halo-esque game with a slightly better HUD, you are committing the sin of being very good. There isn't fundamentally anything sexy about that and it certainly won't get you noticed. Sexiness is wrapped up in divergence and establishing your own identity. So while Guitar Hero and Frequency share some common ground (referencing Timothy's point above), the boldness of what Guitar Hero was at the time it came out when all other games were something else is what made it sexy.

Luis Guimaraes
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I think I understand what Enrique means, and he's right, "Innovation doesn't have to be about radical change". The point is, no boundaries. Assuming that slight changes can't make anything new is potentially harmful for the creative process, shielding against true possibilities.

Tadhg Kelly
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If anything I think the opposite.

If you believe that it's as smart a thing to work on 2% improvements instead of 50% radical shifts then you will likely always opt for that 2% because it feels safer. And the logic is that enhough 2%'s will get you there.

This is fundamentally risk-averse thinking, however. You don't get to be sexy without being risky. Carpe diem does not come with a 'a little bit at a time' qualifier.

Luis Guimaraes
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Of course 2% is too little to call change, but "sexy" as you say has no rules and boundaries. That's the point. The change that matters (in entertainment case) is the perceived change, and sometimes you can achieve more with less.

Gears of War and GTA3+ are non-abstract thirdy-person shooters, both have human main characters, guns, bullets, ammunition, vehicles, story, opponents... same game, or maybe not. The same way, Call of Duty, Unreal Tournament, House of the Dead and Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion are quite the same game, with 2% of change (not really, but that's the point).

The balance between real and effective change ammount fades even more when it comes to tabletop games.

Timothy Ryan
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@Tadhg: re: "I think you're falling into the worthiness trap"

It's not me. It's the reality we're in. As I said, I wish more thought like you and embraced "sexiness" over "worthiness". However that's not going to motivate most publishers to take a chance on something new and different. They pay lip-service to the idea of creating new and original IP, but they balk at it. It takes millions of dollars and a prototype to prove the appeal of truly new and original ideas.

I also agree that developers fall into the worthiness trap. I recently completed Fracture which promised "sexy" terrain deforming technology. Some would say (and me among them) that it wasn't sexy enough to differentiate itself and draw an audience, and the terrain deformation was dismissed by fans and critics as a gimmick. In hindsight, we spent too much time chasing other games' successes, and not enough time focused on improving our own unique sexy identity.

Tadhg Kelly
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Hi Richard,

What a great comment. If I may:

"Where I have a problem with this concept of "sexiness" is that it is largely ambiguous."

It absolutely is ambiguous because central to the concept is that of taking a risk. And also failing. In answer to your examples, the answer is "maybe". You'd have to try it and see. One of the core problems that many people face is that they want to know that something will be a success before they commit to it, when the reality is that commitment precedes success. What various commentators on marketing theory maintain, as a result, is that in the 21st century passion, community, risk and products with their marketing built in are the only products that hope to stand a chance. If you're betting your marketing on a gimmick, on the other hand, you will likely fail.

A segment of successful games are sequels, by the way, because they have already managed to win over the public with their sexiness on the first version such that they will try again. Sequels are less sexy, but they also have the advantage of having pre-built fans that will talk about them because they loved the first one. The sequel continues the story (not the game story, the story of the product and the developer behind it). Unless the sequel is boring. In which case the conversation changes. A good example of this is Doom (sexy) -> Doom 2 (still sexy) -> Doom 3 (tedious). Doom 4 is now a harder sell because Doom 3 made the Doom story boring.


Next up, remarkable:

"Tadhg said in a comment "if you fail, it turns out what you were making was not remarkable in the first place even though you thought it might be" - I completely disagree with this."

Remarkable in this context does not mean "very good". It does not mean "quality". Nor "impressive", "shining" or "perfect". It means "worth making a remark about". Worth talking about basically. So a very good product that players like or dislike but fail to talk about is not remarkable. It does not matter how worthy it is, if they're not talking about then you are sunk.


"We must first define the baseline. Are we to say that Frequency isn't sexy or a success because it didn't sell as well as Guitar Hero?"

There is no baseline. Frequency was sexy to some people in its time. Sexy does not necessarily have to mean "everybody likes it". Guitar Hero was also sexy in its time and yet, despite higher sales than Frequency, more people have not bought Guitar Hero than bought it. In fact many of the sexiest things in this world have as many or more detractors than fans. Pete Doherty the musician, is hated by many people in Britain but he has 1 in every 100 music fans in his thrall, and that's more than enough.

The problem with thinking there's a baseline is that it's back to worthy thinking again. It becomes an unconscious checklist of things to do to be successful. But no such checklist ever actually works. Guitar Hero is not just Frequency plus a guitar peripheral plus licensed tracks. I mean it literally is that, but it is also "Frequency plus a guitar peripheral plus licensed tracks plus a great brand name plus a great logo launched at the right time". The "when" of when Guitar Hero released matters. Just as had Halo released a year after another developer made a big shooty sci-fi FPS that was the massive launch title of Xbox, it simply would not have captured the imagination. It would not have been sexy.


"I'd also like to bring up the example of World of Goo. I thought this was a very "sexy" and remarkable game, as did many professional and reader reviewers. I don't have access to sales figures, but I think it is safe to say that it has not sold nearly as well as say any of the major holiday releases like Left 4 Dead 2, Modern Warefare 2, Halo ODST, and so forth -- all games that are sequels offering only minor improvements."

World of Goo is sexy. As is Castle Crashers, Gish or Braid. They are all also successful.

Again this is making the assumption that sexy must be mainstream or global to be successful but that's a common mistake by game professionals. It's the "if I don't see 1m copies I have failed" idea, which is again another form of worthiness-based thinking.

But you are right - for publishers it does make sense to get on a property that an smaller (and more likley to be sexy) developer has created. That's what Sony did with Media Molecule and it's worked out great for them. Publishers as organisations are generally too big to steer their behemoth-size dev teams in the direction of making sexy games. There's too much cruft, too much politics and way too much fear for them to commit enough to it, so they fail. The recent example of EA's failure to create compelling new IP is an illustration of this exact problem.


"All in all, if we are talking about commercial success, then I would have to say that being sexy is only better than being worthy when backed by the right financing, the right people, and the right audience."

And unfortunately that's where the wheels come off the cart, because you can't be sexy without committing to it. On any proposed project you or I can think of there will always be a potential array of things that coud go wrong. It takes courage, commitment and passion to see past that and decide to make remarkable things. There will never be a point where there are no unknowns, so you've basically got to decide to do it or not.

And yes, you may well fail in the process.

Nollind Whachell
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"And yes, you may well fail in the process. "

Take a more courageous and realistic approach. You WILL fail. But that's the beauty of it, especially when taking the right approach like an iterative one (i.e scrum). You learn from your mistakes. In effect, the more mistakes and failures you make, the closer you will be to success. That's how people evolve, learn, and grow.

The problem right now is how the games industry approaches learning through failure. Instead of jumping off a small box to see if it can fly, it instead jumps off a cliff. Well duh, you've given yourself zero room for failure and thus zero chance of sustaining yourself. Even worse, instead of just finding a cliff to jump off of, they spend tons of money building their own mountain and cliff on it. :)

Again avoid massive costly attempts, that leave little room for failure. Instead build in iterative evolutionary steps that allow growth through learned mistakes and observations (especially by listening to the community around the game). In effect, the faster and cheaper you can make your mistakes, the more sustainable your path to success will be.

PS. To learn more about this approach from a business perspective, check out Getting Real by 37 Signals. From a more principle-based perspective, read Permaculture by David Holmgren which relates to ecosystems and how to build up large sustainable complex systems in very small and simple steps, slowly over time.

Kumar Daryanani
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Working on it. And I agree, you don't need $20 million to do this.

Dolgion Chuluunbaatar
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I remember reading an article that was proposing development of "triple B" titles. The basic thought is that nowadays you have basically these huge budget triple A titles that require amazing (and expensive) graphics engines, teams of 50+ or so and therefore are really unlikely to attempt being innovative, or "worthy" and on the other hand u have the recent indie movement that lives on totally low budgets. What this industry needs in my opinion is a middle layer of games productions. Think of lower budget games that are published by big names. It is proven that innovation does not require huge budgets, and does not need super high end graphics. Let's create games that might look like from 5 or 7 years ago but do try new gameplay styles and mechanics and sell them at a lower price, since the production costs automatically decrease. With a lower budget there are lower economical expectations, aren't there?

I think Indigo Prophecy (aka Fahrenheit) is a good example of that. Nobody really bought the game for its graphics I believe, but rather for the new ideas it implemented. We need more of that to allow for innovation turn from niche to mainstream.

John Ingrams
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The markets already gone too corporate for any of the '3 C's' to happen. If anything this is why retro and indie gaming is so popular. If you haven't played X-Com before and you end up loving it like others that played it 15 years ago, you are partly loving it because of it's history, but you are also loving it because you have never played anything like it before. Console gamers that never played any PC RPG's from the Gold Box/Ultima era to the Baldur's Gate era probably see Dragon Age as full of new idea's.

If you want anything outside of your 'experience box', you only have indie or retro gaming! I disagree strongly that retro gaming is like folk music, purely because of what you said about the current 'safe' market. What would be outside the box and cover those 3 C's - playing Bioshock 2, or getting a copy of System Shock 2 and playing that?!

Between the lack of graphics in retro games, and the only slightly better graphics in indie games, I would say the fact that both of these genres are growing shows how desperate gamers are for gameplay innovation. I am sure part of the reason is so successful is not the PC gamers buying games that once owned but gamers buying these retro titles for the first time!

I would be easy for mainstream publishers to move outside the box, due to how small they've made the box in the first place! For example, all a company would need to do, would be to license the Oblivion engine, and make a cowboy RPG with it. Any fan of westerns could give you 100's of 'quests', from cattle rustling to bank robberies and a main story of finding your kidnapped wife who was taken to force you to let a prisoner go or somesuch wouldn't be too difficult! You could say the same for a thriller RPG, a 'proper' sci-fi RPG, a detective RPG, a romance RPG and on an on.

Another easy 'outside the box' would be to produce these 'story-based RPG's' through book stores, include a strategy guide/walkthrough in the package, sell it for £19.99 ($39.99) and have the games still in those stores at that price 2 years later - like books. If the game industry generally had copied the book industry instead of the movie industry, it truly would be a mainstream market by now because we would have expert storytellers throughout the games industry! Whether it's movies or books or even TV, it's the story that sells it. And it's the story and characters that the industry have made bottom of the list for making games!

Andy Krouwel
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All very true, but don't forget that you highly successful games are sexy, but just to be sexy won't guarantee you a highly successful game.