Gamasutra: The Art & Business of Making Gamesspacer
View All     RSS
September 2, 2014
arrowPress Releases
September 2, 2014
PR Newswire
View All

If you enjoy reading this site, you might also want to check out these UBM Tech sites:

Analysis: What the Video Game Industry Can Learn From the Death of Glam Metal
Analysis: What the Video Game Industry Can Learn From the Death of Glam Metal
May 5, 2010 | By Aland Failde

May 5, 2010 | By Aland Failde
More: Console/PC

[In this Gamasutra analysis, Harvard Business School grad Aland Failde explains how the way grunge music's birth via Nirvana disrupted the music industry holds essential lessons for real innovation in a genre-bound game industry.]

"Most of Nevermind is packed with generic punk-pop that had been done by countless acts from Iggy Pop to the Red Hot Chili Peppers… the band has little or nothing to say, settling for moronic ramblings by singer-lyricist Cobain."

– Steve Morse of the Boston Globe, first review for the album Nevermind

During the heyday of spandex, excessive use of hairspray, and sing-a-long hair metal anthems, a tiny music scene called grunge managed to rise to greatness, as evidenced by Nirvana’s rise to the top of the music charts. The over-saturation of glam bands in the late eighties and early nineties is a perfect analogy for what’s happening to the gaming industry today.

More and more big budget releases are coming out in similar genres (Modern Warfare 2 and Bad Company 2, anyone? or how about Rock Band vs. Guitar Hero?), which is creating a plethora of strategic issues for those of us in the industry.

As game designers and marketers, we’re dealt the heavy task of cutting through the clutter and making our creations stand out. In a world of massive marketing and development budgets, how do smaller budget indie games and/or new IP from major publishers succeed amongst major game releases?

Just as grunge music succeeded in the wake of glam metal, there must be a solution. A new book suggests brands that reverse their thinking and delight consumers in unexpected ways will prevail (more on that later).

Do Mega-Blockbusters Serve The Greater Good?

What’s happening today in the game industry is a phenomenon that Prof. Anita Elberse at Harvard Business School calls the “Blockbuster Trap.” In this repetitive cycle, video game companies attempt to replicate the success of competitors by imitating “winners” and increasing their own level of investment.

Their success causes other video game companies to follow suit, causing investment levels in the industry to catapult. As the level of investment goes up, companies become more risk averse, and are more likely to try and copy their own successes (You've seen a ton of vampire brands and will see even more, thanks to the “Twilight” series!).

So how does this translate to the video game industry? The biggest releases in the industry - Guitar Hero 5, The Beatles: Rock Band, Halo: ODST, Modern Warfare 2, Battlefield 2: Bad Company - have been mostly sequels or modified iterations of past successes.

But before you burn your proverbial spandex pants and begin to pretend you don’t know the lyrics to “Every Rose has its Thorn,” let’s first consider that these massive blockbuster games do actually serve the greater good of the industry.

In addition to macro trends like attracting more gamers and increasing the share of consumer spending for gaming related products, these tent-pole game titles help create a virtuous cycle where success helps breed success. Consider that a company making large investments in producing major video game blockbusters is more likely to attract the top industry talent, because top tier talent sees larger investments as helping improve the odds their creations will be a hit.

Thus, the bigger the releases, the more talent they’ll recruit, the more likely they’ll put out great games, and so on… and so on... Voila! They have a virtuous cycle where success helps breed success.

Think Grunge

Let’s not forget the next generation of top creatives (maybe it’s you?), since historically many careers have been built on high-risk investments by publishers and developers (Halo, Sim City, Gears of War, World of Warcraft, Call of Duty, Guitar Hero etc.).

These new thought leaders will either consciously or subconsciously look for the organizations where they’re most likely to succeed (see Figure B), which typically equates to organizations that are willing to invest more money in creating blockbusters.

Herein lies the problem: Massive blockbuster games are good for the industry, but as power in the industry continues to shift to fewer publishers, what happens to the level of creativity in the industry as most of the major players increasingly focus on blockbuster strategies, as EA, Activision, Square Enix, and Ubisoft have announced?

How can the industry break the creative trap that comes with major winners and ensure that new IP and indie games have a chance at success? A new marketing theory suggests that the answer is to think grunge, not glam.

"Reverse Brands?

In her new book titled Different: Escaping the Competitive Herd, Harvard marketing Prof. Youngme Moon discusses a theory she developed called “Reverse Brands.”

As the theory goes, brands that have found themselves in industries strife with fierce product augmentation (remember when toothpaste didn’t whiten, control tartar, and freshen your breath?) find ways to reinvent themselves by making their products simpler/more bare bones, while still delightfully surprising their customers with unexpected features.

Take IKEA, for example, and its reverse positioning of the furniture retail industry. Before IKEA, the furniture retail industry was engaged in an ongoing customer service war, causing it to add new services year after year (home delivery, extensive warranties, pre-constructed furniture, and pushy sales people). These investments in customer service continued to erode the margins for retailers, but were necessary since customers had come to expect them.

By utilizing reverse positioning, IKEA stripped furniture retailing back to basics and added new and unexpected things (theme park experience, cheap delicious food, babysitters, etc.) that left customers feeling fulfilled while helping them forget the attributes they lost.

This theory can be applied to creative industries, as seen in the example of Nirvana in the wake of the glam metal music scene. While glam bands continued to “out glam” one another with more hairspray, elaborate stage shows, and wicked orchestra-backed ballad, along came a music scene that countered many of the things the glam scene held dear - no frills, back-to-basics, punk infused rock-n-roll.

They weren’t completely different, of course; grunge still had catchy hooks and a sex, drugs and rock-n-roll aura. Instead, grunge turned some of Glam’s strengths into weaknesses, such as the glitter driven image and the “let’s party and sleep with groupies” lyrical content of many hair bands (see Figure C for visualization of Nirvana differentiation).

So what does this mean for you, as a game designer or marketer? Let’s presuppose your boss comes to you with the insane idea of releasing a new racing simulation game for consoles. Just in case you’re unfamiliar with the racing simulation genre, it happens to be very crowded with plenty of quality brands like Forza, Need for Speed and Project Gotham competing on attributes such as types of cars, intensity of graphics, and realistic controls.

The first step is to look at the big picture and plot out racing game attributes similar to the Nirvana visualization above. To find the appropriate attributes, you’re able to keep it low budget by posting an anonymous post on the Yahoo! Answers service or scanning for postings about racing games.

After plotting out a few attributes, you can begin brainstorming ways you might possibly reverse position the genre. Maybe we lose the “realistic” aspect and differentiate by coming up with concept cars only? Perhaps we go for uber-realistic cars and controls, but decide to go for a more cartoon-esque graphical interface?

While some of the ideas you develop may seem ridiculous, it’s this type of creative variance that can ultimately lead you to your sweet spot. The same brainstorm scenario that applies to game design can also work for marketers hoping to break through monotonous advertising clutter.

I bet many of us would not be able to tell the difference between an ad campaign for Project Gotham or Forza, if the brand names were stripped away. So why not brainstorm and ask yourself if there are ways to reverse-position your game?

While this article builds a positive case for reverse positioning and other methods of helping you innovate, there’s always a danger associated with the execution of any great idea. If you’ll indulge a bit of tongue in cheek, it would benefit you to Google “Scott Williams” and “Nirvana on Ice” as an example of the line that exists between what may sound good in theory and what is actually applicable.

Whether you’re developing for social networks or console, marketing what makes your game brilliant is crucial in the war for the hearts and minds of gamers.

[Aland Failde is a recent graduate of the Harvard Business School. Prior to Harvard, he played drums in a hardcore metal band and managed the media advertising business for Yahoo! Games. He began his career in Media/Entertainment at Warner Bros., where he was one of ten global trainees selected for a one-year rotational leadership program in children’s entertainment. Aland holds a BA in Spanish Literature and Business Administration from the University of Redlands.]

Related Jobs

YAGER Development GmbH
YAGER Development GmbH — Berlin, Germany

Visual FX Artist (f/m)
Quantic Dream
Quantic Dream — PARIS, France

Animation Director
Vicarious Visions / Activision
Vicarious Visions / Activision — Albany, New York, United States

VFX Artist-Vicarious Visions
Vicarious Visions / Activision
Vicarious Visions / Activision — Albany, New York, United States

Animator-Temporary-Vicarious Visions


Lech Lozny
profile image
As someone who regularly draws comparisons between the music and games industries, I enjoyed reading that. It was, however, an overwrought way of stating "less is more," or my personal favorite, "keep it simple, stupid" (featuring the ironic acronym KISS). My personal gaming tastes lean towards the arcade side of the spectrum, the games that are simple to play, yet difficult to master. As such, I'm constantly bored and uninterested by the so-called AAA blockbusters from the major publishers. I couldn't tell you the difference between any of them from their marketing campaigns, or even from playing them. Having said that, there was one game from the unlikeliest of places that caught my eye, and still holds my attention, Borderlands. After reading through the postmortem in GDMag, it looks like they took exactly your advice, focused on a select group of features, made them them shine (skill trees, characters classes), came up with a unique "hook" (cellshaded visuals), and shipped a unique new game to market. Only thanks to the support of a publisher who shared their vision.

I usually try to stretch the music analogy further past games as bands, and onto publishers as record labels. It unfortunately paints a depressing picture for anyone trying to start up anything unique. When Grunge first appeared, the major labels wouldn't touch it with a 10-foot pole. It took years for the genre to gain any sort of acceptance, and only through perseverance, and belligerence by refusing to go away and die. Personally I'd like to see a publisher become an indy label, to foster and attract the little fish the majors won't touch. What we can learn from Grunge is that there's an audience for it, you just have to find it. Something the game industry is horrendously inept at doing.

(Never liked Nirvana. Alice In Chains was my band.)

Justin Nearing
profile image
Great article. I love systems graphs and references to metal (even if it is glam), and this article has both. You sir, are awarded one banana sticker!

The last little bit you threw in, the bit about things seeming better on paper (Nirvana on Ice), is also affected by the quality of product. It's important to note that large investments don't always translate into quality products- a problem running rampant in the pre-recession industry.

This article seems to be concentrating on hardcore game development. I wonder what kind of metal you can compare indie and social media games to?

profile image
I have to disagree with this article. I can tell the difference between a Project Gotham game and a Forza game because I know the look and style of gameplay they evoke.

Blockbusters are needed so that the smaller games have a chance. I guarantee you that if they released a Halo or CoD game on the Indie Games or Arcade section on the Xbox other games in that field wouldn't sell as well.

People can also sense when a series is lagging or basically starting to suck. Let's face it, CoD only became mainstream when it devoted itself to modern warfare, even though it has had it since number 1.

CoD5 doesn't hold as much reverence with many gamers because it's only redeeming quality was Nazi Zombies, which was a minigame.

Gamers are slightly smarter than what you give them credit for. Just my two cents.

Steven Conway
profile image
Thanks for an intriguing article Aland.

Kevin Patterson
profile image
I really enjoyed the comparison, as one who lived through the nauseating glam metal days. There was nothing like watching Headbangers ball on MTV, hoping for a true metal band to have a decent video played, and having to sit through the multitude of hair spray bands masquerading as "metal".

I don't believe that we have hit this same saturation point with games though.

I believe that the rock band, guitar hero, DJ hero games will hit that, but the mega titles like COD, GOW, GEARS, and Halo won't. Those titles will eventually fade, but something else will come along and be the big kid on the block again.

Creativity certainly hasn't slowed down, we have just been blessed with quite a few numbers of mega blockbusters. Great games like Deadspace, Bioshock, ICO, will still be made.

What I would like to see an article on, is the dearth of genre's that were once popular on PC's and consoles and now don't have comparable titles. What happened to the corridor shooters like Descent and Forsaken; the adventure games like Sanitarium and Sierra games; the space opera games like Freespace and Wing commander; the fast action FPS like Doom, Serious Sam; and why on earth don't we have more fantasy shooters like Heretic?

Bart Stewart
profile image
It’s probably to be expected (and not unreasonable) that a Harvard Business grad would focus on the supply side of the “new hit” question -- on what developers and publishers can provide that has the possibility of great success by breaking out of a crowded genre.

That’s probably a necessary condition for creating a new genre. And I personally would love to see more high-quality innovation. I’m just not sure that simply trying new ideas is a sufficient condition for big success. What about what gamers want?

In other words, the question of creating a new genre of computer game is not completely addressed without considering what gamers are ready for. Developers and publishers can try every crazy alternative to existing product types they can think of with no guarantee that any of them will catch on. If enough core gamers don’t latch onto it and promote it, followed by a second and much larger wave of consumers who want to follow what seems hot, then it just doesn’t matter what the product is, how it differs from existing products, or the degree of quality that was put into it.

I suppose this is just another formulation of the old question: should you create new products to try to satisfy identified consumer desires, or can consumer desire for a product be created? In other words, is success more a matter of discovering an unfilled desire and then making a product for it, or of manufacturing such desire in order to sell a planned product?

I suspect B-school folks will prefer to believe the latter is true. The example of the “boy band” era suggests it might have been true for the music industry. But is it true for the computer games industry?

Christine Kenney
profile image
To Lech's point-- I didn't read this as a pure plea to KISS... More like keep it surprising, stupid. Imagine you revamped hypothetical racer game to incorporate "serious" game elements. What if you had a pit crew element that was an inadvertent tutorial in how to change oil or rotate a tire? What if your "track" was rendered by Google maps and you learn the lay of a new city and distances between its landmarks without having to interface with cops IRL. You've reversed the brand by layering additional complexity in targeted area(s).

to Justin and Robert on indies and social: yes, definitely agree. With the rise [and fall?] of DRM, we're seeing a ton of promising new games publisher/marketing models that offer astonishing parallels to what we saw iTunes, Myspace, Sonicbids, and music microfinance platforms offer to incubate up-and-coming indies.

That said, if your team's core competence is slaying them in spandex and hairspray, you may be better served building the game equivalent of "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" than moving to Seattle and rocking the flannel.

Gregory Kinneman
profile image
@Kevin: Yet Deadspace was much like playing marine in Alien vs. Predator, Bioshock was a direct clone of System Shock 2, and ICO, well OK, you got me there. I'd be careful to avoid requiring originality as a prerequisite for greatness. Starcraft 2 plays beautifully, but it's still a pure-blood RTS.

I agree I'd like to see that other article written, but I definitely remember articles about the "deaths" of space-shooters and adventure games. If I had to propose a reason for these deaths, I'll paraphrase what I read about XCom once: Perhaps the sign of a truly great game is that in the last 15 years despite 7 sequels or spiritual successors, nobody has been able to duplicate its greatness. People don't make Serious Sam clones because they haven't found a novel way to improve on that gameplay. Privateer, Tachyon, Freespace, Wing Commander, X-Wing. There's some tough competition out there if you're going to make a space shooter, and if you don't do anything new except shinier graphics, then how do you expect to sell your game?

David Eckelberry
profile image
So, when a genre played out, you should subvert it and do something different?


Billy Stever
profile image
So your saying we should go for shity flashy over the top games to shity boring depressing games?

Kevin Patterson
profile image
@Gregory - I appreciated your comments, we will have to agree to disagree that bioshock2 was a direct clone of system shock2 though :) I have read multiple articles on the death of adventure games, but i included it with the other genre's i would like to see covered.

Personally, I pine for a modern take on heretic, a new descent, and a new space shooter. Your right about the competition, but I find it hard to believe that with today's technology and gameplay improvements, we couldn't match any of the old games, and surpass them.

An example of this is Dragon Age:Origins, I absolutely loved that game, and it was a modern take on the Baldur's gate style games. It was similar in ways but still it's own game, and was wonderful.

Nuno Barreiros
profile image
Great Read! Very very interesting...!

Matthew Woodward
profile image
Self-reinforcing loops tend towards pushing a genre in specific directions. This leaves increasingly large segments of any diverse market unserviced. If you can figure out how to service these segments you can be very successful. If nobody figures this out, the genre specializes itself to death.

Or, to put it another way, the more obvious and pervasive a trend becomes, the shorter its life expectancy is.

(Adventure games, space sims, RTSes, Facebook games. Discuss.)

Ayotunde Ayoko
profile image
nice read...

and i totally agree with Kevin...

Adam Bishop
profile image
I found the article interesting, but I think it misses a huge point that kind of goes to what Bart was talking about re: supply vs demand as driving things. The popularity that bands like Nirvana, Nine Inch Nails, and Pearl Jam found in the early 1990s wasn't just about creating a slight inversion of a musical sound, it was also about the substance underlying that music. Put in more simple terms - the shift wasn't just an *aesthetic* shift but a *cultural* shift. And I would say that generally speaking, you can not deliberately create a cultural shift.

I remember an interview with Billy Corgan where he described the surprising success of that kind of music in the early/mid 90s as the feeling that "we had won"; the "we" in this instance referring to people who had typically been considered outsiders socially and politically. It's reminiscent to the early days of punk, which Johnny Rotten described as "a place the ugly people could go to feel beautiful". Games will never have a "Nirvana" moment by simply changing around genre conventions. It will only happen when a different *culture* of games emerges. That's a lot harder to do.

David Serrano
profile image
"Brands that reverse their thinking and delight consumers in unexpected ways will prevail". The man has a firm grasp of the obvious. Wait... I can do it too: "hot women who sleep with average looking men will always be popular".

A more accurate comparison would be to compare gaming to the US auto industry of the 70's and 80's. Until the late 70's, the US market was dominated by Ford and GM. But starting in the late 60's, both began making poorly designed, poorly built generic cars. They didn't design the cars people actually wanted to buy. They instead designed them based on profitability formulas or to counter models released by the other. Even though both made low quality, poorly built cars. Each thought they had little to no competition except for each other and that Americans would continue buy their cars out of loyalty or patriotism. They became complacent and greedy. As a result, they alienated their client base. In the late 70's the Japanese (and Germans) quickly filled the void with higher quality, better built cars. By the mid to late 80's, Japan dominated the US auto market, Ford and GM still haven't recovered.

Like the auto industry of the 70's, gaming is currently dominated by two giant US companies. Both continue to create games based on profitability formulas or to directly counter games released by the other. Even though neither company creates quality games the core gaming audience wants to play. As a result, both companies began alienating the core audience thinking they would continue to buy based on loyalty or based on marketing. Both companies grew greedy and complacent because they thought they had no little to no competition except each other. Then in 2007, Nintendo took advantage of their mistakes and quickly filled the void. Ironically, it was once again a Japanese company which moved in on a market dominated by two greedy and complacent US companies. What troubles me is three years later, there's virtually no sign either company got the message. More than ever, it's business as usual.

There are two important concepts both Bobby Kotick and John Riccitiello continue to ignore. They are "those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it" and "all of this has happened before, and it will happen again" a.k.a. eternal return.

profile image
@Billy---Rofl made my day.

Josh Foreman
profile image
Mr. Bishop hit the nail on the head.

Gregory Ashby
profile image
Think Grunge? Reverse Brands? Kiss?

Looks like this fits the bill

I think this might be the beginning of that different *culture* of games. They have some fresh ideas that I hope will succeed.

Raul Aliaga
profile image
I agree with Adam Bishop: The cultural aspect of grunge it's just too big to ignore, making the analogy a little bit flawed. Specially when there's already a good concept to describe the key useful insights exposed by Alan Failde: Disruptive Innovations: