One of the big concerns of AAA games these days is the horrid case of sequelitis so many companies have caught. Both critics and players urge for a cure, but games with numbers in their titles are becoming the norm, and fears arise that the hardcore market is stagnating.
Publishers cry that they don't want to take a chance on new games when tried-and-true premises are guaranteed moneymakers. Getting publishers on board with new products is difficult when the offices are full of conservative businessmen.
But when I think about it, the cure might be slightly more tangential -- and simpler -- than we suspect.
Consider this: when I walk into a bookstore, I can stroll over to the Ks and grab a Stephen King book, and just by knowing the author, I am 95% guaranteed it'll knock my socks off. A 95% chance of awesome is a chance I'm willing to take.
Books don't come alphabetized by title, at least not primarily; books are ordered by author. Same with CDs. We know the artist, and we don't expect AC/DC's next album to be "Black in Black II", but we'll buy it no matter what the title.
Movies are a slightly different story. They aren't alphabetized in the store by director or screenwriter. But a savvy consumer knows his directors. When I spy a new Quentin Tarantino or Kevin Smith movie, I have that same 95% chance of awesome. Since the primary creative lead in a movie is usually the director, with some knowledge of names, I can pick out a new movie I've never seen before without the fear that it will suck. I don't need to rent it first; I can just buy it straight.
Our marketing for games should be similar. The Lead Designer or Creative Director should have his or her name right on the cover. When I pick up a game with Dave Jaffe's name in the credits, I have that same guarantee. But without research, I am not always aware of who the lead is on a game, because it's usually not on the box.
I think that if we succeed in turning game makers into household names, people will be willing to buy more games that aren't sequels.
Indies already do this, but it's much more rare to see much beyond American McGee on the cover of a game.
The idea isn't restricted to individual names, of course. I'll buy anything by Team Ico. Team names work just fine, especially if a director's name on the cover makes egos too big (and let's try to avoid that particular pitfall of movie-making). As long as a team has a fingerprint, some clever marketing can do the trick.
Heck, the marketing doesn't even have to be that clever. When game trailers come out, fade to black with white text at the beginning or end of the trailer with the words "A Game By Team Ico" or "Dave Jaffe Presents".
I think that if every trailer over the last five years had an extra two seconds added for the name recognition, those names could be much more famous, and we wouldn't be in half the rut we're in now.
It's a simple and seemingly unrelated change in marketing that cures sequelitis. With names in players' heads instead of titles, they are more likely to pick up any game with American McGee on the cover than only the next Alice sequel.
It boils down to the player's confidence when making a purchase. All that needs to happen is to shift that confidence from the game to its maker. Just like you don't buy "Bat Out of Hell II" because you liked "Bat Out of Hell" but rather because you like Meat Loaf, a player should be buying God of War II because they like Dave Jaffe, not because they liked God of War. Then when a new game comes out called "Epically Awesome Violent Fantasy", players are willing to buy it because the cover also proudly says "Dave Jaffe Presents" just above the title.
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