Thursday, August 29, 2013

Big Talk - Types of bold speech made by industry representatives

A few days ago, Electronic Art's Sports executive, Peter Moore, made a rather bold statement that EA "no longer makes 'offline' games". Naturally, things ran out of control and everyone assumed that EA would be implementing some sort of always-on DLC in every future title. As it turns out, Moore was making a generalized statement that the core design decisions of EA games are now made with online/multiplayer superseding single player consideration. I think this is still quite a bold statement although it is much less likely to draw the universal ire of gamers. From this, I started to think about how brash statements have become fairly common-place in the gaming industry and have singled out three types of statements (bullshit, bilious, and bravado). Below I outline these three statement types and describe the reaction they generate.


Bullshit

These statements are exactly what you think they are, a lie. Perhaps one of the best examples of the bullshit statement was found in Sega's 'Genesis Does' advertising campaign. The campaign was aimed squarely at rival Nintendo's SNES launch and tried to highlight how superior the Genesis hardware and software was by showing clips of action portions of games in rapid succession. The main thrust of the campaign was that the Genesis was superior because it was faster; the reason it was faster, so the campaign goes, is due to 'blast processing'. The thing is, as near as anyone can figure out, blast processing is entirely fictitious. The Genesis did not have any special processing instructions or hardware unique feature that made it superior to the SNES. Indeed, as time has shown, the SNES was capable of producing at least equal quality graphics and most certainly destroyed the Genesis when it came to music and sound. While Sega's campaign is a pretty famous example, I think bullshit statements need not be overtly stated. The Turbografx 16 console effectively made a bullshit statement every time its name was read implying that it possessed a 16bit processor when it was only an 8bit system. In this case, NEC wasn't technically lying (they never outright stated that the system was 16bit) but was rather playing on gullible consumers who failed to properly read the system specification.

It is not difficult to see how bullshit statements can drive sales. Undoubtedly, the Turbografx 16 cashed in on consumers believing that they were at the cutting edge of technology and Sega almost certainly nabbed a few sales on the back of its fabricated feature. That said, bullshit claims are ephemeral and can only push sales so far. The Turbografx 16 ultimately lacked a library of titles to make it truly a contender and was ultimately a financial failure. On the other hand, Sega was able to provide compelling titles and the Genesis was one of the most successful consoles in history (although it didn't beat the SNES). The risk with bullshit statements is that they can create a distrustful consumer. Beyond a poor library, savvy consumers steered away from the Turbografx 16 due to its shifty branding. As such, I feel that bullshit statements are basically a gamble that the consumer won't see through the lie.

Bilious

"John Romero's About To Make You His Bitch....Suck it down" screamed a promotional advertisement for Daikatana. I do not think you can find a more prominent example of bilious advertising. John Romero was a controversial figure; after basically inventing the FPS with id Software, Romero quite publicly split to form his own development studio, Ion Storm. With his 80's glam rock hair and vibrant personality, Romero was a media magnet and often became story over the game he was developing; the Daikatana advert basically cementing public opinion against him. Instead of generating positive buzz, most people began watching the game in the hopes that it would fail. Numerous delays and all sorts of development shenanigans later, the game released to negative reviews often directly targeting Romero himself.

Romero's story is often told with heavy bias. In truth, the advertising decision wasn't fully Romero's idea and Daikatana's failure can realistically only be attributed in part to Romero. Further, Daikatana almost certainly received more negative criticism then it deserved (an unbiased aggregate might paint the game as mediocre/average). That said, the lesson is still sound, purposefully prodding the community is apt to cause a blow up with disastrous results. While a bilious advertisement can certainly draw attention, it is most certainly the negative kind. In this case, the adage of any press is good press doesn't hold true.

Bravado

Bravado operates as a sort of combination of bullshit and bilious statements. It comprises those statements that over-inflate features combined with a swagger that tries to assure that everything being said is the complete truth. Peter Molyneaux is infamous for his bravado statements. While promoting fable, Molyneaux basically painted a picture where if you could think it, it would be in the game. In reality, Fable was an above average RPG which failed to offer anything even close to the open-endedness Molyneaux was touting prior to launch. More recently, Molyneaux suggested that the prize of his 'Curiosity' project/game would be "life-changingly amazing by definition". While it is true that the the winner is getting to do something pretty cool in that he will become an integral part of the design process for Molyneaux's next game, I think most would agree that the prize hardly lives up to the pre-release bravado statements.

In Molyneaux's case, I think most people have gotten used to the bravado and temper expectations accordingly. Here, I feel that the showmanship is actually part of the product and is something everyone can experience for free. The real problem with bravado is when it is not readily detected. In these instances, the result can leave a consumer feeling frustrated and lied to. Unlike the bullshit statement, bravado is virtually guaranteed to be discovered but may hold enough half-truths to not be alienating. I think reactions to bravado upon discovery are similar to reactions to cheap puns, you don't necessarily hate the guy who told it, but you may not listen the next time he opens his mouth. Translated to sales, I think bravado can help raise awareness and provide a slight bump in sales but ultimately the product will need to stand on its own merits.

I bet there are numerous other ways that gaming statements can be classified and the three that I have outlined are only scratching the surface. That said, I think the ones I have highlighted are quite prevalent in the games industry despite their potential to negatively impact sales.  Whether it is ego or stupidity, I doubt we will see the disappearance of bold statements any time soon.