Wednesday, September 05, 2012

LEGO and the Future of Gaming (part 2)

Yesterday, we talked about the LEGO convention in Austin, and how LEGO seems to have entirely revitalized their brand.

Well done, Denmark-type people.

[note: LEGO will not by typed in all-caps for the rest of this post]

The question: can the gaming industry learn anything from Lego?

To start with, I'm not trying to claim that Lego situation is entirely analogous to the situation the gaming industry finds itself in today.

There are, however, a few things in common. Shifting market conditions. Deteriorating financials. Death if significant changes aren't made. And, most importantly, both Legos and videogames are forms of play.

Play. Does anyone remember that?

Here are four things that the gaming industry could learn from Lego:
1. Branding
If you ask anyone what Lego is, they can answer the question immediately. Everyone understands what Lego represents. Everyone. It's one of the most cohesively-branded companies I've ever seen.

If you ask ten people what Electronic Arts is--in a branding sense--you'll get ten different answers. Hell, as someone who generally pays attention to these kinds of things, I have NO IDEA what Electronic Arts is supposed to be as a brand.

No idea.

Activision? Who the hell knows? Ubisoft? Don't make me laugh (although they did say today in an excellent RPS Interview that always-on DRM will no longer be used going forward, so congrats for returning to Sanity Town).

I do understand Nintendo's brand, because it's almost identical to Lego: Play. Nintendo is less successful than Lego at executing the brand philosophy in their games at times, but at least I know who they are.

2. Quality
Does anyone ever worry that a Lego set will be crap in terms of quality? Ever? Yes, I understand that the production process is entirely dissimilar from games, but it's also true that the larger models must go through an incredibly rigorous design and development process.

Do you know what quality produces in me as a consumer? Loyalty. I will never hesitate to buy a Lego product because of quality concerns. Ever.

The gaming industry, on the other, generally falls all over itself making excuses for the quality of their product.

Here's a typical story. Madden has been coming out almost annually for 25 years. In this year's edition, the CPU playcalling is pretty seriously borked in end-of-game situations when the CPU is behind. They'll consistently run the ball in entirely inappropriate situations, basically not trying to win.

Worse, the two-minute AI was the best part of the game last year. It was terrific. And they *ucked it up entirely.

Is there some kind of red alert for EA in this situation? Some emergency patch so that the CPU actually makes an effort to win? I mean, that is the point, isn't it?

Nope. Apparently not.

You know what that kind of attitude that produces? Alienation.

The NHL series, on the other hand, has a strong history of quality. I am incredibly loyal to that game because it actually works, and it gets better. That's EA, though--their quality is all over the map.

Do I care that videogames are hard to make? No. Fix your shit. I spend 10% of what I used to spend on videogames because the quality is so poor. And I spend 10X what I used to spend on indie games, because the developers are far more committed to their products.

3. Choose Your Experience
Every Lego brick, whether it's part of a specific model or not, is a multi-purpose experience. You can use it for its originally intended purpose, or you can use it in something else that you create.

Sounds like a sandbox experience, doesn't it? Or a mod?

Unfortunately, the gaming industry has rapidly turned its back on both, although there are exceptions (thank you, Bethesda). Instead, they want you to buy DLC. Lots and lots of DLC. They want total content control.

To the gaming industry, I'm just a revenue stream.

Sure, I'm a revenue stream to Lego as well, but I get much more for my dollar. Much, much more. I get to choose my experience. I can have a guided experience, or an entirely creative experience of my own making.

You know what? One of those two options is going to make me happy.

4. Play
I'm sure it's because I'm an aging fossil, but man, some of the content in games now is very troubling. Ultra-realistic people slaughter, basically. It's gone from pixelicious Wolfenstein, which was laughably innocent in retrospect, to games I can't even play because they're so realistic in their depiction of war.

I believe it was Abraham Lincoln who said there are only two types of people who want to go to war: those who don't plan to fight in it, and those who have absolutely no idea what it's like.

So there's something about the adoration of the Call of Duty series that makes me queasy. Sure, on one level it's a sport, but on another level, it's pretty damn creepy. Big gaming companies have been willing to redefine "play" in ways that obliterate its original meaning.

Could that distance possibly be one of the reasons why the industry is struggling so badly? There must be a point where "No matter what it is, if they'll buy it, we'll make it" must become destructive.

Yes, I fully acknowledge  that this is a "philosophical bullshit position" kind of argument where supporting data is impossible.

5. On the other hand: licensing
I just added #5, because I remembered something that's worked very well for Lego that hasn't particularly worked well for gaming companies: licensing. there was a kind of Golden Era of Licensing for gaming companies,  but that era is long gone, and licenses for "games based on X" often turn out disastrously, both in a quality and sales sense.  Plus, the cost of the license can substantially raise the break-even point for the game.

All right, that's way more than I intended to write, and if you're still reading, there must be some kind of merit badge that you've earned. Go play with Legos.

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