The Tyranny of Stickmen

Earlier this week i played a Flash game called Continuity. The game is a clever mash-up of a platformer and a slider puzzle. You have to re-order segments of the level to get your stickman to the key(s), and then the door.


Go play it. i’ll wait right here.

Continuity is a student project (JEALOUS!), and bears the hallmark of student projects/amateur game developers/free-to-play Flash games: a stick figure as the lead character. Countless free-to-play Flash games star the very same character. The stick man is, i believe, the most famous and popular of all video game characters – moreso than Mario, Pac-Man or Tim Langdell.

Brand and Deliver

i attend many many video game events where someone in-the-know preaches from the pulpit to people not in-the-know, mostly students and hobbyists and amateurs. And the one tip that i hear repeated again and again, particularly in the free-to-play Flash (and even iPhone) climate where there’s a lot of competition and it’s tough to be heard above the noise, is to “build a brand.” Put another way, “develop your own original IP.” They say this because generally speaking, students, hobbyists and amateurs don’t build brands. But what does building a brand or an IP mean, anyway?

Well, for starters, it means not using a stick man as your main character. You can’t own a stick man. No one can. And your stick man game, even if it’s innovative like Continuity, won’t stand out from the throngs of other stick man games. No one will approach you and ask to buy the rights to your stick man game IP. No one wants to develop comic books or fridge magnets or Band-Aids based on your stick man, because it’s not an ownable or exploitable thing. And, very likely, no one will remember your stick man game. i’m struggling to keep the name “Continuity” in my head as i write this article.

Winnie the Pooh thinking

Me being a blogger of very little brains …

i suspect the creators of Continuity are more passionate about programming than they are artwork. The bones of their game are reasonably solid. Now imagine what they could do if they found an artist and put a little English on it. Maybe Continuity’s main character is a fugitive on the run from the law, or an anthropomorphic kangaroo, or a sorceror who can bend reality to his will? Maybe she’s just a cool-looking chick in a hat? i dunno. But any of these completely trample “stick man”.

Stick Em Up

Let’s do the opposite: let’s take a strong brand and use a stick man instead. i don’t feel that the main character in Braid, “Tim”, was incredibly interesting. But he was short and wore a tie and was at least halfway there.


Now let’s wipe him out and replace him with a stick man and box art:

Braid without branding


From awesome to n’awsome in sixty seconds.

Or let’s go with something like Super Mario Galaxy. Mario doesn’t say much, but his personality shines through the way he’s drawn and the way he animates. He’s a pleasantly plump Italian plumber who utters adorably stereotyped phrases like “It’s-a me!” and “Bowser Koopa sleeps with-a the fishes!” So here’s the game with its very broadly appealing brand identity:

Super Mario Galaxy

And now, Super Mario Galaxy with stick men and box art:

Super Mario Galaxy with no branding

It’s-a me … ?

Even though Braid has a wonderfully unique gameplay mechanic to offer (despite horrible, horrible grade 12 poetry class writing), and Super Mario Galaxy is a super-solid 3D platformer, if you take away the brand, you take away MOST of the experience. That’s right, i said MOST. Not half. Visuals are not half of a game. Even though your team and man-hours may be split 50/50 between code and art, a well-coded game with bad art (or stick men) that can compete commercially is a rare beast indeed. i’ll boldly put it this way: art and sound are 70-80% of both the player’s experience, and your ability as a designer to market and profit from your game.

Sharp-Dressed Man

The one interesting exception i’ll throw out here is Fancy Pants Adventures, a free-to-play Flash game with great programming and tight platform controls. These games star a stick man as their lead character, but dig the difference: a pair of yellow pants and a shock of hair.

Fancy Pants Adventures

Can you own a sitck man with a pair of yellow pants and a shock of hair? Sure you can. Can you build a strong original IP with such a minimally modified figure? Absolutely. In this case, the pants and the hair are all it took to elevate Fancy Pants Adventures from a generic and forgettable free-to-play platformer, to a memorable series that has done extremely well for the developer.

Now let’s take a look at the same character with no pants and hair:

Fancy Pants Adventures stripped of branding

(pants off – please shield your children’s eyes)

Visual style and brand identity are not nice-to-haves. If you have any hope of rising above the thousands of hobbyists, amateurs, and even certain professional developers in the free-to-play space, visual style and brand identity are HAVE-to-haves. Free yourself from the tyranny of stick men and, at the very least, put a hat on that guy. Then you can go from this:

Stick Hat Stripped

To this:

Sir Stick-Hat's Amazing Escapades

The difference is brand recognition, noteriety and, hopefully, money in the bank.

30 thoughts on “The Tyranny of Stickmen

    1. Ryan

      Jarrett – the moment i drew Sir Stick-Hat, i thought “damn … now i have to make this game.” There’s something appealing about moustaches, if Kahoots™ taught us anything.

  1. axcho

    The examples really drive the point home. Good lesson in branding. :)

    However, I have to say, I like stick figures when handled well… (i.e. by Terkoiz)
    I’ll have to think of a way to make them unique other than giving them pants. Hmm. Braids? Wait, no I did that already. Kind of wasted it though.

  2. axcho

    Wow, do you really have to put the “TM” every time you write “Kahoots”? That’s a legal thing, right? I wonder if I should start doing that… :p

    1. Ryan

      Iain – OMG you’re totally right! i ripped you off without knowing it! i came to the same realization yesterday when i was re-reading a blurb for Seth Godin’s Purple Cow. i suddenly knew why i’d named our upcoming trivia game Interrupting Cow Trivia. i was subconsciously taking Godin’s advice, and quite literally at that.

      You deserve full credit for planting anti-stickman sentiment in my mind! If anyone wants to hear Iain’s original viewpoint, instead of my second-hand and crass take on it, here’s our post with a link to the podcast:

  3. TFernando

    xkcd is a webcomic popular with a subset of tech-savvy people- with a main character who is a non-character stick-man*- with the attendant monetizing items (shits, posters, etc) that come with popular webcomics. Almost every other recurring character in the strip does have some characterising detail (hair, hats, etc) ala Sir Stick Hat which reinforces your point…

    I suspect that part of the popularity of that strip is ease with which its readers are able to project themselves onto the un-named and un-detailed protagonist, and it only works because the entire strip is basically stick-man level art– with more detailed art the stick-man would stick out.. Duplicating that effect in flash would be one heck of an artistic achievement.


    *- Of course, that makes it hard to distinguish the un-named recurring stickman from the un-named, un-detailed extras who occasionally appear.

    **- I don’t think amateur/hobbyist/student stickman games are trying to achieve this effect. Just noting that the effect might be possible in this sector of art?

    1. Ryan

      TFernando – you bring up a really good point about xkcd. i’ve heard the same thing about animé as a defense for that style – you can project yourself onto the characters and better empathize. Personally, the sameiness of animé drives me nuts.

      Have you read Scott Pilgrim? The artist goes for a quasi-animé style that’ll remind you of the cel-shaded Legend of Zelda games. i had the same problem with that: i had a hard time telling one character from another.

      xkcd has a few brand-y things going for it: the speech font, the name, the format, the subject matter … but all in all, as IP, i think it’s weak. It may have a huge following, but its IP-fu is lacking. i feel the same way about those comic strips that use public domain dinosaur clip-art and stuff like that.

      – Ryan

  4. Jarrett

    lol definitely do it.

    I read xkcd too, and I feel like the stick characters are really just there to get the humour across, so it’s not so much of a problem when they don’t all look unique.

  5. Jim McBoyMan

    I agree with your overall point.
    Adding a big pair of pants to a stick man has served me well:

    2 Thoughts:

    1. Even with black & white stick men, your style shines through.
    Your Braid ladder has excellent strokes, and the Braid enemy has a great expression.

    2. Super Mario Galaxy was hurt by branding.
    It’s tired characters and overused motif instantly ensured there would be nothing memorable about the game
    beyond new mechanics and evolved production value.
    In fact, those might be the only things keeping the Mario corpse alive.
    Galaxy deserved new characters that served the mechanics/world.

    There’s a reason Pixar refrained from putting Woody or Mickey Mouse in Up.
    Whoever kept Mario out of Wii Sports is a hero.

    1. Ryan

      Oh snap! Jimmy just went there! We can both agree that Mario is played out and we, as seasoned gamers, are hungry for refreshing IP … but we’re talking about brand strength here. And Mario is Nintendo’s license to print money. It’s just like when you ask anyone 40 or over (present company excepted) about video games, and they say “Oh yeah … i remember Pac-Man!” A strong brand sticks with people on the fringe.

    1. Ryan

      Michael – They’re recognizable, but are they ownable? If you use royalty-free clip-art to build your media empire, what’s stopping me from doing something with those same characters? i’m no IP lawyer, but i suspect “nothing”.

  6. TFernando

    I see what you’re saying, thanks. So, for example, xkcd or the dinosaur comics are weaker IP than say, the Order of the Stick, which has a very distinctive but simple art style. To contrast the store of say the dinosaur comics to the giantitp store– if you weren’t familiar with the comics, the items in the Dinosaur comics site linked by Michael above don’t necessarily appear much different from what might be available on ThinkGeek, etc as general merchandise, whereas items featuring characters from OoTS would be recognizable as being from something specific, even if the person seeing the shirt or whatever wouldn’t know where the characters came from.

    Now I just have to figure out how to work, ‘Your IP-fu is lacking.’ into polite conversation….
    (I haven’t read Scott Pilgrim, but I’ll check that one out. Sorry for the thread drift :)

    1. Ryan

      TFernando – i’m just not sure that the dinosaurs are even ownable. It’s like that 50’s-looking guy that MrSkin uses as its mascot (NOT THAT i’VE EVER BEEN TO MRSKIN EVER IN MY LIFE). That 50’s guy is a piece of clip-art, and i’ve seen him lots of different places. People can legally use him all they like. Same deal with stickmen. NOT the same story with Mario, though. He’s uniquely identifiable, and makes for a stronger brand, from the perspectives of both recgonizability and legal ownership.

  7. Rasmus Wriedt Larsen

    Hi Ryan. Even though you can’t take the credit for it, it was a really nice post :) So let us all go branding with some else than stickmen.. This just made me wondering, have you ever considered making a game with your little red monster you use as an avatar?

    1. Ryan

      Thanks, Rasmus. i find people repond really positively whenever i draw scribbly stuff like the logo monster, or the Bloat. monsters. i definitely want to do at least one game in that style. We’re currently working on a graphic adventure game for a client, and we own the engine, so it might be a style i’ll visit when we make our first original graphic adventure game in the new year.

  8. Jimmy McBrand

    “but we’re talking about brand strength here.”

    But what is brand strength?
    Pixar has an extremely strong brand, but they keep making new IP.
    Pixar has a license to print money, because their brand is creating awesome animated films.

    Given the success of the Wii (in no small part due to Wii Sports),
    and the success of the Wii Balance Board,
    Nintendo should focus more on their new Wii brand “we make amazing innovative games”
    rather than their older failing Gamecube brand “let’s put Mario in something”.
    I don’t think Nintendo’s take on Little Big Planet Multiplayer
    “New Super Mario Brothers Wii” gets anywhere near the excitement of Sackboy.
    Their “license to print money” is doing the opposite.
    I believe “Super Mario Galaxy” and “New Super Mario Brothers Wii”
    would sell more and become legendary if they eliminated Nintendo’s thoughtless licensing.

    While they didn’t sell extremely well,
    “Dead Space” and “Mirror’s Edge” have strengthened EA’s brand.
    Both are somewhat legendary
    and people are starting to think of EA as a maker of great games
    (rather than iterating franchises to death).
    I believe “Dead Space 2” and “Mirror’s Edge 2” are going to sell extremely well as a result.
    THAT’S branding.

    Any idea why they keep calling Mario “Super Mario”?
    Has there ever been a non-super Mario. Is he crippled?

  9. Michael

    @Jim: Too far in the other direction and you end up with the mess that Sonic’s in, though!

    @Ryan: True, they’re not ownable. But as we’ve seen, that hardly matters in the Flash world…

    I think scale is important here. OK, I agree, a big company trying to build a media empire would want their IP locked down as much as possible. But an indie?

    @TFernando: Hmm, good point. Fans would recognise them, but most people would not see them as part of a brand.

    1. Ryan

      Great article, Jason! i’d expect nothing less from you guys. What’s the status of (the absolutely gorgeous) Lila Dreams? Last i heard it had been cancelled?


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