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.
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.
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:
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:
And now, Super Mario Galaxy with stick men and box art:
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.
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.
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:
(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:
The difference is brand recognition, noteriety and, hopefully, money in the bank.
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