Building Killer Brands in Independent Game Developers
by Matthew Riggall



We will start off with reviewing the concept of brand equity, that is, the 'added value' created around a core product due to the brand. For a firm, this added value is usually in terms of additional sales, or the ability to increase the price of the product. Let us consider a simple game with a female hero, who runs around and kills evil monsters and finds hidden treasure, as it happens, it is a sequel to a previous game along the same lines. This may sound like an interesting game, and may sell reasonably well, but if it happened to be Lara Croft, and the game was a sequel to Tomb Raider, then the added number of sales created could be attributed to the brand equity created by previous marketing efforts on the brand. Lara Croft and Tomb Raider are an excellent present day example of how big developers use branding to create more value in their computer games.

Basic building blocks of brand equity

In order to know if we're creating brand equity it'd be nice if we were able to measure it. This can be a difficult quantity to accurately measure, but it's definitely possible to get a good estimate, and that's through asking people. The brand equity measurement system is a whole article in itself, but here are some methods that as indie developers, we could use quite easily.

Ask people questions about your product, company name or logo. Something like the following would give you useful information:

"When you look at my logo, what comes to mind?"

The kind of answer we're looking for is not, "Well, it could do with being a bit bigger, or having a bit more color.", but more along the lines of "I think of innovation, technology and cutting edge, because it has the word multimedia in it, I think of games, TV and movies and things…" This should give the idea; you could even give the person a limited number of possible answers, such as:

"When you hear the name 'Infinity Multimedia Ltd', how much do you think of innovation and technology ?"

a) Not much.
b) A little.
c) A lot.

If you find out that in fact, people think that your company name sounds more like a law firm, that your game sounds like a particular type of toilet cleaner and your engine has a name that means different things in various countries, then you may need to consider the image that's being portrayed.

Image is everything?

Actually, it isn't. It's only half of the story. The other half to worry about is brand awareness (i.e. how much awareness there is of our product in the market place). Now in the case of independent developers, we have to assume that we're on a small scale, but it doesn't mean we can't have a high level of awareness in particular market-places, such as shareware or even mobile-phone games. Therefore, lets try and create a framework for our 'product'. In order to illustrate this, I'll give the example of a small group of student developers, who have just finished creating a game that they are planning to release via shareware.

Creating a brand management framework

We will start by branding the development group. A name should be chosen that represents innovation, 'youthfulness' and new technology, but also attempts to disguise lack of experience, and possible negative aspects that may be associated with a student group of developers. Let's go with "Infinity Multimedia Technology Studio Ltd", or just "Infinity Studio" for short (I only came up with this in ten seconds, you should aim to spend a little more time on the studio name!). Now, create a logo that reinforces the values and particular attributes that you want communicated through the company name. Also consider any information that you may want conveyed in the name, for example "Infinity Studio", doesn't tell people much about who the developers are, whereas "Infinity Multimedia Technology Studio Ltd" gives quite a bit of information.

Now, Infinity Studios might want to choose a 'representative' for their brand. Consider how characters such as Lara Croft, Mario and Sonic represent Eidos, Nintendo and Sega. If Infinity Studio has a particular hero that conveys the same messages and communicates similar values as their core brand, it may be a useful addition to what is commonly referred to as the brand portfolio. Additional representatives of the developers core products include logo's, technology names and even the names of the developers in some cases. Take for example the added value that John Carmack brings to id software, or Dave Pottinger brings to Ensemble.

Further branding could make use of the technology that is used in the game. The studio name attempts to portray messages of innovation and cutting edge technology, so a possible addition to the brand portfolio could include branding the game engine, for example "Titanium 3D Engine", and possibly even individual innovations such as "AgentAI", which might be a new type of AI.

Based on the assumption that the game released by Infinity Studio is moderately successful, new releases can make use of the brand equity developed through previous marketing efforts. Hence we see might see new games built using "Titanium 3D technology", or "AgentAI technology". We're really looking at big-bucks if we can sell the brands on to other developers, because not only are we selling the core product (the source code, or libraries), but we're selling added value, because the brand is already recognized and known within the target market. The same for buying in outside tools and middleware, if the next release from Infinity Studio makes use of the latest Quake engine, then we want everyone to know, because id software have built an extremely strong brand around that particular piece of technology. Exactly the same principal applies to licensing names or endorsements, such as Joe Montana, or Indiana Jones.

As an indie developer, the majority of our marketing effort is performed through the internet. Therefore it is vital to maintain a strong web-presence. This includes reinforcement and development of the brand portfolio. I've seen comments such as:

"We are a new independent game developer, consisting of hobbyist programmers. Welcome to our website, we are pleased to announce the launch of our first game, xyz."

A number of key words and phrases jump out of the screen when I read this welcome statement. When I see 'new' I think of inexperienced, when I see 'hobbyist' I think of unprofessional and possibly short-lived. Upon seeing the phrase 'first game', the programmer in me thinks congratulations, but the consumer in me thinks possible bug-ridden, improperly tested, unsupported software. I haven't even made it to the product page, and my mouse pointer is precariously hovering over the 'back button' on the web-browser!

So let's summarize the framework we just developed, and review the brand portfolio for Infinity Multimedia Technology Studio Ltd:

Company Name - Infinity Multimedia Technology Studio Ltd
Alternate Name - Infinity Studio
Representative Characters…
Technology - Titanium 3D Engine, AgentAI technology
Developers (human capital/resource)

The customer's conceptualization of your brand

The meanings, associations and images that the consumer links with your brands are stored and retained within their mind. In essence, brand equity resides in the consumers mind, and hence whenever they experience anything to do with your brand, they will automatically retrieve existing associations and these will affect how they feel towards you. It mustn't be neglected that it can be extremely easy to create negative equity for a particular brand. Creating games in bad taste, or delivering poor quality in core products among other things can easily affect the perceptions of not just the individual brand, but your entire brand portfolio, so beware!

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Date this article was posted to 9/3/2003
(Note that this date does not necessarily correspond to the date the article was written)

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