I confess to being rather fond of Greg Costikyan. I’ve been quite the admirer of his work for more than two decades now. He’s smart, witty, deliciously untrustworthy, and (I think) rather strikingly handsome.
In a recent column at Play This Thing, Costikyan talks about board games. He’s got some darn fine points and comparisons, though I don’t necessarily completely agree with every single one of them in full. Enthusiasts should go read his column now. I’ll still be here when you get back. If you’re in a rush, just read on.
Let’s cut to the heart of the matter:
Costikyan: If the audience has no aesthetic, no basis on which to judge the intrinsic worth of a work, on what basis do they make purchasing decisions? There are only two ways to reach them, in fact. One is by marketing “old favorites,” games with brand recognition because of their long history and exposure to the market. The other is by exploiting a licensed brand.
The English-speaking market for quality board-games (and I’m including some tabletop games in that) hit a bit of a Golden Age in the 1980s. I still have many fine examples stowed away. These days, though, the existence of a contemporary, board-game of quality — and I’ll basically define quality here as “does not suck” — comes from two basic sources: Niche publishing, and Germany.
Boxes of Scrabble, Monopoly, and Hungry, Hungry Hippos can hardly be called contemporary. They’re time-worn enough that they can’t be killed with a stick.
Why Germany, I hear you cry.
Because they’re keen enough on board-games there that they get mainstream reviews. There’s an informed buying public. Chances are, the last nifty, innovative board-game you played was translated from the German original (unless you haven’t played one since the aforementioned Golden Age).
Costikyan: In Germany, there is what you might call a national boardgame culture, with major publications reviewing new games, a highly competitive set of publishers, and designers who are minor celebrities. Consequently, many, perhaps most, of the best new boardgames are published out of Germany, and the American market is treated to the same old branded crap.
We do, at least, have something of a videogame culture; major media do pay attention to them, and there are innumerable sites devoted to them. And gamers passionately debate the merits of the games they play. And yet, those discussions are curiously uncultured, too; the average gamer’s ignorance of the history of the form, of the contributions of different creators, of the evolution of genres, is staggering. Games suck or rock; no nuance here. And gamers have been trained to expect and reward spectacle over originality; the number of commercially viable genres continues to decline over time.
You have three basic factors at work in the push to make sales from either video games or board-games: Branding, spectacle and quality. Board-games don’t entirely lack the opportunity for spectacle. There are DVD-games, miniatures and other aspects where you can bring in spectacle.
When the the brand (and/or the spectacle) excessively dominates the quality, though, you get… well, dreck.
Generally branding is likely to be more expensive than quality and innovation, but requires significantly less thought, and shorter timelines. Whack the name of Hannah Montana, NCAA, John Madden on the box, and you can profit from unfinished or unplayable games, or games that would drive a five-year-old to view their math homework as favourable entertainment.
Yes, I’m looking right at you, Electronic Arts.
Why does this work? Year after year, we buy the next video game of a series that has disappointed nearly every year. Actually, only a very few of us are able to hold hope out quite that long. We drop out of the customer pool over time. Our places are taken up by people who see the brand and make unwarranted assumptions about the quality.
Marketing cheat: If you can get quality linked to your brand somewhere along the line, even briefly then you can ignore that pesky quality for years, or even decades before the connection starts to erode, and you have to repeat the process. People will buy defective crud — over and over sometimes — if you have managed to link quality with your brand in their minds.
Social media isn’t terribly effective at messing this up, either, as some savvy marketers astroturf their way to obfuscation. Who do you even trust to give you useful reviews of games? A majority of the games are flawed (sometimes fatally), and trustworthy reviews may not become available until after brand and spectacle have already worked their magic on you at retail.
Video-games are becoming increasingly mainstream, but that progress is significantly hindered by the industry that produces those games. It’s a bit of a vicious paradox, and one that’s probably going to bite us all quite a few more times before it manages to resolve itself.