Games have never been more culturally relevant or economically powerful; smartphones mean most of us have access to hundreds of games in our pockets, as well as on console and PC.
Creatively, games are recognised as powerful and engaging forms of art and entertainment in their own right. They’re becoming – and for some, are already – important cultural content that stands alongside films, TV, and other mass media.
We all know the stats by now; players aren't just kids and geeks. More than 40% of the UK population will play a video game this year; the average age of a gamer is around 30 and the gender split is pretty even, depending on genre.
When even the V&A Museum appoints a game designer in residence you know video games have reached a new critical mass.
And when even the V&A Museum appoints a game designer in residence, as it did in May, you know they’ve reached a new critical mass. So it’s no surprise that games continue to gain popularity as content for brands.
There can still be a tendency to see games as childish fun – and some are – but they're much more diverse. Games tell stories, bring out many emotions and get players thinking in lots of different ways. I recently read someone say that after completing PS3 game The Last of Us, they missed the characters; they missed being with them, which is a little different to watching them, I believe.
So you're convinced that a game is the right strategy; what do brands need to know about designing a game?
The role of game designer
Designing a game is a complex process. Games create feelings and emotions through hundreds of little interactions and moments of drama and joy. The way the pigs laugh mockingly when you fail to get them in Angry Birds or the moment you went off script in GTA Vice City and discovered a new world to explore. These moments bring you back for more.
Any one of those moments can build an amazing affinity with a brand or bring the whole thing tumbling down. Controlling those feelings and emotions is the role of a great game designer.
Game designers combine knowledge of games, brand, audience and strategy to develop a concept that will achieve goals and communicate the right messages.
Brands meet games
In the brand world, clients like to know every detail of what they're getting for their budget. How many levels will Mario complete? How many bad guys will he face? How will his moustache look as he crushes Bowser?
In the games world you fight against that early definition. Flexibility is essential when making a game; you can plan forever, but you won’t know what the best parts are until you start building and playing it. You have to be willing to adapt to this, factoring in this discovery time.
The more you can iterate – essentially play and test with the audience, change, and test again – the higher the quality of the end product.
Our iOS game, Zeds, for Channel 4 is a good example. The brief was to raise awareness of sleep issues with teenagers. Our high concept was to encourage teens to record their sleep patterns using their mobile device and use the data to create a unique game where characters run through their dreams. The concept never changed, but the execution changed massively, and for varying reasons, some technical, some just for more fun.
Business and marketing goals won’t change through the process, but the features you use to achieve these evolve. The more you can iterate – essentially play and test with the audience, change, and test again – the higher the quality of the end product.
Because of that flexibility, the role of a game designer could be compared to a film director and script editor. They need to understand the technical, artistic, narrative, audio and production aspects of game development.
A great designer will communicate with all stakeholders to ensure the vision and all good ideas from across the client and team are properly executed and understood. And they need to be able to change direction when things can be improved, while still balancing timescales and budgets.
Measure, learn, iterate
Design doesn't stop at launch. Once a game is live, you can use feedback and data to improve a game as you would any product. In fact many games are now considered as much a service as a product, with successful games like Puzzle and Dragons continually evolving and never finishing.
Measurement of player behaviour is an important part of a game’s evolution. Analytics tell us when a player is most likely to purchase or be open to communication - and a designer will develop the game based on these insights and evolving goals.
Successful games take many elements, from production to marketing to measurement. But central to it all is creating a great game, and central to that is great game design.
With the right team and designers in place, the results can be hugely powerful for a brand; engaging its audience, generating emotion and creating immersed players and true fans.