Following on from our recent tradition of Friday afternoon chattery, Andy and I have been discussing the concept of brand loyalty. We’ve all bought a game based on a brand before, how many of us bought Modern Warfare 2, or Grand Theft Auto IV based on the legacy of previous games? Is this a bad thing, are we opening ourselves up to exploitation by the developers? Or perhaps following a brand allows you to support the developers with money, and lets them innovate more freely? Read on, and find out what we think.
Andy: I’m really not a fan of brand loyalty. At first glance that seems strange, I know, but think about it: what does “brand loyalty” really mean? Ultimately, it means that you stop judging products in a certain brand purely on their quality, and instead set your expectations – and, crucially, buying decisions – based on the name on the box. How can that kind of non-qualitative judgement ever be considered a good thing?
Mike: So maybe completely removing judgement is bad, but isn’t it ok to be a little loyal to your favourite brand? Is it ever OK for gamers to have lower standards for the brands they love? For example, overlooking a few dubious design decisions in a series you otherwise think is great? For instance, I think there’s always going to be a part of me that wants to love Final Fantasy games, so is not actively looking for issues. This said, the recent instalments haven’t been as good as previous titles, and mainly because they’ve departed from the core ideals that made the series so good. They should probably worry less about being mainstream, and stick to what they do best.
Say what you want about the streamlined battle system, those are some nicely rendered feathers.
Andy: If anything, I think gamers should hold the brands they love to even higher standards. After all, there’s a reason that you loved the brand in the first place: because it was of a certain high standard, and better than the competition. Why then should future products in that line get away with merely being “alright” or “good enough”? I’m certainly far more critical of Deus Ex: Human Revolution’s faults than I am of most games, simply because it’s the latest entry in a franchise I love.
Brand loyalty shouldn’t be a free pass to make mistakes, or to stop innovating – and this is one of my key issues with the whole idea. Once companies know that people will buy their games (or other products) almost regardless of content or quality, there’s no spur for them to innovate, no particular reason for them to strive to exceed expectations. People complain about how games like Call of Duty or EA Sports titles are the same year in, year out, but then keep buying them regardless. The companies know they’ve got guaranteed sales, so why should they spend time and money shaking up a proven formula?
Mike: On the other hand, wouldn’t it sometimes allow companies to try things out they wouldn’t otherwise do? When Modern Warfare was first designed it could have been seen as a risk, breaking from the standard historic war theme that had sold so well before. If they’d have released another WWII game, people would have complained, but would have bought it anyway. They could take the risk because they knew people would buy for the brand, and then it turns out they made a winner.
Modern Warfare broke the mould, but what’s it done since then?
Andy: That’s actually a pretty good point, and something I hadn’t considered. Maybe that I hadn’t considered it is telling in itself though, as it shows how infrequently this actually happens? Even in Call of Duty’s case it was hardly a significant innovation – it was just a change in setting, while the gameplay remained largely the same. Plus, of course, the formula’s barely changed at all in the four years and four games since.
Mike: That’s true. I’ve been pretty vocal about my dislike for the recent Modern Warfare games, they’ve really added little I was interested in in the last three iterations. The fact they sell so well annoys me, and it means there’s no reason for them to innovate; the gamers are also to blame here.
Andy: Another problem with brand loyalty is that it makes it virtually impossible for smaller or medium sized companies to succeed in anything except a mobile, flash game or indie capacity. Gamers happily splash their cash on the latest entries in established franchises, but that leaves their wallets bare when it comes to considering games from lesser known studios. At the moment, only the absolute top of the top of the top games are actually making any profit in the AAA space. Just look at Radical Entertainment – even though Prototype 2 topped sales charts worldwide upon release, it still didn’t garner the ridiculous sales of the likes of CoD and so the developers were shut down. Part of the issue here is down to the obscene costs associated with developing AAA titles, of course, but a significant part is still down to gamers’ reluctance to take a chance on anything but the most well established franchises.
Mike: My article last week touched on this; I think innovative games should be greatly rewarded, but they aren’t. Mirror’s edge sold alright, but people just complained about the combat, rather than celebrating what it did really well – arguably the best first person platforming I’ve seen. Conversely, it’s got to the point now where the major brands seem immune to this criticism. If a brand fouls up, they’ll get criticised, but it has no effect, and they’ll sell well regardless.
We need more games like this, and less games with combat.
Andy: Absolutely true, and it’s not just about the quality of the games either, companies are getting away with some truly shocking behaviour in terms of how they treat their customers. Take Diablo III for example: it requires a permanent internet connection even when you’re playing alone, and if your line drops for a moment, you’re unceremoniously booted out of the game. Even ignoring the massive server problems they had after launch, this is totally inexcusable, and sets a terrible precedent. Had most companies tried it, there would’ve been outrage, and no-one would’ve bought the game. Because Blizzard have an almost Apple-like degree of fanaticism surrounding them, though, people not only bought the game in droves but actively defended this terrible, customer-unfriendly decision. The mind boggles.
Mike: Brand loyalty has to have its limits. It’s one thing to support Blizzard because they have well-made games that are fun, but if they drop the ball, we should be calling them on it. Otherwise, they’ll make the same mistakes again, and as you’ve already mentioned, other developers will copy them.
Andy: Of course, this goes beyond just software. I mentioned Apple above, and their fans are well known for being loyal to an extreme degree: scary numbers of people will pre-order Apple hardware before they know anything about it beyond the name. Within the games industry, Nintendo have a similar following, at least in the handheld market. Time after time, Nintendo’s handheld consoles have seen off technically superior competition, from the Game Gear to the PSP to the Vita. It’s now a self-sustaining cycle for Nintendo: people buy their handhelds because they know they’ll succeed in the long term, but they succeed in the long term because people take the leap at the start. Let’s be honest: the 3DS is a pretty terrible console, with a very weak selection of games at the moment, but it’s still sold like hotcakes because people assume it’ll get lots of games in time – a consideration they’re not willing to extend to the console’s competitors.
If you saw this, it’s because you bought Diablo III knowing full well it was an online-only abomination.
Mike: But is there anything wrong with assuming there’ll be games you like on a console down the line? Mario for instance, there’s always a Mario game on Nintendo consoles, so perhaps it’s ok that people buy a 3DS in expectation of stuff like this? I’ve been guilty of this in the past, I was always going to buy a PS3 after owning a PS2, luckily Sony have proved themselves on that one.
Andy: If you’re buying a console for a particular game or type of game, why not wait until that game comes out before buying the console? Buy the console based on what it’s got now, not what you expect it might have in the future…hopefully. Or, if you’re affluent enough to take a gamble on a console maybe providing what you like down the line, extend that faith to all consoles. Supporting consoles causes them to have an abundance of games as much as the other way around.
Plus of course, it’s at the hardware level that we see the most extreme and destructive side of brand loyalty: fanboyism. It’s essentially just “my dad could beat up your dad” in the consumer sphere: a totally pointless and depressingly never-ending dickwaving contest. I honestly can’t think of anything to defend or even vaguely justify it. Thoughts?
Mike: This level of brand loyalty is begging to be exploited, where the console manufacturers and developers will know they’ll ship a certain amount of something because there are some die-hard fans. This just means they don’t need to try as hard, and is probably why Microsoft and Sony have sat on this current generation for so long.
These guy’s can’t give Activision their cash fast enough.
Andy: Absolutely, and that brings us neatly back to what we were saying earlier about how brand loyalty discourages (or at least disincentivises) improvement and innovation. The solution for this? Stop judging things on the name on the box, and start judging them instead solely on the quality of the product.
Mike: Is there a middle ground to be found here? Where you’re willing to give brands a go, but aren’t tolerant of too many mistakes?
Andy: If you judge solely on content, you’re still “giving brands a go” – so long as they keep putting out quality content, you’ll keep buying them. All I’m suggesting is that you take the element of blind name-based judgement out of the process. With that said, there’s no need for middle ground.
Mike: So don’t buy Final Fantasy blindly with no thought whatsoever?! Controversial as this may seem, you make a compelling point!
So there you have it folks: as deep a discussion as Andy and I have on a Friday afternoon. What do you think? Are you someone who puts faith in a brand, despite what others might say? Or are you someone who buys solely on reviews and demos, regardless of the series? Let us know in the comments, or on the forums!