Why Call it Bioshock Infinite? The Value of Branding in Video Games

Happy Saint Patrick’s Day. For those of you not getting sloshed, today’s post will be about branding. The name of a video game is important for so many reasons. An average consumer isn’t hugely educated on the product they see on the shelves, and the game’s title, along with case art, is often one of the most important factors for determining whether or not to purchase a game.. This is mostly because of the franchise nature of the industry (More on that here). Most video games aren’t stand alone new IPs. Whether it’s Final Fantasy, Call of Duty, or Street Fighter, games are strung out into long series, sometimes due to plot and gameplay elements, but often because it makes good marketing sense. After all, if you loved Final Fantasy VII more than anything else, you’re far more likely to pick up a game with the words Final Fantasy in front of it. Bioshock Infinite is the hotly anticipated follow up the the original Bioshock, and it’s coming out in a week. The thing about Bioshock Infinite, is there is no real reason it should have the word Bioshock in it. The game isn’t a direct followup like Bioshock 2; instead, it’s a completely new game with some similar gameplay elements. By not only adding the name Bioshock, but putting it first, the developers, or marketers, are specifically drawing a comparison with the original, which mainly acts as a selling point to consumers. Today, I want to look at this practise in the wider gaming industry, and how this tends to feed into the franchise obsession the industry has.

It’s like the first Bioshock, but with totally different characters, and in a completely new setting and with completely new themes!

The first time I ever noticed this phenomenon was back when I was much younger and I played several games in the Final Fantasy series, or so I thought. In actuality, those games had nothing to do with Final Fantasy, but, instead, were games that were given the label Final Fantasy so they would sell better in the west. These games were: Final Fantasy Mystic Quest, Final Fantasy Legend I and II, and Final Fantasy Adventure. The Legend games were part of the SaGa series, which was one of Square’s more obscure series, and Adventure was the first instalment in the incredibly prestigious Seiken Densetsu series, more commonly known as the Mana series in the west, and the precursor to the legendary Secret of Mana. However, Square didn’t think any of these games were marketable in North American without the name Final Fantasy attached to it. By adding the prestigious name, they both increased the brand recognition of Final Fantasy, and ensured that those games wouldn’t be passed on by fickle, uneducated shoppers. That being said, imagine if Square continued this trend. What would the world be like if we had to deal with Final Fantasy Adventure 6, or Final Fantasy Disney, instead of them taking a chance and marketing a new series.

Final Fantasy or not, this game is badass.

That exact thing has happened with the Disgaea series. The first Nippon Ichi (“N1”) game in the vein of Disgaea was La Pucelle Tactics, a charming and fun game, which would be instantly familiar to any fans of the Disgaea series. However, N1 hit it big with the later release of Disgaea, which became insanely popular. After Disgaea Hour of Darkness, N1 really experimented in the SRPG genre, releasing games such as Makai Kingdom (A personal favourite), and Phantom Brave. These games didn’t have nearly the huge impact that Disgaea had, and were far less successful. That may have been one of the big reasons behind the release of Disgaea 2. Even though it had little to do with Disgaea Hour of Darkness, it was considered a sequel. Then Disgaea 3 and 4 were released, each one having less to do with one another. I can’t help but feel that the only reason the Disgaea name is being used is because of brand recognition. Why release a game called Makai Wars (Long rumoured title), which doesn’t mean anything to anyone, when you can release another Disgaea game, which will instantly turn heads of fans. What’s interesting is that a new game has been announced called Disgaea Dimension 2, which will actually be a direct sequel to the original Disgaea, making it, for all intents and purposes, the real Disgaea 2.

For fans of Disgaea, Makai Kingdom is definitely worth tracking down.

Sales are what’s important in granting a game the title of a series, but sometimes, this backfires when companies release a subpar product and slap a franchise name on the game. Resident Evil is a series which is known for this. While it may be hard to remember, Resident Evil used to be very well respected in hardcore circles, and mostly ignored by the main stream. However, Capcom never had any problem in releasing a huge wave of spinoffs, the quality of most of them, being highly suspect. Resident Evil Survivor, Gaiden, Outbreak, Dead Aim, Umbrella Chronicles, Operation Racoon City, no one would consider these main Resident Evil games, and none of them really push the series in any meaningful way. Instead, most of these games are just reskinned versions of better games, simply with a  Resident Evil flavour. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, but it’s a good example of a developer whoring out a series, and I already talked about Final Fantasy.

Oh Dead Aim, you suck so much.

What’s hard is that new games, especially from smaller companies really need sales in order to stay alive. It doesn’t really matter if a new IP doesn’t make a profit to Capcom, but it could be devastating to a smaller company. That’s a reason we have Dark Souls. For legal reasons, From Software, couldn’t call it Demons’ Souls 2, but they insisted in keeping the word “Souls” in it. There are many reasons for this, but you can bet that getting games off the shelves was a major consideration. The original Bioshock was the spiritual successor to a game called System Shock 2, and, you’d better believe that the word “shock” in the name, was meant to evoke that game, the same way the themes and gameplay were. In the case of the original Bioshock, there’s no way that naming the game similarly to System Shock was intended to sell the game. It was purely an homage. However, Bioshock Infinite is clearly named in order to sell games, and, truthfully, it’s a little cheap considering how great a pedigree we’re dealing with.

Looking at old games like this, it really makes you respect how far we’ve come graphically.

There’s nothing wrong with branding games this way, especially since we, as gamers, want games to be successful, but there are some major downsides. Firstly with franchises come restrictions. When a gamer plays Bioshock Infinite, they will have instant expectations, which were put in place by the original Bioshock, and, to a lesser extent, the separately developed Bioshock 2. Is this fair? Shouldn’t Bioshock Infinite be able to stand on its own two feet? When Ninja Theory developed the most recent Devil May Cry game (“DmC”), they were hit by an insane backlash by fans. DmC is most certainly a good game (Although the internet will fight me tooth and nail on this), but it carries with it all of the baggage of the Devil May Cry series, meaning that everything it does has been meticulously scrutinized by fans, who will forever compare it to all of the other Devil May Cry games. In this same way, Bioshock Infinite will forever be measured by Bioshock, which, hopefully, won’t lead to the same kind of backlash.

I’m sorry, internet. I know you’ll hate me for this, but I thought DmC was a lot better than Metal Gear Rising Revengeance.

It’s so easy for gamers to get angry at developers for pushing their brands. After all, we want constant new games, based on unique ideas, but that’s just not financially viable.  But let’s be serious, for every 1 gamer who wants a completely unique Square Enix game, there are 50 who want a new Final Fantasy, 40 who want a Final Fantasy remake, 30 who want a new Dragon Quest or Kingdom Hearts, 20 who want a new Chrono game, and 5-10 who want a game from one of their more obscure franchises like the Mana series, Parasite Eve, SaGa, Drakengard (These guys must be happy with the announcement of 3), or the like. The fact of that matter is that franchises sell, and tagging a game as Bioshock, or Final Fantasy or something similar will sell way more games than a game simply called Infinite or Mystic Quest. Sure we can complain about “whoring”, but we need to remember that these companies need to make money. That doesn’t mean we can’t get upset when developers release inferior products and simply slap a title on it, but there has to be some sort of understanding between developers and gamers. In a perfect world, developers wouldn’t be so worried about releasing new IPs, but the fact of the matter is that gamers vote with their wallets, and gamers want a new Final Fantasy and a new Bioshock.

– Mistranslations for the Modern Gamer


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