A short rant about games, play and storytelling

Three weeks after new-to-agency-land Dan Hon joined Wieden + Kennedy we put him under no pressure whatsoever and thought it’d be a good idea for him to explain himself to everyone. Which he did by doing a show and tell about games, play and storytelling.

Three weeks after new-to-agency-land Dan Hon joined Wieden + Kennedy we put him under no pressure whatsoever and thought it’d be a good idea for him to explain himself to everyone. Which he did by doing a show and tell about games, play and storytelling.

Three weeks after new-to-agency-land Dan Hon joined W+K we put him under no pressure whatsoever and thought it'd be a good idea for him to explain himself to everyone. Which he did by doing a show and tell about games, play and storytelling. He only had to follow Eric Cruz so it's not like there was a quality bar or anything.

He promised that there'd be lots of swearing and that it would be entirely well-researched and hyperbole-free so we knew we'd be in for a good time. Here's Dan:

Three Simple Rules

Number one: Games and Play are Mainstream Culture now. 

Deal with it. Games are just a medium. Just like telly or film or print. They're not defined by a particular genre, but have a whole bunch of different genres. Shooty games. Racing games. Word games. Stuff like Farmville. They're all games. 

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Look, the BBC did some proper serious research and found that 100% of 6-10 year olds play games, just under 100% for 11-15 year olds, trailing off to about 20% for 51-60 year olds. 

The thing is, that proper serious research the BBC did was back in 2005. So now all the 6-10 year olds have grown up. 

The Nintendo DS was only a year old in 2005. The Nintendo Wii, that thing that your parents use to play tennis at Christmas, that wasn't even due out for another year. And that's before all of your Facebook games.

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Look, in March this year, there were nearly 90m people playing Farmville. That's a lot of people spending a lot of time and money clicking on their farms. 

Is this is a big deal?

Of course it's a big deal.

The Sims, one of the most successful "traditional videogame" franchises around has sold about 100m copies worldwide. But it did that over 10 years. Grand Theft Auto, a franchise which has been around for about 13 years has sold about 90m copies. For comparison, Grand Theft Horsey, also known as Red Dead Redemption, is the second in its franchise series and sold around 5m copies in 2 months. Halo, one of the standout successes of Microsoft's Xbox, has sold around 25m copies. That's about 2m more than Nintendogs, the well-known (still with me?) dog simulator. 

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Then we've got all the online games like World of Warcraft. 12 million subscribers, making Activision/Blizzard, at about $15.99 per subscriber, a bajillion dollars a year. Then you've got sites like Pogo.com, the EA-bought Playfish, Kongregate, Miniclip… but Facebook is where the action is. It's the giant elephant in the room that lots of people are staring and pointing at wondering when it's going to crush them.

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There's some good news, though. Zynga – the guys behind Farmville – and all the other new entrants, they don't have everything that easy either. Farmville's been losing players since March this year, around the time Facebook stopped developers from sending messages directly to people's Facebook accounts. 

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So. Recap time! Ignoring games is like ignoring TV, interactive or print. Your audience is already there. It's a rich and fertile medium with tonnes of creativity, bursting at the seams. The costs to entry are all over the map, from tens of millions of dollars to bedroom developers. You know. Just like video content. And what's happening to all of old media is happening to games too. Digital distribution, disintermediation, all of that stuff. 

OK. Number two: Gameification. If it were easy, everyone would be doing it. People are giving you points and badges for EVERYTHING. 

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 Thing is, though, it's more complicated than that. If a mediocre ad is a mediocre ad, then adding a mediocre game to it just means you've added a mediocre game. It doesn't make what we do anything better than a cargo cult that's slavishly copying what we think works: we need to really understand games, fun and play. Gameification is much more than adding points, badges and prizes. 

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It's not really that complicated. It's just that in the West we've got a bit of a hang up about play. It's probably something to do with protestantism or something. Play is just, well, playing. Noodling around. Seeing how little bits of culture fit together. That kind of thing. Layer goals on top of play, then you've got a game. Look: sitting with a big pile of Lego and putting it together in bits and pieces – that's playing. Saying to someone "who can build the tallest tower with just the red bricks?" – that's a game with goals. 

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So if we look at play like that, then fan fiction is playing with words, characters and settings.

Games are complicated. They're not a genre. They're a medium that's got genres. Look, here's a great history of games from Jon Radoff.


 Okay. Here's another game. It's a cheap-and-dirty version of romance. There's rules. There's a win/lose situation. There's cheats, tricks and hacks. Everyone's a player. The very survival of humanity is at stake. And it can even be fun.

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So what are we doing in advertising?

Well, first we copy what other people do. Crispin worked on the Burger King games. Or we make Flash games. 

Or, we do what we normally do, but in other places. 

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 Also known as pissing in other people's swimming pools. I mean, really? Burnout Paradise was a game that took years to make. It's been beautifully designed. And we want to put repurposed banner ads in it? Who wants that?

I don't think that's the right thing to do.

We should be doing better than that.

OK, recap time! Making good games is easy like making print or TV is easy. Which means it's not. It's actually really hard. But that's never stopped us from making great print or TV, has it? But: there's lots of great people out there dying to make awesome stuff. 

Last bit. Story.

Games tell stories, right? Like Halo? Which tells the story of a man with a gun shooting aliens in the face? I kid. There's Dante's Inferno, too. That's where a guy with various bladed weapons descends into hell to rescue the girl. You know, like the book. Or Uncharted 2, which doesn't want you to think about Indiana Jones. Or Professor Layton, which "leverages the shared culture around the concept of Pandora's box". Or World of Tolkien. 

So most of these games, they're linear. The story is exactly the same for everyone. Well, the narrative is. The plot is. The point isn't that all games need story – Tetris is the canonical example of a game that does perfectly well without one – but that game with stories can be good. And that good games with stories tell linear stories that are explored in non-linear ways. Also, I'll punch anyone who says that Grand Theft Auto has a better story than The Godfather. 

Storymaking, though – that's non-linear. That's more interactive. 

So, next.

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 Steve Jobs, eh?

Apparently he's a big deal. Lots of people have bought kit from him. He's even got a bookstore that sells eBooks.

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This isn't an eBook though. It's an app. Confused yet?

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Here's a magazine as an app, made by our friends at BERG.

Is Steve's magic tablet going to save us?

No. It's not.

Partly because if we start with things like this:

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We'll still end up with things like this:

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Which, OK, are interesting, but surely we can do better than that.

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It makes Wayne Rooney sad. It's the storytelling, stupid.

Oh, and finally? 

Alternate reality games, alternate reality experiences, all that stuff?

We're still doing it all wrong. There's still a lot of this stuff:

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 (viewing source code, "de-stegging" – which sounds like it could be a kinky sexual practice but really isn't, waiting, codebreaking, more codebreaking, esoteric knowledge, viewing more source code, solving stupid puzzles, buying UV torches, more waiting and having no idea what to do…)

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 (and even more "this is not a game" pretend reality stuff, lazy calls to action, helping a teenage girl, helping an attractive teenage girl, helping an attractive amnesiac teenage girl, "the order", treasure hunts, millions of blog entries and characters of bloghorrea, jumping through hoops and just using platforms because you can and because they're there)

Look, bad storytelling is just bad storytelling.

We're here to create strong, provocative relationships between great companies and their customers. Games and new ways of storytelling are a fantastic and incredibly exciting way of doing that.

Phew. That was long.

8 thoughts on “A short rant about games, play and storytelling”

  1. Super interesting. But i have to question something here regarding Dan’s intro with staggering numbers regarding gaming being mainstream etc.

    Simply put, 95% of people age 13-35 masturbate. That doesn’t mean they want a branded tissue.

    While I wholeheartedly share his view that we should do some seriously kick-ass awesomely awesome work apart from few anecdotal evidence including the famous BK game, most branded games have failed badly because if I have a-may-zing games out there developed with MASSIVE budgets, why the hell would I want a branded game??

    I tend to disagree with his assertion that games are a medium like print or TV. We can buy our time on these mediums in a ‘designated time/space’ to put our comms there and the equivalent of that in gaming is exactly the shitty banners or random product placement is is talking about.

    Gaming is a mainstream culture. We should learn from gaming practices and trends and aim to make ‘stuff’ that people care about and love to interact with like gaming but the leap to start making games as advertising is a step too far for me.

    ‘naff said

  2. great rant, i found one of the best uses of gaming by a brand i’ve seen so far is from Barley’s Bank with “58 Slate Street.” I played in all in one day, learnt a lot about bank, life and flipping burgers. I felt accomplished for 2 hours and I am 21. Fun times.

  3. Hmmm, good rant. Came across ‘The Curfew’ (http://www.thecurfewgame.com/) which seems to be doing a good job of exploring the same plot from many angles. Think there’s a future in these sorts of video based role games? It’d be kinda neat if we had more games that took influence from real world occurrences, beyond just mimicking the weather of course.

    Anyway, off the point. Interesting post.

  4. Hi Asi

    Thanks for the comment. And yes – while 95% of 13-35s masturbate and we can say that they probably don’t want branded tissue, that’s never stopped people from buying branded tap water…

    I think there’s a sweet spot. I don’t think that there’s much point getting into the triple A games category – there aren’t the budgets to produce, say, a game at the level of Halo Reach or Heavy Rain. But, there’s a really big opportunity at the smaller scale, for smaller games.

    And in terms of games as a medium – I’m speaking abstractly. I’m not advocating at all that we buy time in games and do shitty banners or random product placement. But in the same way that ad funded programming is taking off and brand funded movies are evolving, games will too.

  5. It does seem that everybody is into this kind of stuff lately. Don’t really understand it though, but thanks for trying to explain it.Appreciate you shedding light into this matter. Keep it up

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