Don’t act like this! The Curse of the Angry Bird
The confessions of a game designer and how his gamewise clients make his job harder. Angry Birds with helmets? Please….
I’ve got the best job in the world.
I talk to clients about problems they encounter in their field of expertise and then get to come up with ideas how a game or an app could solve this. I need to think out of the box only to neatly color between lines set by the client and the target audience.
Of course there are challenges and some prove to be more fun than others. Bookkeeping never made my fun list and managing a bunch of monkeys can be as much fun as it can be a hassle. Dealing with clients is always interesting but lately it seems this particular aspect of my work is developing its own kind of challenge.
It looks like our clients are becoming ‘gamewise’.
Not so long ago, whenever I met a new client I would give a small presentation on games, genres, platforms and show possibilities and examples of games. This way the client would feel a bit more at ease before jumping into the Great Big Unknown called (Serious) Game Design.
These days clients know what games are. They devour game after game on their smartphones or iPad (or at least their kids do). They read the special editions from Control Magazine and get informed by organisations like Syntens, TFI, the Dutch Game Garden or their own game savvy adolescent kids.
Great! Saves you a lot of presentations and explaining so you can get back to thinking outside the box and coloring between the lines. Right? No, not necessarily, I have recently discovered.
Two months ago I found myself at a pitch for a big assigment. I was sitting in a dimlit grey office in a large building from a big corporation. At the other side of the table sat a man somewhere in his fifties. Next to him was a younger woman who was in charge of the meeting. She had convinced upper management to invest in a Serious Game. The subject of the game, creating awareness, inform and change the behaviour of their employees to prevent accidents and reduce risk on the workfloor. These risks vary from handling large industrial machines, to chemicals, repetitive tasks and even stress. Oh, and the game needs to appeal to a broad audience as well, ranging from 18 to 55 years old.
I had just finished my short presentation on games and had shown our latest projects. Personally I am always quite proud of the fact that we always try to avoid developing a chocolate covered brocolli game (one where you hide the boring stuff by covering it up with sweet gimmicky things). We try to stay away from grabbing an existing format, let’s say Doodle Jump, add some bananas and then proclaim this is a game about eating healthy.
I am looking at the young woman on the other side of the table and I get the feeling I must have said something wrong.
“I want Angry Birds”, she tells me. Somewhat surprised I ask her if she wants a casual game like Angry Birds or if she actually wants Angry Birds.
“I want Angry Birds. I need someone who can replicate Angry Birds. That way, I know exactly what I am investing in and I know that it will be fun to play”.
My arguments on competing with the actual game itself and all the other clones fall on deaf ears. As do my attempts to convince her about the intellectual rights and that reverse engineering is not a 100% guarantee for success.
Finally I ask her: “What about the message you are trying to convey to your employees? How will you communicate quite a complex message through a game like Angry Birds?”
“Helmets”, she replies. “We will make the pigs wear helmets”.
I try to convince her that pigs with helmets will teach you as much about safe work environments as Angry Birds has tought us about life on the farm between pigs and birds. But it feels like she already made up her mind and a bit confused I leave the pitch.
This happened more than two months ago and I am still waiting for a yes or no from the client. But I can’t say I have got a good feeling about it.
My fear in this, is that the client will go with the studio that will say yes to the helmet game. In a time where the market is being flooded with game startup studios and assignments are harder to come by, I fear this will happen more and more often. Instead of choosing a solution that really targets and communicates with your audience, clients will pick a game they know, and add some chocolate or silly hats.
If we don’t convince our clients that a good Serious Game is more than using visuals that relay to your subject, we will end up with all sorts of rope cutting, pig shooting doodle jumpers. These games, I am afraid, will miss their goal as a Serious Game – to inform through entertainment, to teach by engagement, to make people understand by participation.
And in the not so distant future, that same client will state that Serious Games have proven uneffective and are a waste of money. It does not have to be that way. If you dare to actually communicate with your target audience, if you dare to invest in a made to measure solution, the results can be amazing.
I have seen players make Excel sheets to grasp the underlying system of our game. After playing it four times, they sent us an email stating that the game becomes boring after you know how the system works.
That, dear player, was the best compliment we have ever gotten. You spend 6 hours, playing a free game which goal it was to teach you how that system works.
The game by the way, I find quite boring myself. In all honesty, I don’t think I have ever finished it completely. But it is not about me. And dear client, it is not about you. You and me, we need to come up with ways to reach that target audience that has already played Cut The Rope, Ridiculous Fishing and that game about Pigs and Birds.