A thought on celebrity

Jason Della Rocca added the following aside to one of his recent posts:

(Tangential aside: In an odd way, on a meta level this plays into my previous post on “celebrity”. Not knowing anything about [Steven Johnson’s ‘Ghost Map’], I bought it solely on the strength of the author and positive past experiences with his work. In the end, I enjoyed the book immensely. Would the same have happened if books simply had the name of publishers plastered on the front?)

I answered in a comment, the comment got eaten somehow, so I’m turning it into a blog post.

His question is an old question, and it is rhetorical and the expected answer is ‘no’. I don’t think my thought on the subject can be pushed so far that the answer becomes ‘yes’, but I hope it might nevertheless be interesting.

The names of both authors and publishers are brands, and these brands have a relationship to products. Both the brand itself and the relationship determine the product’s reputation – the level of trust that makes one buy the product without exhaustive research. The reputation compresses, or represents, information about the product.

In the case of ‘Ghost Map’, the relationship between brand and product is simple: Steven Johnson is the main creator of the book.

Another kind of brand-product relationship is ‘endorsed by’. If a person I trust says a certain product is great, I am likely to believe them, especially if I feel my values and interests are aligned with theirs. The internet has made it a lot easier to create a brand based on yourself as a human being with taste and integrity. If, say, Neil Gaiman recommends a product on his blog, I am more likely to take a look at it than when Dan Brown says he likes it. Dave Perry has understood this very well, as can be seen by his ‘David Perry Recommended’ program (which I find hilarious, in a good way, and intend to shamelessly copy at some point). The relationship between Tantor Media Penguin, the publisher of ‘Ghost Map’, and the book is much vaguer.

I know little about the art world, but I have noticed that it has become less uncommon that the curator of an exhibition is considered to have made a greater artistic contribution than the creators of the works he or she has selected (e.g. Mike Kelley’s ‘The Uncanny’ – although it’s perhaps not the best example as Kelley does actually produce art himself, even if there was none in that exhibition as I recall). The same applies of course to DJs, who are judged by how they select music.

Similarly, I am sure everyone can come up with cases where an association with a publisher is considered a sign of quality. For me, if music is published by certain small labels (e.g. Warp, Ninja Tune, G-Stone), I am more likely to listen to it. Similarly, I am much more likely to try a book published as part of Gollancz’s Fantasy Masterworks sub-label than J. Random Elf Saga, part XII.

Alright, branding 101 I am sure. The relationship between a brand and a product is affected by the amount of products that share that relationship. The chance that I will enjoy a random (ha ha) book published by Random House, one of the bigger book publishers, is very small – much smaller than with the abovementioned Gollancz sub-label, say.

And my point (finally!) is that, because of the mechanisms outlined above, if we lived in a world that put the names of the publisher on the cover of a book rather than the name of the author, it would make good business sense to fragment the publisher’s brand into smaller and smaller sub-labels (perhaps including the name of the editor at some point?). Which, in theory, could result in a situation where the brand-to-product ratio is about the same as today.

So I argue that the underlying princples remain the same no matter what we put on the cover of the book. The name of a person is probably the most efficient kind of brand. It doesn’t scale well, but I think no brand does, depending on the complexity of the product’s identity (i.e. brands scale better for toilet paper than for fiction).

Enough theorizing about subjects I don’t know anything about. What do you think?

Update: Josh Lee pointed out in the comments that the publisher of ‘Ghost Map’ is Penguin. I should take a closer look which Amazon product I’m looking at next time.

Comments 7

  1. Pag wrote:

    I think adding the name of the key creators on the box of games would help the industry _a lot_, and it would be pretty much free to booth. With the name of the people creating the game, a buyer can recognize the creators he likes and buy based on that. If I like Tim Schafer, it doesn’t matter that I don’t what a Psychonaut is, I’ll buy the game because I know it’ll be good based on its creator.

    The game industry is like the American comic book industry used to be: all emphasis on external brand and no focus on the creators. The same thing is happening in both media: over-emphasis on franchises rather than creative things. It’s no coincidence that the two media that reuse their franchise a lot (how many years of super-man do we really need? how many years of Final Fantasy?) are the ones only using their franchises as brands. Since creators aren’t brands, we can’t use their name to sell games so we have to rely on franchises instead. A Shame.

    Some complain that putting the designer’s name on the box would be unfair to the rest of the team. That’s true in a sense, but besides the point. This is about branding, not ego. Nobody’s name is on the box, it’s an improvement if one or a few people have their name on the box, even if not everyone. Spielberg’s name is on advertisements even though hundreds of people work on his movie. The editor of the Harry Potter books isn’t named on the cover, yet his role is critical to the quality of the book. Nobody complains about that in other media, so why are people so uppity about it in games? (Putting the name of studios doesn’t really work, because people move around too much and one studio can have many teams of varying quality)

    Posted 08 Aug 2007 at 18:40
  2. Jurie Horneman wrote:

    You raise some interesting points. I should perhaps add that my blog post was not meant to indicate that I am against putting the creators’ names on the box instead of the publisher’s. I am all for giving people proper credit.

    However, I disagree with your last arguments. Yes, people move around much, but they do that within studios as well between them. It is not uncommon to disassemble and reform teams per project. And the composition of a team has a much larger effect on the quality of a game than it does in film. Generally speaking, you need to have a core group of people, typically leads, together.

    (Rock music may be a better model than film: you have a small group of people who play well together, even if one of them is perhaps a bit more prominent. Of course one wonders if the 50 or so additional people who work on a game map well to sound engineers, session musicians, orchestras for hire…)

    Given this, if you just put the designer’s name on the box, aside from issues of fairness and ego (which can lead to disgruntlement), you have to wonder if that brand is meaningful. Is it accurate to say you will like game B from Designer X because you liked game A she was designer on – even if the team is completely different? How many people who like God of War also like All Points Bulletin even though both games were designed by David Jaffe?

    Posted 08 Aug 2007 at 19:50
  3. Pag wrote:

    I think it’s fair to promote the name of a few key members of the team and not just the designer, say all of the leads (design, art and code). Beyond that, I think you’d start to dilute the power of the brands. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to be able to promote everybody in the teams I’ve worked with, but realistically you can’t expect the public to remember that many people. You need few names for them to be remembered.

    Focusing on the studio name isn’t bad, but I think it’s weaker than focusing on actual people for two reasons. First is that large studios might have many teams working at the same time (I’m a designer at a studio with at least 6 projects being developed right now) and quality may vary from team to team. Studios are getting large enough that they’re like putting the name of the publisher on the box, really. For smaller outfits, focusing on the the studio rather than the people might make more sense.

    The second reason is that people care more about other people than about companies, that’s human nature. I care more about John Carmack than about iD Software and I’m sure I’m not alone. If Peter Molyneux speaks, I listen — I don’t care nearly as much about official, but anonymous, news coming from Lionhead. It seems to me that associating a game with a person rather than a company is more powerful for this reason.

    And honestly, I’m not sure about disgruntlement. Are other programmers at iD really disgruntled because John Carmack is more famous than they are? Maybe a bit, but I think it would be compensated by the feeling of working with a genuine programming superstar. I guess it would depend on said superstar’s attitude…

    Posted 08 Aug 2007 at 21:38
  4. Greg C. wrote:

    Look, current industry practices did not arise because they were “best branding practice” for giving the most effective and useful information for customers.

    Current industry practice arose precisely because of a clear business desire on the part of publishers to associate product in the consumer’s mind with THE PUBLISHER, and not with anyone else they might have to pay more money to if they became famous.

    The practice was established initially by the major boardgame publishers of the 19th and early 20th centuries–only in the (more competitive) German boardgame market, and in recent years, has it become common to provide internal (and sometimes cover) credit to creators.

    The same practice was carried into digital games, and for the smae obvious commercial reasons–and because there was, back in the day, not the slightest glimmer of a culture of people interested in the actual creators of the product, they could get away with it.

    The issue here isn’t, to my mind, a matter of branding, or even of giving consumers more and better information on which to make an informed decision, although that’s a good thing, to be sure: The issue is fundamentally a moral one. Creators deserve credit for the work they create. The people who put up the money deserve money–which they get, to be sure. The very least they can do is let people know who made the damn thing.

    Providing superior credit would, I believe, have any number of positive effects on the field. It would allow creators of popular product to more reliably be able to obtain funding for the next; it would make developers more aware of the importance of doing good work because that work will be more linked in the public mind with their own efforts. And it would support the project of attempting to establish games, in both popular conception and reality, as a form of art.

    As for the branding argument–someday, I expect to purchase a copy of Spore. I will be doing do -despite- the EA label on the package, and -because- Will Wright had something to do with it.

    Posted 09 Aug 2007 at 2:52
  5. joshlee wrote:

    Tantor Media published the audiobook edition of Ghost Map. The publisher of the book itself was Penguin, under its Riverhead imprint. It might be hard to say whether a book by a large publisher like Penguin will be any good, but Riverhead has a more focused portfolio and a good reputation. Still, it’s Johnson’s name that you see in large type on the cover, not Riverhead’s, and it’s not just because he’s a recognizable brand; it’s because he wrote the book.

    The tricky thing about putting individual names on games is that you’re not just attaching a brand to the title, but you’re essentially declaring one person to be the game’s author, and I’m not sure that we as an industry are quite ready to make that statement. I feel confident that Steven Johnson would still be a good writer if he worked with an editor from Random House rather than Penguin. But would the Beatles have been the same band without George Martin? Where would Missy Elliot be without Timbaland? Would the Metal Gear Solid games be the same if Kojima worked with Nintendo SPD3 instead of his own team within Konami? How much do the people behind the scenes count?

    Anyway, FWIW, Civ 4’s full title is “Sid Meier’s Civilization IV,” so there already are some designer-authors who are brands. Maybe I’m wrong, and we *are* ready for authorial credit in games.

    Posted 09 Aug 2007 at 3:24
  6. Jurie Horneman wrote:

    Greg, I totally agree with you on the moral aspect of giving proper credit: I am still waiting to see if I will be credited for the work I did at Rockstar Games on an as yet unreleased game. But wouldn’t you say there’s a difference between branding (name on the cover) and credits (name somewhere else)?

    “Current industry practice arose precisely because of a clear business desire on the part of publishers to associate product in the consumer’s mind with THE PUBLISHER, and not with anyone else they might have to pay more money to if they became famous.”

    I agree. That’s the typical branding strategy, and similar things have happened in many other media. Talking only about the cover, I can understand why a publisher would want to associate their own brand with their products instead of the name of one particular team member: it lowers certain risks. Of course, long term it increases the risk that your most talented people walk out (or don’t walk in). But it is very difficult to reconcile business thinking and long-term creative thinking.

    Another question is how many people have as strong an impact on the games they work on as Will Wright? Or is that a chicken and egg question? Would putting the name of the designer on the cover change the games that are made? This is related to the point Josh raised.

    I think that a company that does not put a designer’s name on the box is probably also the kind of company that wouldn’t let (through company structure, job definitions, etc.) a designer do something worthy of putting their name on the box.

    A more realistic model for distributing ‘cover’ credit may be film, where a director is typically given too much credit for the final result, but certain other key people are mentioned in the opening credits and in illegible print on the poster. It’s not fair, but at least it’s better than having just one person mentioned, or none at all.

    Posted 09 Aug 2007 at 11:02
  7. Pag wrote:

    Is there any reason why we couldn’t put some key team members’ names (i.e. producer, designer, lead programmer and lead artist) in the main menu of games? Kinda like a movie’s opening credits. Is there some sort of contractual obligation not to do that? If you show the credits in the main menu, you solve a part of this credits issue without having to interefere with marketing.

    Posted 09 Aug 2007 at 18:04