informa
/
Business
Featured Blog

Indie Artist Struggles With Branding So You Don't Have To

When a single indie artist is responsible for every aspect of a game's visuals, major areas can be overlooked. For this small team, one such area has been branding. If you're in a similar boat, this article may save indies precious time they don't have.

      

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


For those of you new to Dinofarm, we are a very small development team responsible for developing the quirky iOS Rogue-like100 Rogues back in 2010, and most recently our first self-published title, the innovative tactics game Auro. When I say "very small," I mean literally two to four people at any given time. My job title is Lead Artist, but a more accurate description would be "One-Man Art Department."

Animation, character design, graphic design, industrial design and illustration are all separate, equally demanding disciplines. As the team's only artist, I am forced to take on all of these and more, as the task requires. Not only is it impossible to do all of these things well or even competently, but in the chaos of indie development, some entire disciplines get overlooked altogether.  For us, one such discipline has been Branding.

When we started development in 2011, I didn't even know what branding was; nor did I have time to learn. That, combined with making Auro's assets over a four-year-long development cycle, resulted in our brand being somewhat... all-over-the-placeto say the least.

Recently, our lead designer began work on an exciting new expansion for Auro, for which there is a live Kickstarter Campaign right now. That expansion, coupled with our upcoming PC release, presented me with an opportunity.  I decided it was time to begin implementing a complete rebranding of Auro from the ground up.

If you are another developer like us whose only resources are time and elbow grease, trust me: you can't afford to make the blunders I did. If you're an animator saddled against your will with the task of branding, or an illustrator with no graphic design background tasked on logo detail, hopefully this article will save you some precious opportunity cost, and maybe some sanity as well.

What is a brand?

If you asked me what a brand was in 2011, I might have answered with something like, "It's the logo, right?" or perhaps, "It's the name of the product, right?" As it turns out, it's not that simple. Being totally out of my depth, I looked around for useful articles on the subject.

A while back, columnist Jerry McLaughlin wrote a series of short articles about the history, details, and importance of branding. He paraphrased:

"Put simply, your 'brand' is what your prospect thinks of when he or she hears your brand name.  It’s everything the public thinks it knows about your name brand offering—both factual (e.g. It comes in a robin’s-egg-blue box), and emotional (e.g. It’s romantic).  Your brand name exists objectively; people can see it.  It’s fixed.  But your brand exists only in someone’s mind."

The first major distinction brought to my attention was the difference between "brand name,"

and the "brand," which can be further summed up by "Mad Men"-era businessman David Ogilvy, who is commonly known as the Father of Advertising. He says a brand is:

        "the intangible sum of a product’s attributes.”

For me, the big takeaway was the word "intangible." A brand is the part of the product that "speaks to you." It's the part that becomes a component of your identity. The brand is not the cola you're drinking, it's the experience you come to expect in regards to the product. According to this ad campaign, what you're buying is happiness, not corn syrup.

Why does branding matter?

The "intangible" power of a good brand can be formidable. Sometimes, a brand can be even more important than the product itself. A popular example that comes to mind is what Steve Jobs did for Apple in the late 1990s. After being fired from Apple in the 80s, the company lost its way and was on the verge of collapse. Jobs was asked back to restructure the company as interim CEO. I'm sure anyone my age remembers the famous ad campaign.

albert-einstein-think-different-apple-advertising-2

As Steve Jobs elaborates in this internal meeting with Apple, if Apple keeps on going punch for punch with Microsoft on bits and bytes and megahertz, they will lose every time.  Instead, he played a different game. With Apple, you're not being sold a computer. Rather, you're being sold the promise of your own genius, innovation, and creativity coming to fruition. Remember the commercial?

       "People who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do."

Jobs' "Think Different" campaign literally brought Apple back to profitability inside of 3 years (well, that and a $150 million life raft from Microsoft). That's the power of branding.

Another reason branding is so important is simply for the sake of clarity. A confusing product line can cripple you. Many Hollywood films have tanked due to the wrong marketing angle or title.

Apple's comeback wasn't just a new slogan. During Steve Jobs' absence, the nomenclature and product line of Apple was a mess. Consumers were confused. They didn't know what to buy or how to discern one model from another. A couple of years into Jobs' second tenure, the slate was wiped clean. Check out the difference.

 cue Jeff Goldblum voice over

The new "i" nomenclature was not only simpler and easier to understand, but it reinforced, from the "think different" campaign,  the emphasis on the computer as an extension of the individual.

I know there are many mixed and strong opinions about Apple products, but no matter if you're on team Apple or team PC, or whether you love or hate the divisive Steve Jobs, one thing is undeniable: homeboy knew how to brand.

Those three big, blue, goofy looking computers were certainly not confusing anybody.  If you saw one of those in a store, at the very least, you raised an eyebrow. You might think "Oh, how cool. What's that all about?" or "Oh my GOD, is that a computer or a baby toy?!" Either way, you'd know it was an Apple.

Why Auro needs a rebrand

When you look at your own work from four years ago, you can usually see its age more than anyone else. Needless to say, I have my own personal reasons for wanting to revisit a lot of Auro's visuals. However, Auro's branding issues go deeper than an out-of-date sprite here or there.

Besides the obvious fact that we never really had a coherent branding strategy to begin with, when we began conceptualizing the game, we were already serving multiple masters in terms of what we wanted to accomplish. That's always a bad start.

2011 concepts

While Auro's gameplay was barely designed back then, we did know it was going to be a "boiled down" dungeon- crawling Rogue-like with an emphasis on tactics.

When I came in to establish a visual style, I wanted to theme the game to invoke "arty," Yoshitaka Amano-esque, classy Japanese fantasy art(with abysmal success).

The images above simply don't contain any information about what kind of game Auro is. They're too thematic, and not specific enough. It could be a point-click adventure game, a JRPG, or maybe even a cartoon show. Worse, the title, Auro: The Golden Prince, crosses into downright confusing territory. What's an Auro?

I learned the hard way that, when naming a video game specifically, it's important to convey mechanics first, theme second. (Except in the case of licensed titles. The gameplay doesn't matter at all if you get to play as Batman).  Especially in this ultra-dense market with hundreds of new games per day, the concept needs to enter the user's head like a bullet. What's Flappy Bird? Well, you're a bird, and you're flapping.

This lack of specifics or indication of mechanics were the ill-conceived beginnings that generated years of content that we had to make sense of after the fact. This resulted in a bit of a visual hodge-podge that I now have to clean up.

Back to basics

By 2013, we actually had the core of Auro's gameplay designed.The premise is simple: bump monsters into the water for points. Use tactical magic spells to achieve crazy chain reactions and emergent depth. With Auro, the devil is in the details, and in reality it's a very deep, serious strategy game. However, the "bump the monsters and make them go splash" concept is easy to grasp, so we started thinking along those lines.

Once you get the hang of it!
Once you get the hang of it!

This led to our first attempt at cleaning up our brand back in 2014. We changed the subtitle, The Golden Prince, to A Monster-Bumping Adventure. However, since we were scrambling to get the game out the door, this was sort of a stop-gap. It wasn't until recently that I have been able to give more of my attention to the greater overhaul.

Logo

As you've seen from the image at the top of this article, I designed three logos for Auro over the course of three years. I'm sure it's obvious that I am not a graphic designer, not by any stretch, though since I had no choice but to fall on my face again and again, I picked up a thing or two by sheer force.

If you can afford a graphic designer, hire one. If you can't, at least pay for a consultation. If you can't do that, hit up a graphic design subreddit or forum for feedback. Whatever you do, don't just wing it, which is what I did. Each version of the logo represented at least a hundred hours of work, the nitty gritty of said work you can read about here if you'd like.

No matter which way you slice it, rendering and painting take time. If you have a misguided composition, bad anatomy, or in the case of the first two logos, awful graphic design, you will waste labor--and lots of it--in the rendering phase.

If it's not apparent, you might ask what makes those first logos so bad. Well, I'll do my best to explain. In the interest of time, let's say that every criticism I level against the 2014 logo can be applied tenfold to the 2012 logo.

Speak to me: Logos need to not only be clear and legible, but ideally they should also contain free information. In other words, it has to tell me something about what I will be experiencing. The 2014 logo, while not devoid of information, doesn't really say anything to me about the experience I'm about to have.

So, when people see this logo:

auro logo example

what comes to mind? All we really have to go on is the word "Auro" and that hexagonal icon. One could interpret this many ways, perhaps into some kind of abstract European match-three game?

Auro!

One thing is for sure, we certainly don't get much in the way of a tactical fantasy-themed dungeon crawler about bumping monsters into the water.

The original concept was not without some reasoning. The "synergy icon," as we've come to call it, was conceived to illustrate something about Auro's world.

old icon

In Auro, you do combine ice, fire and wind themed spells, you do traverse a hexagonal playfield, and the swirling lines do suggest tactics and movement. That said, you could also take this symbol to mean any other number of things due to the lack of specifics. Then it hit me.

SPLOOSH

This new icon is an improvement in many ways, but the most noticeable is the obvious addition of the splashes on either side. This new icon does the same job as the last, but it adds just enough specificity to do a very important job: to tell a story.

new icon

Now, in this new graphic, the original suggestions of  tactics, movement, and hexes convey the means by which the goal is achieved. The splash and overall "downward," shape of the icon then suggests the actual win condition/goal.

Further, it suggests a royal seal, which gives a little more insight into the theming and the world.

So, when you see the old logo, the information you get is tactics on hexes, and maybe mixing.

old logo speak

Latest Jobs

Sucker Punch Productions

Bellevue, Washington
08.27.21
Combat Designer

Xbox Graphics

Redmond, Washington
08.27.21
Senior Software Engineer: GPU Compilers

Insomniac Games

Burbank, California
08.27.21
Systems Designer

Deep Silver Volition

Champaign, Illinois
08.27.21
Senior Environment Artist
More Jobs   

CONNECT WITH US

Register for a
Subscribe to
Follow us

Game Developer Account

Game Developer Newsletter

@gamedevdotcom

Register for a

Game Developer Account

Gain full access to resources (events, white paper, webinars, reports, etc)
Single sign-on to all Informa products

Register
Subscribe to

Game Developer Newsletter

Get daily Game Developer top stories every morning straight into your inbox

Subscribe
Follow us

@gamedevdotcom

Follow us @gamedevdotcom to stay up-to-date with the latest news & insider information about events & more