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Of Monkeys and Shiny Things

When there are tough choices to make, a rule of thumb is always great to fall back on. I want to share with you one that I have used for many years and it has never steered me wrong.

Armando Marini, Blogger

June 17, 2009

6 Min Read

For years, my game development choices have been driven by a simple four word rule of thumb of my own making:

“Monkeys like shiny things”

I’ve used this rule of thumb for the better part of my entire career and it has never failed me.  It tends to generated quite a lot of controversy so I expect it to do the same here.  None the less, I feel it’s a great tool for decision making at all levels of game development, so it’s worth stepping through the reasoning behind it.

I grew up in the heartland of the Canadian automotive industry.  I was never too far from a friend or family member who worked for one of the big three.  Early on in my childhood, discussions about the auto industry and the competition from Europe and Japan were as common, if not more so, than discussions about politics and sports. 

I heard these discussions in several Italian dialects, Greek, Quebecois French, and a smattering of Eastern European languages all punctuating the broken English that formed the cohesive body that allowed people to communicate their ideas to each other.  For the record, where I grew up a minority was not someone who had a different colour of skin .  A minority was someone whose family had settled in Canada prior to the sixties, unless you were a native.  Having parents and grandparents who were Canadian, well that was just weird.

In the seventies and eighties, it was very apparent to us what drove the American auto industry.  It was the superficial elements of a car.  That Trans Am screaming chicken hood decal is campy now, but at the time it was sweet!  The complete irrationality behind superficial appeal seemed to be something that caused many to discount its importance.  None the less, desireability in all its subjective and contextual glory, moved a lot of cars.

Then, one day sitting around the table with in-laws, my father in-law mentioned an initiative that was happening at his GM plant.  The plant had an issue with tool theft.  Their best efforts in security simply could not curb the disappearance of tools.  Then something made a dramatic impact.  They switched from chrome tools to flat black ones.  The tools were ugly, simply put, and the theft of these tools was almost nonexistent.

Let me emphasize this.  Sleek chrome tools = Stolen tools.  Ugly flat black tools = secure tools.  These were the same tools with the exception of the color.

At the time, I was in University and happened to be studying human evolution.  I was exposed to some interesting behaviour from primates, especially those living in close proximity to humans.  In a very literal sense, the monkeys were attracted to shiny objects in and around human beings.  They had no rational need for these items, but they were inexplicably drawn to them.  Indeed, they even attributed great value to these items exibiting protectionist behaviour.

This confluence of information caused me to draw a conclusion of basic human desires.  (By the way, I’m not a scientist so I’m perfectly happy to make inferences.  If you feel the need to explore my conclusion in a scientific manner, give'r).  So in a stereotypical sense, we humans are monkeys.  Like our primate cousins we have an irrational attraction to items that are superficially appealing.  Ergo, monkeys like shiny things.

Who amongst you have purchased a game based on the graphical prowess of screen shots?  Even after literally decades of photo-shopped images and nonrepresentational assets, the buying public is still driven by box shots and covers.  Even the hardcore gamers are susceptible.  I still read with great frequency posts along the lines of “That looks awesome, I’m so getting this!!”  The Wii audience operates at this level more so than the PS3 and Xbox 360 group.  None the less, something that looks appealing draws a great deal of attention.

Take for instance the behemoth that is EA Sports?  What is the great motivation behind buying the new release of Madden or FIFA?  Why is a previous year’s version valueless once the new version is out?  Actually, why is it valueless once the real life season is over?  Let’s face it, for the most part the most important difference year on year are the roster changes, not the gameplay. 

I’ll put on my Captain Obvious hat for a moment and state that those roster updates make the new release new, and the old release old.  In this context, old is not shiny.  It doesn’t matter how much fun the game is or what great features it may have.  Once the season is over and done with, its old news.

Why are there games based on current films?  Because that’s what’s hot.  Big budget movies are shiny.  The industry is now slowly realizing that they can make a good game with a movie tie in and spin it into something more valuable but it’s been a long road.  Games as movie tie-ins are almost synonymous with poor quality, but they make them and sell them none the less.  Something that is hot is something that the public perceives to be desirable at the time.  If that item is feeding off the interest of the buying public, then it continues to be hot until it ceases to be of interest.  This is a powerful motivator that can overwhelm rationality.

Sega’s Iron Man is a great example.  Its hook, that element that everyone with the word “producer” appended to their title is constantly pecking at you to find, was that it was based on Iron Man the movie.  That’s it!  Don’t believe for a moment that the buying public cared for anything more than that.  To the public, press releases read like this “Blah blah blah Iron Man the game, blah blah, Iron Man the movie, blah blah blah, to be released...”  That game sold a boat load of copies.

Now, I am not in any way advocating the creation of superficial games devoid of earnest, well crafted content.  I am putting faith in you, the reader, to be a stand up professional game developer and craft a proper piece of work.  As with anything superficial, if you do not support the promise with quality and depth, then it will not hold its value in the eyes of the public.  Actually, what you will do is break the promise to the player, which leads to bad mojo.  Again, look back at the US auto industry or the reputation of movie tie- ins.

So how is this rule of thumb applied?  It’s pretty simple, when a choice needs to be made, always go with the item that has the most “shiny appeal” to it.  It’s a completely irrational choice but it will make complete sense.  In fact, the more you view the world in the context of this rule of thumb, the more obvious the choices become.

I know, this rule of thumb does not frame the audience in the best way possible.  Rules of thumb aren't meant to be philosophical positions or a basis on which to construct one's outlook on the world.  This one rule is simply a way to help you pick between dull option A or bright and shiny option B.

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