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Games like the Twiggy Game nauseatingly demonstrate how low standards fall when "the brand is all," as it is in mass market boardgaming in the US. Is videogaming heading down the same path?

Greg Costikyan, Blogger

April 28, 2009

6 Min Read

Twiggy Game was published in 1967. If you don't know who Twiggy was, she was a extremely famous model in the 1960s, remarkable for both slenderness and flat-chestedness, representative of the Mod look, and occasional participant in Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In.

For what godforsaken reason am I discussing Twiggy Game today? To make a point: the danger of lack of culture.

What do I mean by "lack of culture?" Just this: with novels, cinema, music and every other form of art, we have long-standing traditions of criticism, analysis, reviews, and discussion. People know something of the history of the forms in which they are interested, something of the process of creation, and over time develop individual aesthetics, ideas by which they judge the merits, or lack thereof, of a particular product.

In the United States in the 1960s, no journal of which I am aware, except perhaps for some obscure fanzines (like the original Strategy & Tactics), ever reviewed games. With the exception of a handful of passionate game players and designers, like Sid Sackson, no one had anything like an aesthetic of games; and the publishers thereof believed themselves to be in the packaged goods toy industry.

The idea of launching a novel game that was meritorious because of the nature of its gameplay, was utterly foreign to all game publishers, except perhaps for the short-lived 3M Games line. Indeed, as the then-head of Milton Bradley, James J. Shea, makes clear in his history of the firm (It's All in the Game), the notion that gameplay mattered was viewed as a quaint concern that might have made sense in the halcyon days of Milton Bradley himself, or the era of George Parker, but had no role in the modern world of conglomerate business.

If the audience has no aesthetic, no basis on which to judge the intrinsic worth of a work, on what basis do they make purchasing decisions? There are only two ways to reach them, in fact. One is by marketing "old favorites," games with brand recognition because of their long history and exposure to the market. The other is by exploiting a licensed brand. Hence the Twiggy Game. Hence the Welcome Back, Kotter game. Hence thousands of other instantly-forgettable pieces of licensed drivel.

The same dynamic continues in today's mass-market American boardgame market. Though there are serious game aesthetes, no major media covers boardgames with any consistency, and those who prize and study boardgames are a minor elite with little exposure to a larger audience; hence, the existence of the hobby boardgame market, that sells (typically) in the thousands of units, rather than the hundreds of thousands typical of the mass boardgame market.

This is at least an improvement over the 1960s, but the contrast with Germany, say is stark. In Germany, there is what you might call a national boardgame culture, with major publications reviewing new games, a highly competitive set of publishers, and designers who are minor celebrities. Consequently, many, perhaps most, of the best new boardgames are published out of Germany, and the American market is treated to the same old branded crap.

It's not a phenomenon that is restricted to boardgames, either. Consider the modern mobile game market. In most markets, 90+% of mobile games are sold off of the operator's deck. In other words, you find whatever menu on your phone that lets you browse downloadable games, and what you see is a list of games that the operator will provide to you, under contract from the publishers of these games.

In many cases, the only information you have to base a purchase decision on is the title of the game, along with the category in which the operator has put it ("action" or "puzzle" or whatever). In some cases, you may be able to view a short bit of text, and an image.

While there are a handful of Internet sites that offer reviews of mobile games, probably 99% of mobile game purchasers are unaware of them. There is no culture of mobile games, nor any effort by any part of the value chain to foster one. Consequently, we see the same dynamic play out: All that matters is branding. Tetris and Space Invaders sell well here, just as Monopoly and Clue do in the boardgame market.

Games based on media licenses are common. So are games that tie in to recently-released console games; Gameloft (like Ubisoft, controlled by the Guillemot brothers) has made a business of essentially adapting new Ubisoft games for mobile phones. Given the limited capabilities of J2ME and BREW, these bear only the most glancing relationship to the console games on which they are supposedly based, but the tie to a heavily promoted "real" game is sufficient to create a market for the mobile version.

Many gamers who have explored mobile games have come away with the opinion that they all suck. With rare exceptions, this is true. The market has no aesthetic of gameplay; branding is all that matters; why should the publishers of mobile games care?

You see the same dynamic in slot machines, where old TV licenses are very powerful. And yes, you see it in videogames as well.

We do, at least, have something of a videogame culture; major media do pay attention to them, and there are innumerable sites devoted to them. And gamers passionately debate the merits of the games they play. And yet, those discussions are curiously uncultured, too; the average gamer's ignorance of the history of the form, of the contributions of different creators, of the evolution of genres, is staggering. Games suck or rock; no nuance here. And gamers have been trained to expect and reward spectacle over originality; the number of commercially viable genres continues to decline over time.

And franchises -- number VI in a series -- along with drivel licensed from other media predominate. EA likes to portray itself as bravely fighting against the tide by purposefully fostering a handful of "original IP" titles each year -- but of course, these games slot into the same genre categories they know how to sell. The IP may be original, but the gameplay is not.

And just as consolidation of the American boardgame industry (which is largely controlled by a single firm -- Hasbro) has bred a braindead market, in contrast to the more competitive German one, so the continuing consolidation of videogame publishing into a handful of international conglomerates merely hastens the trend away from gameplay aesthetics and toward branding.

The Twiggy Game is a charming cultural object from a bygone era; it's also a stark representation of what went wrong with boardgames, and a stark warning for what can go wrong with games as a whole -- at least, if we fail to inculcate, in ourselves and in others who love games, an aesthetic that prizes something beyond the brand.

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Greg Costikyan


Greg Costikyan has designed more than 30 commercially published board, role playing, computer, online, social, and mobile games, including five Origins Awards winners (ludography at www.costik.com/ludograf.html); is an inductee into the Adventure Gaming Hall of Fame; and is the recipient of the GDC Maverick Award for his tireless promotion of independent games. At present, he is a freelance game designer, and also runs Play This Thing!, a review site for indie games. He is also the author of numerous articles on games, game design, game industry business issues, and of four published science fiction novels.

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