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Built to Last: Making your brand the first priority of development

Dots CEO Paul Murphy on why a brand-focused approach is critical for game designers

TwoDots upended a lot of what our players had come to expect from our original mobile game, Dots. We added new game features - crafted levels, new characters, new items, new obstacles. We took some other features - certain game modes - away. We changed the model to a more traditional F2P, and we shouldered some light criticism for doing so.

I honestly don't think any of those decisions on their own have had or will continue to have much of an impact on the success of the Dots franchise. Those are bullet points. Few people look back on a single gaming experience, competing in the mind with a hundred others, and fondly remember, "ahh, new play and monetization features."

As a developer, of all the assets you'll create for your game, your brand - the set of features, in-game and out, which uniquely distinguish your creation - is perhaps the only one with the potential to really endure.

That is, I think, a challenging thought to consider. On one level, simply because it seems to undervalue the painstaking work the personalities this line of work attracts tend to pour into everything we do. But "brand" feels like a concept that doesn't belong in our realm - it belongs to marketers and advertisers and PR folks. There's something about the term that seems to miss the entire point of being a creative artist. How can something so uninspired, mundane, and market-focused be the most resilient product of our design?

But a question like that misunderstands branding for what it really is. So let's entertain a more holistic definition for brand in video games, one that better serves what it really takes to make a franchise that lasts in this industry today. Your brand is the feeling that a player's mind latches onto when they engage with your product. It's what players are thinking about, consciously or not, when they aren't playing your game. And every other facet of design - from your team to the IP, from mechanics and controls to art style and sound, from concept and execution to marketing and licensing - is a piece that informs the greater whole of how gamers will identify with you and your product. The more you can group these tasks during development, approaching them as shared rather than individual goals, the more unified and effective a release and post-release strategy you can create.

"The moral here isn't that your brand needs to be part of your design early to succeed in an era of near limitless market diffusion... It's that brand and design are one in the same"

There are any number of examples we could use, but building a brand through development often comes down to the same core question: how can the work you're doing now be capitalized on later? Your game isn't ready yet - but is it ready enough to begin an outreach campaign? You may be struggling to get your game out on one device now, but what platforms might this experience thrive on a year or two down the road? You don't need to have the movie pitch drawn out or anything, but be mindful about what licensing opportunities your choice of story or characters or artwork offers. Are there other products - even other developers - that your brand might align with through cross-promotion?

Again, I realize how antithetical a brand-focused approach appears to the pure image of making games for the sake of games. But if anything, it's the least cynical game-making model. Because it recognizes intrinsically that players have an overwhelming number of choices with their time and money, that their tastes are fickle, that revenue will come and go. Building a brand is aspirational - it means finding some core emotional link to form a relationship around and prioritizing a sustainable, meaningful experience over time, even if it comes at the expense of short-term profit.

A game that dominates the App Store for five weeks, tapping every cent out of users that it can before trailing off, does nothing to develop a brand. Having players isn't good enough - you want an audience. The people who are willing to use and spend money on your product are a limited resource, and like any resource, there's an urge to exploit it until the well runs dry. But those with brands to maintain are invested in its conservation.

As I mentioned earlier, TwoDots was criticized for its use of gated content; we provide a limited set of lives at any given moment, and those lives take time to recharge, which you can skip with an in-app purchase. I think it's very easy to look at a feature like that and call it a simple, unoriginal monetization vehicle. Strictly speaking, that's not totally inaccurate.

But such a view misses so much of the purposeful design underlining that choice. Our designers didn't build a paywall in TwoDots with the hope that people would spend money each and every time they saw it. In fact, we put that obstacle in place specifically to encourage people put the game down from time to time. Integral to that design were more game-specific elements - the blend of strategy and luck, the atmospheric soundtrack, the xylophonic hum of linking together strings of dots, the simple color scheme... things your brain would linger on well after the experience.

One set of features to make players walk away from the game, another to make sure they'd want to come back. That's the kind of formula we believe you can only achieve when you approach development holistically, with one cohesive brand strategy, treating your game as more than just the combined product of a series of unrelated objectives and milestones.

The moral here isn't that your brand needs to be part of your design early to succeed in an era of near limitless market diffusion across game makers, platforms, and genres; that's news to no one. It's that brand and design are one in the same. Crafting an identity that speaks for your game and your studio - that your audience will remember over competing products and artists and hobbies - isn't just another part of the development process. It is the process.

Paul Murphy is the co-founder and CEO of Dots, a mobile gaming studio focused on the intersection of art and entertainment. Paul is also an advisor, investor, and board member for a number of startups.

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