Is making a successful game an art or a science?
In a recent article the Ad Contrarian philosophically asked ‘is advertising art or science?‘. It highlights that advertising has both sides, which has similarities with the game world and reminded me of something I’d noticed.
On my Twitter timeline I used to see games people talk mainly about the craft of games: what makes a great character, story arcs, how well they’re written and the like.
Advertising folk on the other hand were more likely to talk about the business of advertising, ROI, click-through rates and so on. As someone who straddles the divide I’d see it and think the advertising people should loosen up a bit – enjoy themselves a bit more.
At some point last year it changed.
The ad world started focusing on storytelling. It appeared to be what advertising had always been about and analysis, stats and number crunching wasn’t part of their narrative any more.
But, in the games world, people who had previously been interested in storytelling were now firing out Tweets with acronyms like ROI, LTV, DAU and ARPU. OMG, the business and data was the only thing that seemed to matter.
Why did it happen? Candydragoncrushville happened, and the thought that a great game was made from a mix of skill, fun, experience, crushed arcade cabinets, luck in unknown quantities, with a dash of indefinable something thrown in, was replaced with a belief in the science and application of data and analysis.
Companies like King and GungHo had sucked up all game data, analysed human thoughts by plugging them into brain machines and worked out a formula for predicting what you like and don’t like, the precise moment you’re going to like or not like it and when you’re going to buy stuff (whether you like it or not).
Above: Are games like GungHo’s Puzzle & Dragon’s following a solely scientific route to success?
Success that was previously considered luck now felt calculable. That’s seductive. Like being told there’s a way to predict the winner of the next horserace, or every horserace, if you could only get your hands on the formula or Gray’s 1950-2000 Sports Almanac.
Above: Back To The Future’s guarantee of success
Everyone wants to believe that success is predictable and so for a period the promise of the new science becomes the most important thing. And novice practitioners, with an unerring confidence in something so new become the most important voice in the room.
However, the new practitioners have a caveat and it’s similar to caveats in advertising. Despite all the data and analytics, statistical folk end their presentations by explaining that, “of course, the creative has to be great”. Similarly, great game projections will only be met “if the game is great”.
They’re not saying the science stands up on it’s own, like the Ad Contrarian they’re saying that successful games need the art and the science to work. But at the wish for it to be predictable, and the want for formulaic success can often mean that the art is often given too little weight in the balance.
The Ad Contrarian’s conclusion is that, unlike other sciences, advertising’s science hasn’t really made advertising better or more effective.
I agree, but that’s not to say that the thinking and science hasn’t improved, it just doesn’t necessarily make it more effective in what are competitive environments. It’s formulaic nature means it can be learned, copied and cloned and everyone gets better and no one gets ahead.
So all things being equal, is the differentiator the unquantifiable, unpredictable magic that comes from the ‘art’ bit? And if that is true, is the art of advertising and games the most important factor?
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