Ethical Gaming The Game Industry 16 Comments

Bioshock Infinite is for Frat Boys So I Guess It’s Not For Me

Boring but not terrible.

Early last week the cover art for Bioshock Infinite was released to decidedly mixed reviews from players. Infinite will be the third Bioshock title in a franchise that’s infamous for combining the gameplay of a first-person shooter with some morality-based RPG elements, all wrapped up in an incredibly detailed and immersive world that  is as creepy as it is gorgeous.

Drill-hand robot? Tell me more!

In fact, the Bioshock franchise has had a long history of distinctive art deco design, and it’s something that fans of the series heavily associate with the brand. The official cover for Infinite, however, has a hint of retro-cool but for the most part it’s a fairly generic white dude holding a gun while stuff explodes. It’s not, like, terrible, but it’s not good and doesn’t really seem to represent the world of Bioshock that well. My own response was a pretty resounding “Meh.”.

I wasn’t going to give it a second thought until this morning when Azuriel pointed out that Bioshock’s Creative Director Ken Levine had responded to the cover art issue. His explanation included the following:

“We went and did a tour… around to a bunch of, like, frathouses and places like that. People who were gamers. Not people who read IGN. And [we] said, so, have you guys heard of BioShock? not a single one of them had heard of it.

[…] Our gaming world, we sometimes forget, is so important to us, but… there are plenty of products that I buy that I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about. My salad dressing. If there’s a new salad dressing coming out, I would have no idea. I use salad dressing; I don’t read Salad Dressing Weekly.

[…] I tried to step back and say, if I’m just some guy, some frat guy, I love games but don’t pay attention to them… if I saw the cover of that box, what would I think?”

Well thank god someone in the gaming industry is finally catering to frat boys!

First, way to insult your target audience by implying that they’re idiots who make buying decisions entirely based on how bland and generic the cover art is. Frat boys apparently are too stupid to enjoy immersive worlds and innovative mechanics. They have to be fooled into buying Bioshock Infinite with a cover that doesn’t represent the game.

Second, if Bioshock Infinite is going to pitch itself as a companion to Call of Duty and Halo and other traditional “frat boy” games, then it’s not a game that many previous Bioshock fans will be interested in playing. No slight meant to folks who play the average console FPS, but they’re not a genre I enjoy, and in fact one I usually avoid. Levine’s explanation of that cover says that this game is not intended for me, non-frat-boy and fan of the franchise.

To use the same weird metaphor as Levine, I don’t actually buy the most generic salad dressing on the shelf. I don’t want mass marketed crap. I may not know all the players in the salad dressing market, but if your bottle shows a little flair, some creativity, some unique flavor, chances are good that I’ll pick it up off the shelf and read the back of the bottle.

I don’t really mind the new cover, but man I take issue with that lame excuse for it. Way to take Bioshock’s distinctive element — the unique and powerfully realized art deco world — and strip it away to make the game more palatable to hypothetical idiot whitebread dude masses. I think I’ll pass.

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  • Reply
    December 10, 2012 at 12:25 pm

    On the bright side, maybe this is a way to sneak in, to convert them to better games. If that is possible.

  • Reply
    December 10, 2012 at 2:12 pm

    I think you’re off track. I don’t know if you cherry picked the quotes or if those are the ones you were given, but when I read about this whole tempest-in-a-teapot the sense I got was that Levine was saying “We know the real gamers are going to buy our game because we have some history. We made a cover that will hopefully grab the attention of totally uniformed consumers like frat boys.”

    I’m paraphrasing heavily but he talked about salad dressing too.

    Actually let’s just grab some more actual quotes:

    “I wanted the uninformed, the person who doesn’t read IGN… to pick up the box and say, okay, this looks kind of cool, let me turn it over. Oh, a flying city. Look at this girl, Elizabeth on the back. Look at that creature. And start to read about it, start to think about it.”

    “I understand that our fan says, that’s great Ken, what’s in it for me? One, we need to be successful to make these types of games, and I think it’s important, and I think the cover is a small price for the hardcore gamer to pay. I think also when we do something for the hardcore gamer, there’s something we’re talking about and something we’re sure about. The thing we’re sure about is that we’re going to be releasing a whole set of alternate covers that you can download and print. We’re going to be working with the community to see what they’re interested in.”

    So he’s saying “fratboy = uninformed but we need their money anyway.”

    If you were a fratboy I could understand you being offended but I don’t see how you find what he’s saying offensive to informed, hard core gamers.

    Just my opinion of course… I just am really glad I don’t make games for a living because pretty much everything seems to piss off some segment of gamers these days.
    pasmith´s last post: EQ2: Heroes’ Festival

    • Reply
      December 10, 2012 at 2:39 pm

      I respect your opinion of course, although I still disagree! The intended audience doesn’t really matter — I dislike the attitude that games need to be watered down to inoffensive, bland marketing pabulum to be successful. I also object to the notion that a game has to appeal to the frat boy market, who apparently are too stupid to make adequate buying decisions, to be successful! I don’t have to be part of a group to think they’re getting short shrift here.

      As for everything pissing someone off… I think strong feelings are part of the nature of blogging to some degree. Also to be perfectly honest I’ve been trying to write more critical stuff lately as a personal exercise as much as anything. :)

      • Reply
        Brian 'Psychochild' Green
        December 11, 2012 at 1:34 am

        Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence [or tastes] of the American public.
        – H. L. Mencken

        Yeah, I added a bit in there.

        I understood Mr. Levine’s speech as Pasmith did above: the box art isn’t catering to the hard-core that will want to pick this game up anyway. Hell, I got the two previous Bioshock games on Steam, so box art is pretty much immaterial to me.

        The grim reality of game economics is that they need to sell a lot of games if they want to keep making games. So, unless all us discriminating gamers want to plunk down $200 each (and I know I can’t afford that), they need to cater to the frat boys (which I assume is a stand in for “established gamers with more money than sense.”)

        And, yes, box art influences people a lot. You may see a drill-handed robot and think “cool!” but you’re a weird blogger type that actually likes to think about games. ;) To the person just pawing through game boxes at their local store Mr. Broody McBadass is probably reminds them of the other shootery games they like to play. You may think they’re dumb for liking it, but if it gets them to part with cash and support the developer, I’ll play the game on Steam and be happy that anther game in the series will likely be made if enough dudebros buy it. No skin off my nose.
        Brian ‘Psychochild’ Green´s last post: How to design a game economy

    • Reply
      December 11, 2012 at 9:03 pm

      @Pasmith and @Brian

      I think you’re missing something very significant. It’s not that he said “lets try to draw in customers from different demographics.” No one is opposed to such a thing so I think we’re all in agreement there.

      But they could have put some steam punk hot air balloon on the cover and attracted a more diverse audience, perhaps gamers who traditionally play adventure or puzzlers might have been intrigued. There *are* some flawed assumptions going on there which tells us who they assume want to play. This is obvious and people are calling them on it.

      A stoic man with a shotgun is strongly reminiscent of Battlefield and Halo marketing. In other words, they aren’t broadening the appeal to new gamers. They’re just hopping on the mass market band wagon in the hopes it will net them extra sales. What people are taking exception with is that. I think the people who have raised the issue have a very, very valid point. Even if I personally just don’t care about the box, there’s a very uncomfortable aura of deception around this practice.

      @Brian: Games wouldn’t suddenly cost, nor be worth, $200 without mass market. See the dozens of indie studios out there carving out a living while not charging $60 a pop for a game. I’m not saying it’s glamorous, but I am saying games would not suddenly cost $200. They might even become cheaper than current if developers focused more on their target audience instead of trying to ride the mass market hype train.
      Doone´s last post: Currently Playing: League of Legends

      • Reply
        Brian 'Psychochild' Green
        December 13, 2012 at 5:04 pm

        Having been on the business end of games, I see it a lot differently. I don’t see it as them assuming that the game should (only) be played by people who play modern FPSes, as Liore implies from the title. I see it as them going after a measurably large market who tends to make snap decisions about games to buy at the store.

        Make no mistake, the modern FPS market is HUGE. A quick search shows that in 2011, Activision Blizzard made as much money from CoD as they did from WoW. Yeah, that big. As enthusiastic as the Adventure or Puzzle gamers might be, they’re not that big of an audience. (And, I think FPSers are going to get the core gameplay of Bioshock better than either of those markets would, even if they were as big and easy to convince.) So, yeah, they are hopping on a bandwagon and they are appealing to an existing audience, because they want to stay in business and keep making games.

        As for the price point, if you want to keep the game niche and not go after a larger market, it will drive up prices. The original Bioshock sold 4 million copies across all platforms. Compare this to Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 that sold 9 million in the first month. Demanding that developers ignore a larger audience is asking for either the price to increase (which would undoubtedly lower sales further) or the developer to go out of business. I’ve seen enough companies that make great but underappreciated games go out of business because they didn’t have enough sales. I’ll take some eye-rolling box art if it keeps good games that make you think coming at a price I can afford.

        In the end, I stand by my previous assertion that if you’re a fan of the earlier games, than this is mostly a good thing. Until they start changing the gameplay to cater to the other market (which they might have, but I’ve not see anyone complain about that, only about the box art), then it’s time to despair as a fan of the series. I know I’ll be watching the reviews to see how the game plays.
        Brian ‘Psychochild’ Green´s last post: How to design a game economy

        • Reply
          December 17, 2012 at 1:57 pm

          Hmm, you lost me on this post, Brian!

          The original Bioshock sold 4 million copies across all platforms. Compare this to Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 that sold 9 million in the first month.

          So Bioshock Infinite will sell more games because they put a generic dude with a gun on the cover, despite it being not entirely representative of the content of the game. Would BI sell even more copies if they put a young woman in a bikini on the cover too? What if they took out some of the RPG elements in the middle and instead made the shooting gauntlets longer? I bet they’d sell even more copies!

          Scrambling towards homogeneity in the name of dollars is how shitty games get made, dude. As a consumer, I just can’t support that in any way.

          Also, I don’t think making generic dude cover is actually the huge marketing boon that the industry assumes it is. That, to me, just shows a lack of imagination. Look at this amazing fan-made cover: A cute girl in some kind of weird giant robot world won’t sell games? Bollocks!

          • Brian 'Psychochild' Green
            February 8, 2013 at 12:46 am

            Holidays interrupted the conversation. A late reply, probably will go unread, so I’ll be brief as possible.

            My point is that Bioshock can’t rest on its laurels. It must attract a larger audience than it attracted with the first game, or no further games will get made in favor of more generic shooters.

            You also keep making the assumption that a change in box art means that a change in game content has to happen to match. As far as I know, this hasn’t happened. Again, the only thing that anyone knows has changed is the box art to appeal to an audience beyond those who already know what the game is about. This extreme reaction to the box art changing ignores practical reality of what it takes to keep making games.
            Brian ‘Psychochild’ Green´s last post: When fun becomes a grind

  • Reply
    December 11, 2012 at 3:28 am

    I’m not offended or upset by Ken Levine’s comments, but I do kinda shake my head and think that the Bioshock team may have skipped a few marketing classes.

    Your extended analogy about salad dressing is exactly right. There is room on the shelf for generic Kraft salad dressing. People who are uninformed about salad dressing are likely to pick it up off the shelf because it looks like what they have been conditioned (via advertising) to expect a salad dressing bottle to look like.

    But if your intention is not to compete head-to-head against Kraft for the generic salad dressing market, then for goodness sake don’t put your salad dressing in a bottle that looks like a generic Kraft bottle. Make it interesting in some way. Make the person who sees that Kraft bottle and then sees your bottle think “Hey this one looks more interesting – I wonder how it is different?”.

    So now I took the analogy too far, but the principle is pretty obvious. If your product is special, then make sure people understand that it is special!

    And don’t trust customer loyalty to bring back your existing fans, because (a) customers are fickle, and (b) you are deliberately killing part of the uniqueness that brought them to the franchise in the first place.

  • Reply
    December 12, 2012 at 12:22 pm

    Not to derail this conversation with a sidebar, but I just wanted to say that although I don’t totally agree with everyone who commented I do thing this is a pretty dang smart series of comments. Thanks for posting, folks, and giving me lots to think about.

  • Reply
    Around the Sphere: Economics - T.R. Red Skies Gaming Blog
    December 12, 2012 at 11:04 pm

    […] week. The chief complaint is that it doesn’t speak to the game at all. I have to agree with Liore’s take on it. Others think we should be grateful for slightly worse games so that we only have to pay $60 […]

  • Reply
    December 23, 2012 at 12:07 am

    Where does it say that the game isn’t for you? They’re just trying to expand their market, that’s pretty natural for a business that wants to make money. They aren’t saying that only frat boys should buy the game… just that they’d like frat boys to buy the game. How can that be offensive?

    • Reply
      December 23, 2012 at 12:40 am

      Okay, you’re the second commenter to use the term “offensive” in reference to what I wrote, and just to be clear at no point did I use that word in my post. Let me quote from my final paragraph: “I don’t really mind the new cover, but man I take issue with that lame excuse for it.”

      I replied to Brian a few comments up about why I think “Capitalism!” is not always an awesome reason for change.

      • Reply
        December 23, 2012 at 7:18 pm

        If a studio doesn’t want to end up like THQ they’ll think about capitalism. I’m no frat boy, but I love Bioshock, and if having a dude with a gun on the cover is going to raise sales and keep Bioshock games coming out… let them have a dude with a gun on the cover. Nowhere did they say that the content of the game has changed.

        Not everything is going to be tailor made for you, or me. As long as the game stays good, I am fine with that.

  • Reply
    January 8, 2013 at 11:48 am

    Not sure how I missed this post last month, but I saw this and thought of you.

    which linked me to this

    both of which you may have seen already, but I thought they were interesting.

    • Reply
      January 8, 2013 at 3:23 pm

      Sorry, the comment above was me. I forgot to sign in.

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