A hot topic among game designers today is: should designers aspire to celebrity (of the kind possessed by famous movie directors and producers) and if so, how? Raph Koster frequently talks about this, and I believe his rationale is fairly solid. But Raph, who does a good job of reaching out to the community (via his book, press interviews, conferences, and blog), is still completely unknown to the vast majority of human beings who regularly play video games (much less humanity in general.) For that matter, even our most beloved industry icons (like Miyamoto) are basically unknown outside the enthusiast market.

Since I singled out Raph, I should note that he doesn’t always talk about individual celebrity. His use of the term seems to extend to corporate brands (i.e. what Rockstar aspires to in every regard, from their name to their products.) But it’s hard to turn a corporate brand into anything even remotely resembling a mega-celebrity brand (i.e. Steven Spielberg). Across all entertainment industries, there are few examples to aspire to.

So if a celebrity-level corporate brand is generally out of reach, and some of our most outspoken and engaged/engaging game designers are still unknown outside hardcore circles, what can be done to harness the celebrity power that designers and companies crave?

Is celebrity even attainable?

The first question we need to honestly ask ourselves is: is it even possible to be a “celebrity” (in the grand sense of the word) when non-casual games are still played by a relatively small percentage of the total population? Until we as an industry fully broaden the market, is the pursuit of celebrity a fool’s errand? I’d like to think that the answer is: “there’s still value in trying, if for no other reason than 20,000 die-hard fans might convince 100,000 other people to buy your game.” That said, it seems pretty clear that any attempts to attain celebrity will be severely handicapped until the state of the market changes. Fortunately, we (in the collective sense) appear to be moving in the right direction as of late!

It’s also worth recognizing that there are far more famous actors and actresses than directors/producers for a good reason. Actors are more visible, and our designers (like TV/film directors) will probably never be so visible. But that doesn’t mean they should remain nearly invisible.

Should we find our celebrities elsewhere?

The second question is: should we outsource? Bring in Steven Spielberg (done by EA.) Bring in Peter Jackson (done by Microsoft.) It’s a potentially good solution, but we don’t know how well it will work out for the game industry. More importantly, it isn’t scalable. Only a few companies can afford to harness this kind of talent, and we can’t grow as an industry if we depend on other industries for our stars (I’m assuming that TV and film create their own stars at least as often as they borrow stars from one another; I haven’t bothered to crunch the numbers.)

What can we learn from TV and film?

The third question is: how do we replicate the root causes of TV/film celebrity? Actors become famous because they are the most prominent aspect of their medium. Directors become famous because they appear in televised interviews, in bonus DVD footage, on the stage at the Oscars, etc.

We’ve started putting energy into our own award shows, so that’s a good start. But we’re doing a lousy job of getting our designers on mainstream TV and in mainstream magazines. No doubt that it’s harder to pitch CliffyB to Jay Leno than, say, Martin Scorsese. But with few exceptions, I suspect that we’re not even trying… and we should be.

We should also be bundling more live video bonus footage with our games, so fans have more opportunity to “meet” our designers. (Skeptics will say “nobody wants to see the pasty-skinned, sleep-deprived guys making games”, but come on… is Peter Jackson really that good looking? Is Kevin Smith?)

Can we find creative solutions to the problem?

The fourth question is: are there creative ways to generate celebrity? Random example: a few years ago, I saw a SimCity poster that included the cartoon likeness of Will Wright. It struck me as very cute — not overbearing in any way. So what if EA started embedding a Wright character in all his games? (Not necessarily front and center; it could be prominent, on the margins, or even just an easter egg in some cases.)

Our visibility is only limited by our imagination.

Do we even want to go down this road?

The final question is: do we even want more celebrities in our industry? Celebrity-status is great for the individual (unless they care at all about their privacy.) But celebrities tend to demand enormous compensation; they often draw a large percentage of the total profit from projects they work on (at least in TV and film). That’s a significant issue that shouldn’t be taken lightly. That said, celebrities can be an incredibly powerful tool for defending a medium when it is under attack, for spreading a medium to the farthest reaches of the globe, and for legitimizing a medium in general. So while I can’t say with certainty that the positives ultimately outweigh the negatives, I’m willing to assume that they probably do.

And that’s my take on the subject, which can be summarized as “worth trying, knowing that greater market forces will determine in large part how successful our efforts are.” What do you think?

11 responses to “Celebrity

  1. 1) Yes, but we need to consider that film/TV celebrity is catalyzed by a saturation marketing apparatus in most cases. In the cases where this applies in games, we\’re talking about huge companies who have traditionally leveraged brand awareness over designer awareness, with some notable exceptions. We need to re-think the means of celebritization, and embrace a more fragmented means of promoting designers. Erik Hermasen and Mark Rimer are celebrities to a few thousand people who LOVE DROD, for example. We still need mass market celebrities, if only for the prestige capital, but even in that case I think we\’re looking for a highly viral personality connected to a highly viral body of work.

    2) I believe the trend of including actors in games will only deepen as procedural voice generation and character AI arrives at a point where an actor can be embedded onto a character. This will be a valid technique, however we need a core of designer celebrities to make the contrast meaningful.

    3) Cliffy B is a good example of a designer who is personable, decent looking, but also unafriad to verve geek. Aspiring designers should alternate between sit-ups and reading the business daily in their spare time.

    4) Yes. More specific approaches are beyond the scope of this post, but I\’ve got a few in mind.

    5) Yes, its a dirty job but somebody has got to do it.


  2. Our celebrities from in front of the camera are Mario, Sonic, and Pac-man. They\’re huge. They\’re every bit as big as any Hollywood celebrity.

    Our behind the camera celebrities will get to be celebrities when they have the same advantage as the behind the scenes celebrities in other media: prominent placement in the credits. I know a bunch of celebrity names of people I couldn\’t pick out in a crowd: J. J. Abrams, Joss Whedon, J. Michael Straczynski, James Cameron, Guy Ritchie, and more. Sid Meier has managed to keep his name on the front of the box, and if he shipped more console games he would be far more famous. If Cliffy B had his name on the front of Gears of War, he would have some measure of celebrity outside the industry too.

  3. > Our celebrities from in front of the camera are Mario, Sonic, and Pac-man.

    No, they aren’t. A celebrity has two components: an on stage (or on screen) persona that you can enjoy, and an off-stage persona. The off-stage persona is the subject of tabloids. The off-stage persona is something young kids (with an interest in entertainment) can aspire to be.

    > They’re huge. They’re every bit as big as any Hollywood celebrity.

    Again, no they aren’t. A huge number of people in India are familiar with Tom Cruise. They’re less familiar with Sonic.

  4. Celebrities in Hollywood have something very important that is lacking in the gaming industry — people with a vested interest in and the sole focus of promoting and increasing the media attention (both positive and negative) that revolve around an individual. Managers, Agents, \’Spinners\’, Posse members, etc. These people make their livelihood by hitching a ride on the shooting star of the celebrity in question and therefore go to great lengths to help keep their livelihood in the limelight and attracting attention.

    In the game industry our closest equivalent are the marketing and PR departments that work for the companies that publish the games said \’star\’ works on. The big difference is they don\’t have a vested interest necessarily in the individual\’s success but rather the game as an extension of the company. Even CliffyB\’s fame right now, I would suspect, is promoted within Epic in as far as it helps benefit sales of GoW and, ideally, future Epic titles. I doubt, though, that Mark Rein gave explicit incentives to the marketing team tied to the number of interviews for Cliffy they line up or how many times his name is mentioned weekly in a technocrati search.

    Unless this changes I’m starting to wonder if ever even our top names will gain familiarity (let alone celebrity) amongst the masses. If EA decides that Will Wright can make them more money by just being Will Wright The Talking Head rather then Will Wright The Creative Genius, perhaps they will assign him an entourage whose sole purpose is to push find ways to inject him into the public consciousness.

    While I do think it could be nice if our industry had true celebrities, I’m not sure I look forward to the day when I have to speak with an agent and two managers to hire a game designer and shape my production schedule around his personal brand building.

    I’m torn.

  5. > it’s hard to turn a corporate brand into anything even remotely resembling a mega-celebrity brand

    Hmm… Depends what you associate with celebrity. Recognized? Rabid fan following? Fans paying homage, etc?

    Apple certainly qualifies. Coke? How about “America”?

    To one of the comments above:
    >No, they aren’t. A celebrity has two components: an on stage (or on screen) persona that you can enjoy, and an off-stage persona. The off-stage persona is the subject of tabloids. The off-stage persona is something young kids (with an interest in entertainment) can aspire to be.

    It’s interesting that there is a blurry line in between. Core design went and found a real-life Lara Croft because the fanbase kind of demanded it. They wanted the offscreen persona. What about ‘spoof’ like interviews with Virtua Fighter characters, or pinups of Dead or ALive girls?

    >Again, no they aren’t. A huge number of people in India are familiar with Tom Cruise. They’re less familiar with Sonic.

    And then Fast Food Nation cites a study (I don’t have it in front of me) showing that Ronald McDonald is a more recognized entity world-wide than… (I forget, it was like ‘jesus’ or ‘Santa Clause’ or such.

    Ronald McDonald is to some a symbol, but to others, a celeb?

  6. GreatBritishProducer

    Found this on wikipedia:

    A public figure such as a politician or CEO may be famous, but they may not become a celebrity unless public and mass media interest is piqued.

    What I agree with is that our game characters are celebrities; there is no components that make up a celebrity. A celebrity is one who is celebrated by the public … there is no need to exist beyond the space which create the celebrity in the first place. Most of our game characters are simplistic but simple values/traits such as honour, bravery, respect, ability, style all all aspirational.

    To the specifics:

    1. See above; yes its attainable … for Game Designers, Producers, Technical Directors or Art Directors. Using the director analogy, the celebrity directors are those that in some stage of there career have redefined the perception of a particluar genre or subject. Consider GTA San Andreas … over 10million copies sold, entering home with an average of 2 people; estimate about 20million exposed to thee game world wide (an under estimate). Consider the \\\’mass\\\’ media coverage; the focus was on the content and its effects, the response to this was via PR machine, not at any time did the Game Visionary/Designer get questioned about why the game was the way it was. Our games remain faceless because the right people are not being asked any questions via mass media/public … never mind the right questions.
    I think it comes down to a couple of things: We are often very guilty in the industry of creating shallow experiences and lack the ability to justify it. If John Romero can speak intelligently about a Zombie horror flick, can\\\’t we do the same for supermonkeyball? Secondly, the mass media don\\\’t know how to communicate with the industry outside of sales … film, literature, music have established languages, rules which form the foundation for writers, directors and musicians to break, bend and influence. Games do not have this.

    2. No. Its inevitable this cross-pollenation will happen (already is) but it has little value on celebrity because of the issues in point 1. Games with celebrities attached might as well be a french dressing with Paul Newmans face on it, they are that irrelevant to he \\\’mass\\\’ media.

    3. Whats interesting is the retail influence on Videogames right now. Retailers only want successful games, and while Special Features work for DVD, they don\\\’t work for games if the game is crap. Until we can see issues raised on point 1 (among many more) being addressed, retailers won;t buy into this content, publishers won\\\’t support the creation of this content and games will not have funding or time to fully realise this content.

    4. I think we only need to work on connecting with a mass audience. Film started with spectacle and slowly ushered in comedy and drama … both highly emotional hooks. We ned to find ways to communicate this via a game medium more effectively and follow this up with informed dialogue about the aims of the product from those that created it and not watered down, edit previews in closed circulation magazines.

    5. We won\\\’t be in a position to prevent it when it happens.

  7. Last night I blogged about Shadow of the Colossus playing an integral role in the Reign Over Me movie (http://toomuchimagination.blogspot.com/2007/04/games-in-movies-new-hope.html). I can’t put my finger on it, but I feel there is some connection between the two topics here. Is the following thread ridiculous:?

    – Hollywood directors are becoming increasingly familiar with games as players.
    – As such familiarity increases, they will seek out and find ways to use games as devices within their movies.
    – Such ‘mature’ treatment of games within mass market and well respected media can only serve to further drive public adoption and acceptance of gaming.
    – Thereby encouraging (not leading to, certainly, but not hindering either) more interest from the mass market public on the individuals who created the games that so prominently featured in their beloved movie.


  8. Ben’s earlier comment suggests a factor that could be a primary catalyst here – free agency. If game designers/directors at independent, contracted by studios, and at a prestige premium within the industry, then you’d have to mitigate some of the baggage associated with them, but at the same time if there’s a robust market of such people you’d have a range of options, and therefore leverage. The result of this, I think, would be a drive to put resources into the most interesting projects, rather than projects driven by genre or brand licensing, and the result would be a medium and its associated stars more truly worthy of being celebrated.

  9. I would actually claim the closest we have to a celebrity game designer (in America at least) is Will Wright. If you consider being on the Colbert Report noteworthy. And having seen him there, I would say that he\’s doing great things for the game industry.

    I don\’t know if the industry needs (or is ready) for a Tom Cruise or Steven Spielberg right now. What I think we need (and what Will Wright appears to be emulating with his appearances) is a Carl Sagan. Sagan was certainly a celebrity — but he was also an ambassador from his discipline to the general public.

  10. Go far enough down the hollywood a-list and you will reach a level of fame that Mario and Pac-man are at. Tom Cruise is probably above that line. Most of hollywood is below it.

    Regardless of whether or not they qualify as celebrities, these characters do fill the same niche that a famous actor fills in a movie. I think it\’s unlikely that the game industry is going to get real celebrities for that niche. The behind the camera celebrity seems far more likely.

  11. Yes celebrity is attainable in the gaming industry.
    An old game ( people already played it so many times on different platforms: Jewel Quest)BUT adding PARIS HILTON into the game made it more exciting. And people started playing it again.
    In whole Asia and America celeb games sells, It works.Film/Tv/Anchors/Radio Jockey if they are little famous the game will work.
    But You need not to be a celeb game designer any game designer can do that.

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