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?

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