Thursday, March 31, 2011

What's in a Game? Would a Roselia by any other IP smell as sweet?

How much does a popular IP contribute to a game?

This past week, I was trolling through the Android Market, as I occasionally do, and I noticed an interesting looking game. "Pokemon Tower Defense" was the name of the game, and given that I enjoy several of the conceits of the Pokemon series of games - I've enjoyed several of the Game Boy games branded with that name, no matter their distance from the original series - I figured it'd be worth a try.

It was. The game concept is written in its title - it's a tower defense game with Pokemon mechanics and art grafted on. It was only an early build of the game (the author listed it as an alpha version), but it showed a lot of promise. What intrigued me the most was how well the RPG mechanics melded with the tower defense mechanics. While there are tower defense games that use leveling mechanics, there are specific attributes of the Pokemon RPGs that enhance this particular game: large number of Pokemon (units), selectable modes of attack (movelists, which upgrade with leveling), capture of enemy units (Poke balls).

I think that this is a truly marketable game concept, but the obvious problem is the use of the preexisting IP. And, as expected, the game was pulled from the Android Marketplace just a day or so ago. The author has thankfully kept updating and has hosted the game at Newgrounds, but the bottom line is that he's not ever going to be able to sell it or make any kind of money off of it.

So all this is to bring me to my above-posted question. How much does the IP being used really contribute to the appeal of the game? Research done by Samuel McClure et al. addresses this idea of brand identity being important by looking at Coke vs. Pepsi, or as it is better known, "The Pepsi Challenge." This is a blind taste-test that pits the two sodas against each other to determine which is more preferred.

Here's a short abstract of the paper (from this link):

The preference for Coke versus Pepsi is not only a matter for the tongue to decide, Samuel McClure and his colleagues have found. Brain scans of people tasting the soft drinks reveal that knowing which drink they're tasting affects their preference and activates memory-related brain regions that recall cultural influences. Thus, say the researchers, they have shown neurologically how a culturally based brand image influences a behavioral choice.

These choices are affected by perception, wrote the researchers, because "there are visual images and marketing messages that have insinuated themselves into the nervous systems of humans that consume the drinks."

Even though scientists have long believed that such cultural messages affect taste perception, there had been no direct neural probes to test the effect, wrote the researchers. Findings about the effects of such cultural information on the brain have important medical implications, they wrote.

"There is literally a growing crisis in obesity, type II diabetes, and all their sequelae that result directly from or are exacerbated by overconsumption of calories. It is now strongly suspected that one major culprit is sugared colas," they wrote.

Besides the health implications of studying soft drink preference, the researchers decided to use Coke and Pepsi because-- even though the two drinks are nearly identical chemically and physically--people routinely strongly favor one over the other. Thus, the two soft drinks made excellent subjects for rigorous experimental studies.

In their study, the researchers first determined the Coke versus Pepsi preference of 67 volunteer subjects, both by asking them and by subjecting them to blind taste tests. They then gave the subjects sips of one drink or the other as they scanned the subjects' brains using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). In this widely used imaging technique, harmless magnetic fields and radio signals are used to measure blood flow in regions of the brain, with such flow indicating brain activity levels. In the experiments, the sips were preceded by either "anonymous" cues of flashes of light or pictures of a Coke or Pepsi can.

The experimental design enabled the researchers to discover the specific brain regions activated when the subjects used only taste information versus when they also had brand identification. While the researchers found no influence of brand knowledge for Pepsi, they found a dramatic effect of the Coke label on behavioral preference. The brand knowledge of Coke both influenced their preference and activated brain areas including the "dorsolateral prefrontal cortex" and the hippocampus. Both of these areas are implicated in modifying behavior based on emotion and affect. In particular, wrote the researchers, their findings suggest "that the hippocampus may participate in recalling cultural information that biases preference judgments."

The researchers concluded that their findings indicate that two separate brain systems--one involving taste and one recalling cultural influence--in the prefrontal cortex interact to determine preferences.

The gist of it is that knowing what you're drinking - or playing, as the case may be - affects your perception of it. Even though I'd like to consider myself at least a little more adept at parsing out the true qualities of a game than the average gamer, it's still difficult to know how much this affects perception of the quality of a game idea like this one.

It would be interesting to see these mechanics with a different skin. Right now, I'll be content to enjoy the game as it is (and I do), but this is definitely something to shelf for a future look.

For your viewing pleasure, here's a chance to take your own look at "Pokemon Tower Defense:"


  1. Nice article. In my opinion Pokemon is the right 'skin' for a Towerdefense RPG, we are all familiar with it. I think the mechanics are cool, but wouldn't be so enjoyable with the nostalgia of Pokemon.

  2. its ging to be a pc where we can starage ours pokemons?

  3. O.O I have the exact same setup (in the picture) when I play that level! I even think my guys are the same level! Creepy o.O

  4. Very enlightening and beneficial to someone whose been out of the circuit for a long time.