Games are Fascinating: The Prestige

Posted: October 10, 2011 in Business Books, Games
Tags: , , , , , , , ,
Prestige (Business Class)

Are you elite enough?

What’s your XBox Gamerscore? (Mine is three times higher than my husband’s). How many achievement points do you have in World of Warcraft? (My husband has double mine, but I have more PvP honor points.) Do you still have your original NES? How many games do you have in your Steam library? Have you ever beaten a Korean at Starcraft?  What’s your ladder ranking? What edition of D&D do you play? Do you have the vanity pet that only came with the special edition of the game? (4|\|  ‘/0|_| r33|)  1337  5p33|<  |\|00|3? (Can you read leet speek, n00b?) Do you even understand the questions I’m asking?

What all these have in common is Prestige. They are markers that you are getting further within the concentric rings of what’s important to your tribe. If we were talking about music I might ask you how many concert ticket stubs you had. If we were talking about hunting I’d admire the twelve-point buck mounted on your wall. The sartorial might admire either haute coture gowns, or the awesomely retro t-shirt found at a thrift store. But they almost certainly wouldn’t be impressed by the twelve point buck.

501st Legion
These are fan-made costumes, not licensed replicas.

Prestige is the inner sanctum. The special club that only the elite can join and the unique can rule. It takes work and effort to be part of the in-crowd. And as you gather more and more prestige, it gets harder to move up the rank. And, oh my god, geeks have so many ways of measuring Prestige. Elitism is part of the lifestyle. Geekery is defined by which “clubs” you join and who is excluded. It’s not enough that you like sci-fi (although that makes you more my kind of geek than those Tolkien fans): are you a hardcore enough Star Wars fan that you’ll meet the strict costuming requirements to join the 501st legion? Whatever, you’ll never be as cool as me because Firefly is the best sci-fi out there. Viva la Brownvcoats!

Prestige has obvious markers. Royal blood, displays of wealth, and trophies are all obvious symbols of Prestige. But any sign of a notable achievement builds Prestige, at least it does to the people who value that achievement. And Prestige is totally uninteresting if anyone can get it. So to trade on it when attracting people’s interest, you have to know that by necessity, you will be turning away the “unworthy.”

Of the three pillars of Prestige, video games hit one of them really well. The second one is used to some extent. The final pillar is not used that much. Marketing messages try to make use of it, but no company has really leveraged it. But we’ll get to that in a bit.

The first pillar to building Prestige, and the one that video games excel at, is providing emblems. What good is it to be in the inner circle if you can’t flaunt it? World of Warcraft offers special titles, mounts, and vanity pets for achievements. When you see “Tufani the Kingslayer” walking around, you know exactly what he’s managed to accomplish. If I’m wearing tier 12 armor, you know I am a hardcore player who dedicates a lot of time to WoW. Every game, even casual phone games, has achievements. While jokes are made about gamers whipping out their “e-peens” to see who’s is bigger, the fact remains that it is something that will keep players coming back to a game long after they have killed the final boss and seen every ending. Emblems keep us thinking about games.

The second pillar of Prestige is limited availability. When you make the decision to limit availability based on price point, luck, or effort, then you have to accept you will be losing some customers. Nightclubs can get away with only letting in the beautiful people, after all they can’t have more in there than the fire code allows. But video games are an entertainment industry. They really don’t want to limit the number of people they can get to purchase their games. You do see companies leveraging limited availability in theory with the special or collector’s edition games. But realistically that’s more limited by price than availability.

The final pillar of Prestige, and the ones games don’t do well at all, is elevating the message. Grey Goose created a new standard for vodka, and so became prestigious. That standard was “expensive,” not “especially tasty.” But it is a new standard that elevates them from the pack nonetheless. Marketing slogans try to push their games as a new standard in fun, violence, storytelling, etc., but what marketing puts in a glossy ad and the reality of the play is different. And creating a new standard is no guarantee of success. Team Bondi certainly created a new standard in motion capture and realism in the human form for LA Noire. But the studio is now bankrupt and sold off. And since so much of creating new standards in games is technology based (graphics, physics engines, etc.) it’s only a matter of time before competitors catch up.

There is a very notable exception. The Nintendo Wii certainly created a new standard for family-friendly gaming. The Wii only has as much processing power as its predecessor the Gamecube. Nintendo happily let Microsoft and Sony duke it out for the hardcore gamer market. Wii also introduced motion into games like never before. The Wii was alone in that field for years before its competition copied it.

Does it matter that video games don’t effectively leverage all three pillars of Prestige? No. Not every fascination trigger is right for every product. And not every pillar will work either. But what do you think? Is there a way for this entertainment for the masses to elevate its message? Does that path just lead back into the “are video games art?” debate?

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