The Art of Captivation
Pixels & Profits: Chapter 9
Branding & Storytelling
At this point, it should go without saying that these two elements are intimately linked with your audience understanding — that vital “who” and “what” that defines your game development journey.
When done right, this combination can become like a beacon to your audience — an experience they can relate to, feel attracted to, and fall in love with.
Consider some successful indie games you’ve encountered — the ones that created memorable experiences, or those that pulled at your heartstrings.
What do these games have in common?
They’ve mastered the craft of branding and storytelling.
You can too.
And the truth is, you need to learn this stuff because, unfortunately, books DO get judged on their covers.
The same is true for games.
Meaning you can bet that when your game lands in the Steam store or wherever else, the first thing users are going to do is…
Subconsciously, they ask themselves:
Is this speaking to me?
Do I feel like I relate to this story?
Am I visually or mentally attracted to the experience this game offers?
Your game can be the perfect experience for these players. But unless that is immediately reflected in your aesthetics, they might never know.
But it would be a mistake to think this is all about visuals.
When you pause to think of your favorite indie games, what comes to mind?
The likelihood is you’re picturing games that have created memorable experiences, pulled at your heartstrings, or immersed you in some richly constructed world.
At the core of these experiences are branding and storytelling.
Those two elements breathe life into the experience of a game, giving it personality, substance, and most importantly, a unique identity that sets it apart in a highly competitive market.
Some people use the term “worldbuilding” for this process. We like that term too.
You can see the power of worldbuilding and storytelling everywhere at Wabbit. This is by design. We’ve taken great care to build a distinctive brand, voice, visual style, and a narrative that deeply resonates with our people.
As you spend more time with the Wabbits, the reasons for our choices will become clear.
But, we aren’t a video game, so let’s take a look at Overwatch by Blizzard Entertainment as an example…
The Overwatch brand isn’t just about being a multiplayer first-person shooter. It’s about a diverse cast of characters, unique abilities, and team-based strategy.
It is those components, and the distinctive visual style, which make the game instantly recognizable to (and resonant with) its audience.
Yet, Overwatch is the result of a massive AAA team, which can feel completely out of reach for smaller teams. So, what does it mean to have strong branding and storytelling in indie game development?
Let’s delve into that.
The Importance of Branding in Games
Branding is more than just a logo or a catchy tagline. It’s the total experience you provide your players every time they interact with your game. It’s the colors you use, the language you employ, the music, the tone of the story, the cadence, the emotions you evoke — all combined to form a consistent, recognizable, relatable identity.
It’s the feeling of wearing the jersey on gameday.
The sense of belonging to the tribe.
The promise you make to your players about who you are, and what they can expect from the work you produce.
Now, you might be wondering: “Isn’t that just marketing?” And… the answer is yes… but, not quite…
Before I explain myself, what you really need to grasp about marketing is this:
The field is way bigger than you’ve ever stopped to consider.
The masses think that marketing solely involves promoting and selling your product or service.
That view is wrong.
Think back to the audience research you did after reading Understanding Your Audience…
The process of understanding what people need, and where it intersects with what you can provide (or are willing to learn), is where real marketing starts.
Branding is a subdiscipline within the craft of marketing.
Its purpose is to establish and maintain a unique identity.
It’s about defining who you are as a game developer and what your game stands for.
It’s the first impression.
The motto of the tribe.
The work that makes it so when I say “Just Do It,” you know EXACTLY who I’m talking about, and you immediately associate it with something.
For the purposes of our conversation, it doesn’t matter if that association is positive or negative.
You still know the name of that company.
A more relevant example is the indie sensation Undertale. The game presents a unique brand that features an 8-bit art style, emotionally driven narrative, and a quirky sense of humor.
Finally, consider “Hollow Knight, “a solid platformer whose identity is characterized by a melancholic atmosphere, mysterious lore, and beautifully haunting hand-drawn visuals.
The developers, Team Cherry, not only created a fun platformer with solid mechanics, they’ve created a captivating world that stands out in the genre.
From our perspective, that consistent branding, and the worldbuilding that builds on it, have both contributed immensely to the game’s cult status in the indie scene.
Getting to the holy land of brand recognition takes time though, so let’s talk about that…
Developing an Identity
Before we can explain how you can create a compelling identity for your game, you must understand the various elements that make up a brand’s identity. This includes:
- The company or game logo
- Color schemes and overall art direction
- Voice, tone, and writing style
- Character (or other asset) design
- Music selection
Think of it as the internal mindset of the brand (its tastes, opinions, and preferences), and the outward characteristics you present to the world.
Each element should work together to communicate your game’s unique personality and values.
Most people over focus on the visual aspects of all this.
I’m no exception.
In fact, I got my start in visual design, so I’m particularly susceptible to that trap.
Here’s what you need to remember:
Yes, visuals are important — because you’ll want to create a visual identity that is both cohesive and captivating — but, it is more important to understand that everything we are discussing here is an iterative process.
Don’t obsess about making it perfect. Just get something done and revise it later.
(I’m not just preaching this. We do it daily here. Look at the visual quality of the series you’re reading right now, and compare it with the graphics elsewhere on this site. You’re reading a work in progress. We will add art later in the process, after we’ve validated.)
There’s nothing wrong with using placeholder assets.
Just don’t forget to replace them.
Keep in mind that you don’t have to start with jaw-dropping original art. A skilled art director can make something effective and cohesive out generic stock assets.
Whether crafting the identity of your game, or brand overall, don’t forget to draw inspiration from the art, film, and other games that your target audience enjoys.
Try to tap into the subtext of what your people are searching for.
At their core, we find humans (gamers included) are usually looking for their story reflected back at them.
Because we’re all on our own ‘Hero’s Journey’, and we care about the stories we interact with; as well as the ones we tell ourselves about our own lives.
If you’re not feeling 100 % confident on the concept of branding, don’t worry, there’s more to come…
Next, we talk about my favorite subject, storytelling.