“Salad Dressing Weekly”

The following excerpt (it’s actually almost the entire article) is from a Wired interview with Ken Levine regarding why Bioshock Infinite has such generic box art:

When I got to sit down with Infinite‘s creative director Ken Levine on Thursday after playing the game and asked for his thoughts, I got an extensive, thoughtful answer that in a perfect world would put an end to all of the bellyaching.

“I understand that some of the fans are disappointed. We expected it. I know that may be hard to hear, but let me explain the thinking.”

“We went and did a tour… around to a bunch of, like, frathouses and places like that. People who were gamers. Not people who read IGN. And [we] said, so, have you guys heard of BioShock? not a single one of them had heard of it.”

“And we live in this very special… you know, BioShock is a reasonably successful franchise, right? Our gaming world, we sometimes forget, is so important to us, but… there are plenty of products that I buy that I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about. My salad dressing. If there’s a new salad dressing coming out, I would have no idea. I use salad dressing; I don’t read Salad Dressing Weekly. I don’t care who makes it, I don’t know any of the personalities in the salad dressing business.”

“For some people, [games are] like salad dressing. Or movies, or TV shows. It was definitely a reality check for us. Games are big, and they’re expensive, I think that’s very clear. And to be successful, and to continue to make these kinds of games which frankly, of the people who make these types of games, there’s not a lot of them, and they haven’t exactly been the most successful with these types of games that have come out in the last few years. I was thrilled because I love them, and I hope that we had some small role in getting those games greenlit… But they have to be financially successful to keep getting made.”

“I looked at the cover art for BioShock 1, which I was heavily involved with and love, I adored. And I tried to step back and say, if I’m just some guy, some frat guy, I love games but don’t pay attention to them… if I saw the cover of that box, what would I think? And I would think, this is a game about a robot and a little girl. That’s what I would think. I was trying to be honest with myself. Trust me, I was heavily involved with the creation of those characters and I love them.”

“Would I buy that game if I had 60 bucks and I bought three games a year… would I even pick up the box? I went back to the box for System Shock 1, which was obviously incredibly imporatnt — that game was incredibly influential on me, System Shock 2 was the first game I ever made. I remember I picked it up… looked at it and I said, I have no idea what this game is. And I didn’t have a lot of money back then. So, back on the shelf. And I was a gamer.”

“I wanted the uninformed, the person who doesn’t read IGN… to pick up the box and say, okay, this looks kind of cool, let me turn it over. Oh, a flying city. Look at this girl, Elizabeth on the back. Look at that creature. And start to read about it, start to think about it.”

“I understand that our fan says, that’s great Ken, what’s in it for me? One, we need to be successful to make these types of games, and I think it’s important, and I think the cover is a small price for the hardcore gamer to pay. I think also when we do something for the hardcore gamer, there’s something we’re talking about and something we’re sure about. The thing we’re sure about is that we’re going to be releasing a whole set of alternate covers that you can download and print. We’re going to be working with the community to see what they’re interested in.”

“We had to make that tradeoff in terms of where we were spending our marketing dollars. By the time you get to the store, or see an ad, the BioShock fan knows about the game. The money we’re spending on PR, the conversations with games journalists — that’s for the fans. For the people who aren’t informed, that’s who the box art is for.”

I like this excerpt for a lot of reasons, but mainly because I think its useful to occasionally be reminded that the majority of the games we like playing couldn’t have been made without a bunch of other people paying for them too; people who “don’t get it,” or otherwise are incapable of appreciating the game for what it is or what it represents. There are some outliers as always, high-profile titles exclusively geared to its niche, and thankfully the positive PR around the indie movement has made it possible to break the AAA budget straightjacket.

But sometimes the “dumbing down” is, in fact, necessary. Or at least useful in ensuring that you see more development from that studio/those designers.

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Posted on December 10, 2012, in Commentary and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Targeting frat boys may be a legitimate business strategy, however my big question is did they follow this philosophy while designing the rest of the game? If so, they are risking the franchise on winning a new demographic. If not, then surely frat boys will quickly discover that the cover is incongruous with the rest of the game…

    • By then it’s too late!

      Nah. I haven’t been following Bioshock Infinite too closely ever since all the delays a few months ago, but from what I remember it should be classical Bioshock, for what it is worth. And besides, the original game (and 2 for that matter) was still a pretty fun shooter even if you ignore all Rand window-dressing.

    • I thought the whole point of his comments was that the game itself would be Bioshock but the cover was treated as a sort of promotional material that they were changing to appeal to low-information consumers.

      I don’t know if I agree, because the original Bioshock had a pretty evocative cover. If low-information consumers weren’t buying it then it was probably for other reasons, like it didn’t achieve a place in the pop culture zeitgeist as Something Everyone Is Doing. I can’t really put myself in the shoes of a low-information consumer though. I tend to completely overdo it on researching purchases.

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