July 12, 2012

Emotional Resonance—a Bridge between Old and New

8-bit graphics will never die. As the polygons of our shooters become smoother and smoother, as we watch the protagonist’s strands of hair sway in the wind of our RPGs, and as meadows in distant lands become littered with unique, individual blades of grass, we will still embrace the graphics of gaming’s first generation—graphics that were a medium for an art form in its infancy. It is instant emotional resonance—conveyed without words, without context, without story.

There’s so much promise in something new—new experiences, new relationships, new jobs, new friends, or new stories.  New can be flashy. New can be exciting.  But new can also be hard to rely on—after all, what if new sucks? What if new isn’t worth it? What if new can’t be built upon?

Sometimes, it’s easiest to stick with old. Old is proven. Old is reliable. Old is successful. But old can also be boring. Old has already been done; it has nothing different to offer. We have already experienced old.

But this doesn’t mean old is worthless. Sometimes, we wish to go back to old—we miss experiences we once had, and want to relive them. Returning to old allows us to recreate past experiences, learn something new thanks to new perspectives, or just to refresh our memories from something we used to know. Nostalgia drives us back to experiences we remember favorably, if only to attempt to relive them.

Is there any way then that we use the groundwork set by something old, combine it with the excitement of something new, and attempt to satisfy our desire for a new, unique experience that uses the success of old, in order to reduce the risk of a failed experience? Yes, there is (at least) one proven successful path to do this—and it is accomplished with the use of emotional resonance.

Emotional resonance is a tool used to evoke an association or strong emotion in an audience—whether that be a literal audience at a play, or a reader of a novel someone’s written, or a player of a video game you’ve created. If you make a connection on an emotional level with your audience, they will become more invested in your medium. However, it is difficult to establish an emotional resonance with a new product; after all, it’s new—you haven’t connected with anyone until the product is already in your audience’s hands. You need to play off an emotion that already exists in your audience, an experience they can relate to or a feeling they’ve felt before.

It is much easier if you use an old component in your new product; say, for example, if you write a fan fiction about Twilight, you can use the already established series to connect with your audience on an emotional level without them even reading a page of your novel. You can take risks on changing the content of your work (such as game play or style) by relying on the old as something people will enjoy. Activision did something similar with Spyro the Dragon, a character from the 90s and early 2000s, by using him as a brand that gamers would recognize, in order to gain a larger audience for Skylanders. This technique was so effective in the case of Skylanders that the game recently outsold Star Wars toys and is one of the most successful brands of 2011. Skylanders has very little to do with Spyro; so little, in fact, that his name is not even included in the sequel. But that wasn’t the point of including Spyro—Activision needed a brand to reach an emotional resonance with an audience and hook them to the game, and once it used Spyro to do so, it then created new experiences with the rest of the Skylanders cast so that the game no longer needed Spyro dragging the new brand down. Spyro was a crutch for Skylanders, one that the series could cast off as soon as it established itself as a successful brand.

So what does all this have to do with 8-bit graphics? Well, 8-bit graphics are the most common form of emotional resonance for today’s gamers. We, as a whole, grew up on a generation of games on the NES, in arcades, on computers, and many of the largest brands of our industry—like Mario, Zelda, Pac-Man, and more—all got their start using 8-bit graphics. Relying on 8-bit graphics as an art form for new games, for example, is a good way to obtain an audience initially and thus increase the probability that you will be able to keep them.

One of the reasons 8-bit graphics will never die is because they are a piece of gaming’s history—a piece that developers can turn to, time and time again, to remind us of gaming’s roots, and reach the audiences that were, or wish to be, a part of that history.

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