One interesting thing I've noticed in the field of game design is that there are some purported features that are so hated that not having them becomes an advertised feature! Here are some quick examples:

  • In the world of card games, Magic: the Gathering's 'lands'/'mana' system for accumulating resources is widely hated, and competitors to Magic at times explicitly advertise "no mana flood! no mana screw!" (For those unfamiliar with Magic, this is a situation where randomness in the game's resource system can essentially decide the game without the players making very meaningful decisions.)
  • In digital games, I've seen "no pay-to-win" used as a selling point to differentiate from games where players can directly buy things that increase their in-game power.
  • An even more extreme example of "no pay-to-win" is "no NFTs" -- NFTs have a very bad reputation in the gaming world, to the point where not having them is advertised sometimes even when one doesn't much have reason to think the game would have NFTs.

I like the word 'antifeatures' for these sorts of things -- and while the existence of 'antifeatures' first came to my attention in the domain of game design, I think this sort of thing is prevalent in a lot of other places as well. For example, some bars will advertise "no cover charge", some comedy shows will advertise "no drink minimum", and so on.

However, I think there's another important aspect to this that concept some people miss. Just avoiding things that people don't like doesn't make your game good! It's cool that your game has no mana screw or mana flood, that it isn't pay-to-win, and that it doesn't have NFTs -- but in order for me to be interested in it, it has to go beyond merely not having bad things and instead has to actively have things to recommend it!

In other words, I'm talking to my friends about a game and trying to get them to play it, I think I generally need more to go on than "it doesn't have <unpopular feature X>" -- there have to be other things that make it actively appealing!

One potentially relevant example is that there are a bunch of conservative films that have "this film isn't 'woke' like what Hollywood puts out!" or whatever as a primary selling point. Unfortunately, to be really successful you also have to... actually make a good film? "Not being <undesirable thing X>" seems generally insufficient.

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This is how enthusiasts advertise Linux. They don't exactly word it in the negative, but here we have listed as the 7 top reasons to love Linux:

  • No viruses
  • No crashes
  • No individual program updates
  • No cost
  • No IP
  • No command line necessary

The 3 positive reasons to love linux are:

  • Customisation
  • Education about how OSs work
  • Support (i.e. if it breaks, people will help you fix it)

Linux is the main OS I use, but advertising the bad things it doesn't have, how much you can learn by using it, and the amount of support that's available, is not a strong marketing strategy.

On this list, customisation is the main positive selling point. I wish the Linux community could be more up front about its downsides, and emphasize where it really shines - computing and engineering applications. Being plausibly able to use it for things that you can do easier on Windows (i.e. gaming) is a nice bonus, but if I was writing this list, I'd put at the very top:

LINUX IS KEY TO THE INTERNET AND BEING GOOD AT IT WILL HELP YOU GET A GREAT JOB

Selling a card game as 'non-mana' is like selling non-apples, sounds like.

Nonetheless people do it a lot and (I assume) it resonates, so I think there is some meaningful difference. (I think it comes with an implied 'basically like Magic the Gathering, except', which maybe makes it more like selling non-red apples than non-apples)

I think that 'non-mana' makes a bad development plan ("ok, but what should we have instead of mana?") and possibly a bad official marketing strategy ("ok, but why should I trust that you found something actually good to replace it with?"). However in other contexts I think 'non-mana' style descriptions can be very useful, primarily for their brevity. One of my favorite games is Epic Card Game (despite the terrible name), and my one-sentence description of it is that it's similar to Magic except that I like it better, in large part because they drastically improved Magic's mana system and Magic's distribution model and (unlike Magic) created a great 2-player draft format. And sure, I haven't actually told you how it accomplishes any of those things - what specific features instantiate those antifeatures. But you can always ask for the details if you want to hear more, or if you trust me for whatever reason (which may be easier than trusting the company's marketers) then you can just take my word for it, and so this quick description is enough for my friend to go try the game.

One antifeature I see promoted a lot is "It doesn't track your data". And this seems like it actually manages to be the main selling point on its own for products like DuckDuckGo, Firefox, and PinePhone.

The major difference from the game and movie examples is that these products have fewer competitors, with few or none sharing this particular antifeature.

Antifeatures work as marketing if a product is unique or almost unique in its category for having a highly desired antifeature. If there are lots of other products with the same antifeature, the antifeature alone won't sell the product. But the same is true of regular features. You can't convince your friends to play a game by saying "it has a story" or "it has a combat system" either.

Another commenter mentions DuckDuckGo, and I think that’s a good example of a product where just mentioning lack-of-antifeatures is enough to advertise it successfully. The reason for this is that the advertisement actually goes like this:

“It’s a <X (a product category)> which doesn’t have <Y (an antifeature)>!”

Now, if X is “game” (and Y is “mana flood” or whatever), then certainly this won’t cut it, because “a game” can be any of a vast, highly differentiated field of possible things. But if X is “search engine”, then it’s a different story—because everyone knows what a search engine is (and, absent qualifiers, it really is more or less one specific sort of thing), and so just the fact of your product belonging to this category is already highly informative about what it can reasonably be expected to do, have, and be like!

So “a search engine that doesn’t track your data” is a perfectly reasonable description. What does it do? It searches the internet, and probably has various search-related auxiliary features (maybe more of these, maybe fewer, but these are details). Why would you want to use it? Because you want to search the internet, duh. Oh, and it doesn’t track your data?! Well, heck, sign me up!

And so with many things.

Definitely worth mentioning, but both sides are important.  Enable/attract/incentivize is generally most important, but as a category (in the broad sense, not just games - category of behavior you care about) gets crowded, you also need to remove blockers to adopting your recommendation.

Also worth saying that this applies to both design and marketing.  The choice of what features to expend effort on (or to expend effort to avoid/replace) has multiple inputs, and the choice of which ones to highlight in ad copy likewise.  

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