This Magic Market
By Karl Castaneda
The video games industry is growing, and with that growth, there’s lots of money to be made. Unfortunately, the competition for those fat sacks of cash is fierce. It takes a lot more than a good concept to sell a title to gamers these days. Some prefer familiarity, others look for something original, and some of them go simply be word of mouth. To push their chances to the absolute maximum, though, publishers invest millions every year in advertising. Whether it’s a full-page spread on Electronic Gaming Monthly or a thirty-second TV spot, you can bet the most popular games of the year have big bucks backing their success. But there are so many ways to do it. Let’s explore a few…
Classic Style: Print Ads
Everyone’s familiar with print ads. We see them in newspapers, in magazines, and even on the street at bus stops. With gaming, it’s pretty straight-forward; some concept art or a fancy-looking render with a super-imposed logo and some PR-talk designed to get you hyped and ready to give up your hard-earned cash. However, it’s not always pretty when a publisher decides to deviate from the basic formula.
Excerpts from the press are pretty much commonplace these days, with snippets from IGN and Game Informer and every other outlet you can imagine showing up if they’ve got the right amount of praise. Usually they’re not whole sentences, either; just a few words that get the message across. Of course, you’ve got to be careful not to do too much editing, which is a lesson that Ubisoft had to learn the hard way…
If you’ve picked up EGM lately, you’ve probably seen the Splinter Cell Essentials ad, where an editor from GameSpy hailed the game to be “one of the best games on PSP.” Unfortunately, the game only scored 2/5 Stars, hardly noteworthy. So where did this magic review come from? The truth is nowhere. It was actually taken from a preview, and even then, the sentence had been cropped from the following:
"Although Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell Essentials doesn't reinvent the wheel in any way, it's shaping up to be one of the best games we've played on the PSP."
1Up delved in deeper and learned from GameSpy’s Editorial Director that, although they were very impressed with the demo they had received for preview, the final game was drastically different, and not worthy of the praise they had given it. But hey, praise is praise, and at the end of the day, a publisher will take anything it can get to sell more units.
In all honesty, it’s been my experience and the experience of my colleagues that print ads usually won’t do much to excite the hardcore crowd. Since we’re usually well-aware of how good a game is before it hits stores, bold words and classy text doesn’t do much to sway us. But this isn’t the only method.
In Your Face: Video Footage vs. TV Spots
At first glance, you might not realize the difference between a TV spot and video footage. However, I’d advise any of you to, after seeing a commercial on TV, head over to Game Trailers and check out one of the videos on hand. You’re likely to see a drastically different tone.
With a commercial, you usually get the kind of material Nintendo puts out, which is to say, a tightly-packed “haha” that somehow relates to the game in question. For example, the Pikmin 2 commercial from Summer 2004, which featured a teenager who commanded an army of spandex-wearing midgets. When the mini-madmen returned with his hotdog (because if you’ve got an army, what else is there to do but buy hot dogs, really), he proclaimed he wanted mustard. Wow, I had no idea how intuitive Pikmin’s control scheme was before, or how original the concept is, or even that they’d added multiplayer. Thank you, Nintendo!
Note the sarcasm.
With video footage, though, there’s a completely different feel. Nothing’s forced down your throat; you’re simply shown what the game is all about, either through theatrical cutscenes, gameplay footage, or an amalgam of both. In any case, it does a lot more to sell the concept in my eyes; probably because, regardless of the tone of the game, it’s done in a straight-forward way. If I want to check out what the new Zelda’s all about, the trailer gives me exactly what I need to know. And to the hardcore gamer, that’s what matters.
The same applies to console launches. While Sony’s futuristic PS2 ad from way back in the day caught my attention (Fun Fact: For those of you who don’t recall, it was a guy demoing a PS9, which was essentially a crystal ball that “took you to another world.” That was probably the birth of Sony’s “Live in your world, play in ours” motto.), did it make me want a PS2 more? Nope. What made me want (and to a lesser degree, still want) the console was the amazing trailer for Metal Gear Solid 2, or the fact that Naughty Dog was making a new platformer (I was a fiend for Crash Bandicoot back then). It was game footage, not midgets running after hotdogs, that did the trick.
Some companies get it. Rockstar and Microsoft are great examples. When they launched San Andreas and Halo 2, their TV Spots were made up of game footage, and I’ll be damned if they didn’t look mighty cool. They had a great cinematic feel while still preserving what the game was about, and for that, they’re exactly what game ads on TV should be.
In the new age of technology, though, it goes beyond TV. With the internet comes a great opportunity to spread the word much faster than with television or in magazines. But it doesn’t stop with flash pop-ups. Sometimes publishers go a little deeper, and a little more covert…
Catching the Bug: Viral Marketing
If there’s anything the self-proclaimed hardcore like to do, it’s argue, and with message boards being so common and popular, there’s a huge venue for debates to take place. And when it comes to games, people take every platform under the sun. And with sources like The GAF becoming the first place to look for news, it’s not too hard to believe that developers and publishers have accounts on message boards all over the world. The question is, are they there to discuss games like everyone else, or is there another purpose?
As scandalous as it sounds, major publishers often employ people to simply hang out at message boards, but of course, all of their posts must have a certain tilt. It doesn’t take a genius to see what kind of tilt it’ll be, either. Need more details? As always, I can count on the good people at Penny-Arcade to provide fuel to my editorial fire. Here’s an email they received in January of this year when they were discussing viral marketing, sometimes known by its uglier name, “guerilla marketing.” Check it out:
“I interviewed for a guerilla marketing business in San Francisco that targeted web forums.
I was told that if I accepted the job, I was to have at LEAST 50 identities on as many forums as I could muster (they wanted 100 eventually), with a goal of 5 posts an hour. The posts had to be well thought out, and the idea was that I was to establish multiple identities with a history on the forums, so that when the timing was right a well written but subtly placed marketing post could be finessed in. And regular visitors would recognize the post as coming from a long time poster.
They had 12 people working there full time, and were hiring 10 more. You do the math. No wait, I'll do it for you: that's 880 posts a day (if minimum was met). However he said the better ones could do around 8 or 10 an hour. And they had different "verticals" so there was the sports guy, and the games guy, the hentai, excuse me I mean anime guy, etc.
But the most critical point was this: develop and integrate the identity. No random "HEY EB GAMES IS AWESOME BUY THIS" stuff.
Spooky indeed. But, as I said, earlier, a publisher will get that cash back that they spent on funding the developer in any way it can, even if it’s underhanded. All’s fair in love and the war for your dollar. And while I can’t condone the behavior to any degree, I can certainly understand it. Money keeps people afloat. And that brings us to our next topic…
Mario Loves Burger King: In-Game Advertising
As I pass the McDonalds going 85 miles per hour, I remind myself that I probably shouldn’t be talking on my brand new Motorola Razor. After all, I’ve got a new TV that I just bought from Best Buy in the backseat, and if I were to wreck that beautiful Samsung, I might cry harder than that time when I was five at Disney World when I saw the guy in the Mickey Mouse costume take his cartoon head off.
If you don’t see anything wrong with that passage, you’re probably an ad executive. It’s product placement, of course, and it’s one the biggest and fastest-growing forms of getting your name out there into peoples’ heads. For a long while, games were relatively distant from this practice, but lately, it’s become a little different.
The most notorious offender is probably Need for Speed: Underground 2, which had you chatting on Cingular phones and passing by a Burger King or a Best Buy every few minutes. After a while, it’s hard not to get turned off by the sheer gaudiness of it. It’s just way too overstated. It was pushed onto your plate to the point that it felt cheesy, and it hindered the experience as a result.
Do I detest all in-game product-placement? No, of course not. I don’t mind seeing Everlast in Fight Night, and I actually like seeing the various car and car accessory companies making appearances in racing games. These kinds of things add to the reaslim that’s so desperately sought after in sim-type titles. It’s when you throw something in there that has no right being present that gamers get antsy. Moderation is the key.
But again, it’s all about the cash, and in-game advertising is another up-and-coming business model. Publishers had can tons back on their investment without selling a single unit, and it’s tempting to take an easy way out when your game has as much a chance to be a major flop as it has to succeed. So we’re once again faced with an executive shying away from the moral high ground in favor of the “safe bet.” But when they’re running a business that employs hundreds of people, can you blame them?
Chatting with Chan: The Outlook on the Other Side
When I finished the editorial, I found that I needed more, and that I’d need to present more to you to really get the message across. Fortunately, the recently re-branded Acclaim’s Ken Chan was very enthusiastic about the feature, and was kind enough to lend his voice to this small Q & A. After acquiring his MBA, Ken went on to work at the ad agency responsible for fueling hype for companies like Apple, Nissan, and even for Sony’s Playstation. On top of that, he’s a dedicated gamer. You can check out his daily thoughts at Branded Newb.
Gaming Vision: When it comes to print ads, most gamers that I've met don't show a lot of interest. I suppose in advent of modern technology, something on paper just doesn't have the same effect it used to. In your experience, about how much of a difference do print ads make in selling a game to the public? Does it have more of an effect on the mainstream crowd since they're not as informed as the "hardcore?"
Ken Chan:I promise to answer your question, but first some setup:
Actually, the effectiveness of any form of advertising is based on a lot of factors. In addition, you have the tricky task of defining effectiveness. Most advertising, including print ads are for awareness purposes and so an effective ad campaign increases awareness and eventually intent to purchase. To sell a game to the public, you need to establish some level of awareness and usually that’s done through advertising. You do the advertising by putting together a media plan that might include channels like TV, print, online or outdoor. Then you put together creative (ads) that fill those media spots.
Print ads, therefore, are just part of a bigger campaign. Alone, I would say they probably aren’t very effective. However, you want to reach your target as effectively as possible. So if your target reads game mags, then you’ll want to reinforce your campaign with print, even if it’s not as flashy or sexy as the other channels. It’s about casting that wide net.
Personally, I think print ads in game magazines are a tricky thing. On one hand, you can’t get any more targeted to your audience if you pick the right magazine. On the other hand, you have to have a pretty effective ad to get anyone’s attention. It’s really a toss-up and it depends on how well everything works. Overall though, I would put print pretty low on the list of where to spend money.
Gaming Vision: I know when it comes to selling a concept to me, I'm much more responsive to footage from the actual game versus skit-like commercials that don't do much to show off the title at all. Why do you think companies like Nintendo pursue it, even though it's proved to not be very effective (such as the expensive live-action Metroid Prime 2: Echoes ad from a couple years ago; that game didn't sell very well at all)?
Ken Chan: Well, again, it depends on what’s best to create awareness. If your game has some really awesome game visuals (rare nowadays since everyone is sequeling or cloning like crazy), you’ll want to show that. More often, you’ll have to resort to game footage combined with something creative in the ad. You want to do anything possible to get above the noise and so the skit-like content is attempting to do that. It’s an arms race though because the more money, the more noise.
Gaming Vision: There's been a lot of talk recently about viral marketing and its lack of morality. As someone who works in the marketing field, do you think that the ends (being increased sales) justify the means (completely biased source)?
Ken Chan: The term viral has lost a lot of meaning lately. It’s used to describe just about anything that can be passed along, regardless of how effective it is. I happen to love viral advertising, to a point. If you create something truly interesting and can be passed along, it’s actually pretty cool to the consumer.
Now some advertisers have used “street teams” or similar tactics where they hire people to pass the word along, as if these people were not connected to the company. Message board seeders are an example. I think this practice is playing with fire. Personally, I think it’s too risky for the benefits, which aren’t even guaranteed. Consumers are not stupid, but marketers tend to think that. Transparency is more valuable nowadays than covert tactics. If marketers really have something valuable, it’ll find its way to the consumer without sneaky tactics.
Gaming Vision: At the end of the day, are advertisements aimed at gamers manufactured more to guarantee a sale or just to increase awareness? Since sequels are common, just raising awareness may come in handy later.
Ken Chan: I would say that most commonly, ads are aimed at the latter to get the former. Other than a few very privileged franchises like Warcraft and Final Fantasy, I doubt many marketers think beyond the title in front of them. There are very few incentives to do so, so no one wants to waste resources. You want to focus your attention on raising awareness on that one title and hope that translates to immediate sales.
Gaming Vision: In your own personal opinion, what's the state of the industry's marketing community? Do you think anything needs to change right away? How is Acclaim making strides in this regard, if so?
Ken Chan:The industry’s marketing community is tied to the overall industry, which I see going down a very slippery slope towards the problems of Hollywood. It’s the quest for the big splash. Bigger budgets, higher risks and less innovation is a bad direction for the industry. It’s inevitable but boy has it arrived quickly.
The marketing community serves the industry, so marketing budgets are bigger and big splashes more important. I’m not sure how we can solve this. However, I do know that the noise level is getting higher and higher and it’s a no win situation for everyone. This is especially true if your content is mediocre; you have to shout louder. Preferably, resources should be used at creating great content.
As far as what we’re doing at Acclaim. We don’t want to compete with the noise. We’re really trying to stay as far away from the current practices in the industry now. Because we’re focusing only on online content, we don’t have to compete for shelf space at a retailer. That process is very cutthroat and tied to how much money you’re willing to spend in marketing, so marketers fighting for skus have their hands tied already. They must spend so much on this or that just so that Walmart or EB carries their title.
Since we don’t have to fight this and similar battles, we can focus our resources on other things. Most of our marketing efforts will be online and that presents us with incredibly creative options with search, online advertising, web properties, community sites and consumer generated media. It would be very satisfying to show that we can be successful without the big splash and I’m confident we’ll be getting there.
In this piece, we’ve explored the different strategies publishers can take advantage of if they want to hype their game up a bit. From Ubisoft doctoring quotes to NFS prostituting itself out faster than, well, a prostitute, we’ve seen that it’s chiefly about making a profit, whether it’s done by raising awareness on the chance you’ll make a purchase or by allowing an outsider to force-feed you their logo.
This is usually the part where I present a solution to the problem, but most of what’s been talked about isn’t so much a problem as it’s common practice, and with every different gamer comes a different set of tastes. So instead of my telling you what to think, I’m going to ask you to think, and to respond. How do you feel you’re being marketed to? Does it affect you at all? Are you ever motivated to purchase merchandise via the aforementioned? What are your thoughts on what I’ve presented to you?