Advertising a hardcore video game isn’t as straightforward as selling a TV show or movie. Selling linear entertainment is as simple as giving a taste of the thing that your selling. If you want to make a movie you stitch together a few scenes, throw on some music, hire one of the five big trailer voice guys and you’re good to go. It’s a tiny version of the story, possibly more evocative and action packed than the movie itself, and it even uses the same talent and a similar format. Even print ads can push through a sense of the experience by creating some kind of pastiche of images and text to let you know what to expect.
But when it comes to Video Games, well, it’s hard to market something non-linear in a linear fashion. The cut-scenes, the graphics, the voice overs, all do nothing to represent the genuine experience of the game. The part you do with your hands and brain, and not your eyes.
And lets not beat around the bush, for the last thirty years gaming has had to suffer through some of the worst marketing ever pushed onto an audience. I’s not even that hard to put a single word onto the problem that infected most of game advertising: Contempt.
For a while it seemed that a majority of ads were trying to sell the games to a crowd of basement dwelling geeks or uber-hip nerds who gain social credibility only by being dicks to their friends because they are not HARD CORE enough. The problem with these stereotypes is that they never existed outside of spreadsheets and Powerpoint presentations. And that led to a sense that the people making these ads feel that games are kind of stupid and beneath them.
It’s gotten a little easier for the marketers as the games have become more realistic and less abstract. Improved graphics and fabulous cut-scenes meant that you could put actual imagery from the game in your commercial. Spice it up with a little Hollywood magic and you could turn it into a movie trailer. Check out this ad for Halo 2:
Yeah, it’s gorgeous, but everyone didn’t already know what the gameplay was, what the hell would they know after watching that ad above?
The rise of signature characters (probably starting with Lara Croft) was another lifesaver for marketers drowning in a digital sea. If the character is well designed it’s already evoking the type of gameplay that the player can expect. Unlike the straight trailer, bumping up your signature hero with high-end graphics and exciting voice overs can actually help sell the user on what to expect when playing the game, especially if you’re selling third person gameplay. One of my favorite example of this was the thirty second spot for the first God of War”
That’s a great ad for a lot of reasons, and when you finally did sit down to play the game you found out that what you saw was reasonably close to what you got.
Of course, first person is harder. The game experience is a little different, and frankly less cinematic. You also don’t get to see your character (besides hands and guns) for the majority of the experience. Gears of War was actually a hybrid, with the player character in view at all times, but I still think this commercial shows how it can be done right:
That’s an amazing ad in so many ways. The fact that it counter-points the violence with quiet manages to perfectly capture the way your television screen is filled with violence even though game playing is relaxing activity that takes place in the calm of your living room.
Microsoft’s marketers do seem to have figured it out. The Halo 3 commercials are masterful. Evocative, and relaxed. They’re also managing to send a message about the multiplayer experience at the same time they’re giving out hints on the single player story.
Here’s a great one you may have missed from the series they did where they looked back on Halo as if it was a great historical conflict:
But even the best ads represent only the beginning of a relationship. If a commercial crass attempt to trick a potential player into trying to sell the player on something that the game isn’t, they’re going to figure it out pretty quickly that they’re being sold a bill of goods.
Most hardcore gamers are never going to make a buy decision based around an ad alone anyway. What they want is peer revue and social value. If the developers have created a unique feature that makes the product worthwhile then the best bet is to feature that in any way possible. If it isn’t all that and a bag of chips, then show the player chips, not the bag. There must be some reason to play the game, at least for a little while. And no amount of blood, gruff voice acting, motion graphics, and attitude is going to make it better:
In the end the game had better deliver on what the commercial promised. That doesn’t mean that it needs to be perfect, but it does need to be what’s advertised. If the early adopters and reviewers are disappointed by the experience, the very same Internet that carries all of the media, viral marketing, and print ads will become a focal point of scorn and derision.