Pre E3 Game Marketing: Full of Sound and Fury, Signifying…

I’ve determined that I’m easily put off by empty advertising.  If an ad is full of bright colours and loud noises but tells me next to nothing about the product in question, I tend to develop a poor opinion of said product.  My attitude is that marketing should sell the tangible positives of the thing, not sell me a lifestyle connected to the thing.

Most days lately I feel like a cranky old person telling kids to get off my lawn.

Access to top titles is becoming increasingly hard to come by, especially in Canada where PR companies are being forced to work with smaller and smaller budgets while clients expect bigger returns.  So we’re reliant on game trailers to tell us what a game is about, and what we should expect from it.

The thing is, game trailers tend to do a terrible job at that, and the follow up information from developers isn’t really much better.  Secrecy is overvalued in gaming.  Communication is given short shrift.

Most game trailers are expertly edited, decidedly exciting, and great promotion if games were films.  However, they’re all starting to look very much the same.  And they tell us very little about how a game plays, which is the single most important element of a video game.  Since we know the game review system is seriously broken right now, and games are getting increasingly more expensive, it’s more important than ever that gamers know what they’re buying, but right now, they can only get that from Youtube Let’s Plays and Twitch streams which show them the actual game.

There has to be a happier, spoiler-free medium.

Game trailers should show the same “who, what, when, where, why and how” that articles about a game are expected to provide.

Who does the game appeal to?  — With the cost of games climbing, I’m not going to buy another military shooter unless I think I’m going to get some sort of innovation.  Other players want a strong community.  Others still want a lot of gameplay hours.  We’re so hung up on age, gender, and content rating that marketers are missing these other points.

What is it about? — “guys that shoot things” is an insufficient amount of detail.  A film trailer is expected to give you the basics of what a film is about.  Game trailers seem to forget that basic plot concept is extremely important for pulling in more casual gamers that TV ads will sway.  Everyone tends to copy the original Gears of War marketing while missing the fact that those ads worked because they actually represented what the games were about: killing monsters and big bro feels.

When is it coming out? — I can’t get excited by a teaser trailer without a release date, since release dates are guesstimates at best these days anyway.

Where is it available? — This may sound like common sense, but many busy people can’t keep straight which games are console exclusives and which ones are multiplatform.  Two seconds at the end of a trailer isn’t enough time for them to get that information.

Why is it worth buying this game?  — It’s amazing, but this is the element a lot of mediocre game marketing misses in its attempts to be like every other piece of game marketing out there.  That infamous Dead Space 2 campaign answered this question with “because your mom will hate it”… which I gotta admit would have swayed me at times when I was younger.  The celebrity World of Warcraft ads reminded people to play Warcraft because it had transcended being a video game and had become a cultural reference.  The why is the difference between an average ad and a great one.

How is this game going to be fun? — With the emphasis on seriousness in gaming right now, this point also gets missed a lot.  It’s really not that hard to do, but I think a lot of companies miss that it’s important to do.  For instance, the Overwatch ads show that you’ll have fun playing as a bright, colorful character shooting at other bright colorful characters.  Sometimes it’s as simple as that.  On the other hand, Xbox ran a big campaign for Rise of the Tomb Raider made the games look like Lara Croft movies.  They didn’t make it clear that a big part of the fun was solving very interesting puzzles and taking down enemies.  Too many ads make the game look very pretty, but kind of boring.  Lara exploring a cave with a torch isn’t enough to hook most people.  They need an emotional connection that gives them something to care about.

The sheer deluge of marketing this time of year is one of the reasons that the games press gets to cranky and apathetic.  So give us a break, game marketers, and give us some information we can pass on to our viewers and readers.  That’s much more important than another free t-shirt that rarely comes in the proper size anyway.

bell hooks, Beyonce, Spirit, and Feminism For Now

I’ve been watching the whole “bell hooks is sour on Beyoncé’s Lemonade” thing from the sidelines, afraid to comment because of the colour of my skin.  But I’ve gotten tired of “nodding respectfully”, and I want to approach this through a door hooks herself opened — her assertion that Lemonade being created primarily for a black female audience misses the point. “Commodities,” says hooks, “irrespective of their subject matter, are made, produced, and marketed to entice any and all consumers.”

I understand that I’m writing from adopted tradition.  I grew up with black people, but I’m obviously not one.  I do not claim ownership of black traditions or black culture, just an appreciation.  I don’t seek to be an appropriator.  But as a presumed outsider who sees some of the nods for black women, there’s no denying that Lemonade was made for black women.  And this matters, because the voices and art of black women matter.

hooks is interchanging the concepts of art, artist, and commodity in ways that are… duh duh duuuuuuuh… problematic.  In reducing Beyoncé’s highly metaphorical, some would say deeply personal, work of art to a good to be bought and sold, hooks is objectifying Beyoncé’s story.  Art is not a what.  Art is a who, a how, and a why.  We are sharing in Beyoncé’s message, not transferring ownership of it.  It cannot be reduced to object simply because a copy is purchased.  Lemonade will always be an extension of Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter.

hooks, who for years has taught acolytes to rage against the dominance of the presumed white male audience, now claims Beyonce’s work on Lemonade can’t be presumed to be primarily for black women because it exists in a capitalist paradigm.  Because Beyoncé has learned to thrive in a capitalist system, hooks believes that her work cannot be considered feminist, never mind black feminist.

The reactions in the white media to Lemonade prove hooks wrong.  While watching an ABC News clip that teased the project, I was marveling at the glory of Beyoncé with her hair in cornrows, showing flashes of people in Voodoo face paint, when the perky middle America-friendly commentators said “fans have commented that it looks like something out of American Horror Story”.

I immediately hit pause so I could internally scream.  These “news” anchors were missing that Beyoncé was drawing from the same source as the third season of American Horror Story: Louisiana Voodoo.  That is her culture.  Her history.  She’s not copying a TV show.

There’s a level of ancestor worship in Lemonade that the gossip rag media doesn’t get, because most people who engage with Lemonade are only connecting to the surface elements of the work — the lyrics that talk about infidelity.  Yes, that’s commodity.  Female suffering will always sell albums.  However, there are images to consider as well in this visual album, and the references to voodoo, Antebellum America, and even embodying a goddess of love, seduction, and beauty, all ochre yellow robes and running water… these matter too.  They tell another, deeper story, of the historical struggles, myths, and personifications of black women in the Americas, and these images matter so deeply.  This is Queen Bey’s descent, Ishtar-like, into the underworld, stripping down, and emerging with her power returned.

hooks’ toolbox doesn’t factor in the very old, very subversive myths that Beyoncé is invoking.  Beyonce’s working magic older than the modern patriarchy, and hooks’ academically masculinized viewpoint, her phallic set of tools, are deaf to Beyoncé’s underlying messages.

I don’t see Lemonade as the story of Beyoncé’s reaction to Jay-Z cheating.  Artists do concept albums all the time, and the work speaks for itself.  I see Lemonade as a subversive musical history of black women who sang about their men and their Christian God because society wouldn’t let them sing publicly about anything else, but the Goddess was always hiding in the bedroom and the church.

Beyoncé is examining the role of black women in the media, in business, and in the home.  It’s daring, deep, brave, and artistic as all hell.  Yes, black women’s bodies have been uniquely sexualized.  Why not explore that?  Why not say something about that?  Beyoncé doesn’t just show herself as a wife of a cheating mogul.  She shows herself as a daughter, a sister, a mother, a business woman, and the sacred feminine too.  bell hooks fixated on the body, when Beyoncé was baring her soul.  bell hooks fixated on systems, while Beyoncé was invoking spirit.  bell hooks, in essence, politicized Beyoncé’s testimony, and you can’t politicize the Goddess without losing the divine spark.

And at least a dozen brilliant black women, who can connect in historical and personal ways that I can’t, stood up to bell hooks, thanked her for her past service, but emphatically told her she was wrong.

There’s magic in this.  Beyoncé’s message of unity resonated, and her sisterhood answered.  Lone gun academics like hooks who forsook the magic of her body to be “accepted” by the mainstream can’t understand the raw power in something like Lemonade.  Taken as a whole, I don’t think Lemonade is about one story of infidelity.  I think it’s an invocation that the “men cheating” narrative is a very old one, going back to some dark places in history, and Lemonade successfully shows there’s more to the story.

hooks herself got the uniquely Southern reference — the childhood memories of girls selling lemonade as a symbol of the female businesswoman — but got lost in her head and missed the call to the spirit of womanhood that is embodied in an angry goddess, smashing stuff because SHE CAN.  hooks may be afraid of sex, afraid of violence, and afraid of feeling anything below the waist because she sees it as a symptom of dominance, but the “goodbye to the good girl” truths in Beyonce’s form of feminism CAN BE TRUSTED, despite hooks’ claims to the contrary.  Lemonade is Beyoncé’s freedom cry, her assertion that there is so much more to her than the wife of a man who cheated. She is not just “the wife”.  She is not just “the voice”.  She is the spirit and the consciousness and she’s a modern day beauty goddess.  In the traditions Beyoncé is invoking, her goddess has a vindictive streak.  She is not a passive beauty.  So she can smash cars if she damned well wants to, even if it’s not the “right” thing to do.  We won’t overcome the oppression in our own minds by saying “pretty please”.

hooks missed this.  hooks is showing the oppression in her own mind.

hooks seems very interested in the male role in Beyonce’s story, missing that Jay-Z is only a supporting character in the story of Queen Bey.  Beyoncé cannot control her husband.  She can’t force him to be faithful, respectful, or see her as an equal.  She CAN contextualize her own story in the collective tales of her ancestors, her blood, and realize that her man cheating is an annoyance, not a failure.  She will choose to stay with him or she will choose to tell him to leave her story.  Both of these are valid choices.  Beyoncé has choices because she sees herself as emancipated, and hooks has no right to deny her that.  We have to hope for a point in time when being black in America stops being a psychological handicap.

Beyoncé is standing in her power regardless of what her man did, and that’s an astounding testament of how far all women have come.  It’s a unique achievement for black women, who had to choose between their race and their sex during the second wave of feminism.  Beyoncé is not afraid of her lady parts.  She realizes that only by being whole can she also be powerful.  She is the heroine of her own story.  She’s sharing a spiritual, ancestral road map to move beyond pain, and bell hooks is telling her “not good enough”.

How is this not hooks in the role of oppressor?  The matron telling the younger female that she is not yet a woman, holding her down despite her fame?  Despite her wealth?  Despite everything?  hooks has decided none of this has meaning, and I don’t know what higher power she invokes to believe she has that right.

While hooks is using the white man’s tools — academics, non-fiction writing, and “literature” — Beyoncé is taking her message to the streets, the charts, the sports stadiums, the award shows, the runways, the airwaves, the social networks, and the salons.  hooks is only relevant in this matter because she’s the cranky neighbour who called the cops on the street party.  hooks seems to forget that one day she herself was an upstart poet saying challenging things, perhaps because her skills lie in tearing things down more than building them up.  However, black women today don’t call her “Auntie bell” because she ripped apart the work of white feminists.  They respect the words she gave black women, not the words she took from white women.  Beyoncé is adding to that dictionary and extending it to all women willing to see and hear those words, and that’s a good thing.

Beyoncé is the feminist that the culture needs TODAY.  She couldn’t have gotten to this point without bell hooks, and that’s why it’s especially sad that hooks has decided to extract the lemons from the Lemonade.  Intersectionalism means not missing the sugar and the water that also make up the drink, and hooks is so stuck on the sour notes of violence, domination, and oppression that she’s missing the sweetness and the cleansing nature of Beyoncé expressing the elements of her truths that she wants to share.

This round of artistic truths started with Formation, not Jay-Z’s antics.  How quickly some “academics” forget a woman’s art when there’s a man involved. Lemonade is absolutely made for black women, and that doesn’t change because a black woman is getting paid.

Farewell, Toy Box – Six Reasons Disney Infinity Suffered From Slow Growth

You may have heard by now that Disney Infinity is shutting down, and the reason given was slow growth in the toys to life market coupled with relatively high production costs. As a fan of toys to life games, and Disney Infinity in particular, I wanted to take a moment to detail some of the reasons why I think this is so, based purely from personal experience with writing and doing videos about these sorts of games.

1 – Overly aggressive DMCA and a disconnect with the games press 

I stopped covering Disney Infinity on my YouTube channel because I couldn’t make any money doing so. The music would get flagged by DMCA claims, and I’d lose all the revenue. Disney isn’t the only company making this mistake: Nintendo still doesn’t have a YouTube partnership program in Canada, so I don’t do videos on Amiibo either. At the end of the day, I love video games, but my YouTube channel is a business, so I focus on companies willing to do business with content creators like me. If they don’t appreciate what I bring to the table, I don’t cover their stuff. Simple. Again, this is a symptom of a much larger disconnect between multimedia properties and the games press. These brand managers are so afraid of the noise and the bad news that they don’t realize how powerful our relationships are with our audiences. People like me do have influence because our engagement levels are high. It’s just not the sort of influence that’s easily measured

2 – Toys to Life is expensive

To complete each yearly Skylanders set, parents are shelling out $300 on an annual basis. It’s the number one complaint I get from people who got their kids into Toys to Life stuff on my advice. Now that there are three Toys to Life franchises even without Disney – Skylanders, Lego Dimensions, and Nintendo’s Amiibo – that’s nearly a thousand bucks a year for those fully engaged. I can see parents wanting to have one fight and saying no to it all, instead of having to weigh the merits of purchasing every figure. Overall, I think that Toys to Life is currently too focused on the Toys part of the equation, instead of creating add-on content that can be played with toys you already own. It’s an imbalanced business model that in part is because core gaming sites neglected coverage of Toys to Life products, but that’s not completely an excuse for creating a buying churn instead of products that provide ongoing value for money. It would have kept parents happier if more game content had been developed for existing toys, because kids are going to want the cool new figures and cars anyway.

3 – Toys to Life creates a lot of clutter

I have no idea where to put any more figures. There is a critical point involving real life stuff where I don’t want to add another Rubbermaid bin to store all those figures. I’d been saying since Skylanders Giants came out that storage needs to be something that’s meaningfully addressed, but I didn’t see it happen. Instead, another 40 figures come out each year per game, and I ran out of places to put them. The difference between enduring brands and fads is that kids form an attachment to brands that endure, and this attachment doesn’t happen when a product focuses on quantity over quality time with each figure.

4 – The rarer figures were too hard to get

I heard about fights breaking out between parents in stores over certain figures. My husband had to contact the Disney PR people because the Stitch figure was completely sold out. People can’t buy figures they can’t find, and it seems that Toys to Life, across the board, has sacrificed accessibility for collector fever. These are products for kids, guys. Make the toys available to anyone who wants them, even if it means running a second issue of them.  Parents getting into fist fights isn’t the kind of press that’s healthy long term.

5 – Disney Infinity neglected story in favour of the Toy Box

I get the reasons that the Toy Box was originally the central focus – Disney Infinity‘s playtesting indicated that kids didn’t want to be told how to play the game as much as they wanted to make their own fun. But with subsequent waves came a marketing challenge: it’s easier to sell a new product than it is to sell improvements. Therefore, “Skylanders, NOW WITH CARS!” is an easier sell than “Toy Box 3.0” — so each cycle had diminishing returns because it wasn’t easy to explain why people should buy the latest thing when the previous one worked just fine. Meanwhile, it’s difficult to review a building tool as a game. The actual game element of Disney Infinity were Playsets that provided short campaign stories, and I don’t know why there weren’t more of those that matched some of the fan favourite characters. Going back to Stitch, there were levels for him, but no actual campaign. There was no feeling of completion. So I got two hours of enjoyment out of that figure instead of six, because my attention is too divided to play something without a narrative.

6 – The brands are just too lucrative to produce games in house

Why should Disney bother making Star Wars games when EA will do it for them and pay them a license that’s pure profit? Why should they tie up those Marvel characters when they can license them to a third party and again take no risk? These franchises are just too big for the profit margins that in-house video games can offer, since Disney’s internal approvals process is a slow, bottle-neck heavy ordeal. Disney is now free to license Star Wars and Marvel characters to Lego Dimensions, who already did Star Wars Lego games, and have Batman all through Dimensions. It’s smart: create an ally out of a competitor and cut your costs in the process.

It’s ironic that Disney bean counters now have the reigns of the company, but the balance sheets don’t lie: Disney knows how to make Intellectual Properties, but it’s never quite understood video games, so it makes more sense to do licensing business with game makers instead of trying to paddle around making chump change in a business they don’t get, and perhaps don’t even like. To Disney, video games are no different than bags, t-shirts, stuffed toys, and kids’ costumes, because they aren’t interested in developing unique game IPs for consoles and PC. Because of this, it makes financial sense for Disney to get out of the video game business. Long term, as video games become a more native form of entertainment, suffer from less stigma, and become a driver of all ages entertainment beyond Nintendo, this may be short sighted. But when that day comes, Disney can just hire on a new bunch of game makers and open up their interactive division again. They’re closing this door, not bricking it over.

(Note: A reader mentioned on twitter that the heavy restrictions on which characters could be used in Play Sets hampered their enjoyment of the game.  I don’t think this would have been an issue if more all-character-friendly Play Sets were produced, hence my point about more game content overall.  However, it is a specific criticism of Disney Infinity,  so I thought I’d add that my understanding was that these restrictions were imposed on the developers by Disney higher-ups.  The developers wanted more freedom but Disney brass thought the integrity of the characters was more important.)

Why is it so easy to stigmatize gamers?

Both left wing and right wing operatives find it far too easy to take cheap shots at gamers whenever it pleases them. Opportunistic attention seekers use video games as a punching bag when they want a motherhood cause to beat on. And of course, the mainstream media treats gaming as a horrible thing until there’s a major celebrity from a game to interview. But why? Why is this accepted? Why isn’t it seen as bigotry? Here are some factors at play:

It’s competition

A few years back, the console companies started an initiative to “own the living room”, offering distribution services that are alternatives to cable. Of course, now they’re also making their own content, with stuff like Halo: Nightfall and Powers on the Playstation Network. This is creating more competition not just for eyeballs, but for market influence. With video game IPs giving comic books a run for their money in the superhero space, and game properties also competing with Sci-Fi stalwarts, a lot of media conglomerate companies – Warner Bros, Paramount, Universal, and Disney, for instance – are rattled. Some of these companies have attempted video game distribution themselves to varying degrees of success, but the top-down model of TV development is going to catch up to them because gaming’s collaborative structure allows innovation at a faster pace than TV can manage. And old media always tries to beat down a competitor before it tries to half-heartedly embrace them, so the mainstream media has been pretty nasty to video games.

It’s something enjoyed by young men

Like rock music, rap, and extreme sports, anything that young men like is somehow seen to warp the minds of young men. In the West, this bias goes all the way back to the fact that the Bible, and before it, the Torah, were designed to codify correct behaviour for men, who would then control their wives. Note that the commandment against coveting only mentions the neighbour’s wife?  The focus on curbing male behaviours, while beating women into submission on the grounds of innate “purity” has continuing repercussions that strongly affect the dialogue around video games. But it goes deeper than that.

For a lengthy period, the most desirable advertising demographic was 18-34 male, because advertisers believe that’s the demographic that is most effectively swayed by advertising. However, with the rise of digital media, the 18-34 male demographic fragmented to the point that advertising to young men became much less lucrative. The most cohesive advertising demographic is now 25-54 male/female, because those are the people who still primarily consume entertainment through television. Women have an edge in this regard, however, in that their influence regarding household purchases, and their multiplier effect as primary caregivers of kids, make them a more desirable demographic for advertisers. And now, women make up the majority of the workforce as well.  This sudden boom in media feminism isn’t anchored in some desire to make the world a better place. It’s all about money. So if you’re wondering why gaming is desperately trying to attract more women? This is a huge part of the reason why.

New technology is always demonized

Whether it’s radios in cars, cell phones, or video games, any new tech will have some doomsayer figuring out a way it will somehow kill you. Men are more likely to be early adopters of technology, so this ties into the last point some, but taking gender out of the equation, people still fear things that are new. I’m old enough to remember when it was TV that was going to rot a kid’s brain. Now it’s video games. It’s just whatever the newest form of technology is that children like. This is connected to the fact that kids are usually more tech savvy than their parents, so adopting tech gives them an element of freedom and autonomy in a society that likes to swing into the realm of helicopter parenting every ten years. Seriously, you can set your watch to it: the 1950s, 1970s, 1990s, and this decade are all marked by upswings in interest in attachment parenting, spending quality time with kids, and other behaviours that just flat out smother a kid’s independence. Notably, these decades were also tied to economic conditions that put entire groups of people out of work. Isn’t it great that adults are still taking out their baggage on their children?

It’s now considered “common sense”

The best bumper sticker I’ve never seen read was “common sense is neither”. Latte liberals have rebranded common sense “lived experience”, but it’s all the same thing “blaming the Other for your own damned problems”. Common sense once told us that going out in the rain would cause you to “catch a cold”, even though colds are caused by viruses. Common sense tells us to judge people based on likeability instead of skill, because it’s centered on like staying with like.  Common sense is grounded in the idea that you should keep doing what you’ve always done instead of trying new things, or keeping an open mind to different ways of doing things. Advertisers love appealing to common sense, by the way, because it’s as much like real sense as Kraft Singles are like real cheese.

How does this effect gaming? Well, you’re not going to get much progress with people who subscribe to the idea that “I know what I know”, and right now you’ve got two extremist echo chambers in video games who refuse to talk to each other and live to make the “other side” look bad. There’s no political stripe to the idiocies of “common sense”, so one side is screaming “well everyone knows men are just better at tech”, even though that pearl of wisdom has been proven to be nonsense.  The other side, however, revels in proclaiming random things racist, sexist, and transphobic, while breaking their own definition of these things as systems of oppression as opposed to offensive statements by an individual… which is how these very same crusaders claim that racism against white people doesn’t exist. Outrage warriors have metastasized common sense to the point that they demand trigger warnings for any scary idea.

Now, common sense outside of gaming tells non-gamers that listening to people who want to do nothing but fight is a waste of time. The benefit to this type of common sense is that it’s also reasoned sense. So the extremists in gaming are making discussions of gaming so unpleasant that people avoid them at all costs if they have anything better to do. But this is a recent phenomenon. There’s been a factor that predates all of these things.

Gaming is for “nerds”

Gaming is not a physical activity, and gimmicks like the Kinect and e-sports are striving to make gaming more like sports, so it will appeal to the “cool kids”. The lifestyle associated with video games isn’t sexy, because it’s solitary and sedentary. Gaming hasn’t helped itself in this regard by making the traditional gamer dress code less stylish than the clothes of some homeless people. I think it’s fine that gaming has its own look, but this trend of tech nerds showing up to board meetings in hoodies as made technology seem unserious and slacker to the outside world. It’s also attracted a crop of humorless, insecure moral purists who want women to stop being visibly recognizable as women. Advertisers don’t want to associate with these whopping amounts of boring and lame. No one is going to want to buy a product to be more like the biggest names in gaming right now… except for maybe Pewdiepie.

This isn’t about being a geek. Being a geek is cool now. There’s bank in being a geek. But a geek is a nerd with healthy self esteem, and there’s a real self esteem deficit in video game discussions these days due to years of bending over and taking it for whatever special interest group wants to beat the piss out of video games this month. For every moment of real leadership, like EA telling homophobes where to go and Blizzard trolling the crap out of complaints about Overwatch characters, there are five examples of the video game industry begging outsiders to tell us all the reasons we’re horrible pieces of crap. No one wants to identify with that much masochism, and it’s blood in the water that attracts sharks.

There’s so much bullying in video games today because the video game industry invites bullying. Fortunately, this is an addressable problem. Unfortunately, video games have forgotten the art of constructive criticism, because its collective self esteem was so low from the outset.

An organization truly based on respect will not tolerate the constant negativity that infects discussions of gaming. An organization with pride in its products doesn’t bend over backward to please its haters. This is something that Grand Theft Auto and The Sims have in common: these games are polarizing. As many people love them as hate them. They cater to very different types of gamer, but they completely embrace the type of gamer they attract. They don’t agree that enjoying a certain type of fantasy makes you a horrible person.

There’s nothing special about the content in these games. They’re just as limited and flawed as anything else on the market. But I think that the key to the success of these IPs, and franchises like Call of Duty, Destiny and Fallout, is that they have clear confidence in what they do well, and they’ll change to make their fans happier, but they don’t bend to the haters. This is something the rest of the industry needs to learn. No one wants to identify with a brand that doesn’t even seem to like itself.