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.

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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.

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