Frisky Business: Videogame Marketing 2008: Viva La Revolucion!
Miss me, campers?
It's been a minute since last we spoke, but please accept my humble apologies. Between a jam-packed travel schedule (DICE, GDC, etc.) and whirlwind of industry upheavals (e.g. EA's bid for Take 2; the unexpected closure of multiple studios such as Stormfront and Pseudo; and game journalists' sudden rampant desire to recast themselves as unlikely celebs), things haven't slowed for a second.
Not that yours truly's been slacking on his grind.
On the one hand, it's seemed foolish to comment and prognosticate with so many situations as yet unresolved and proverbial balls in the air. (You try writing a column about, say, the upside of consolidation or digital distribution, only to find two days later that Tomb Raider maker SCi's suddenly been gobbled up by Atlus, or that Postal 4's become Sony's newest "mind-blowing" PlayStation Network exclusive.) Furthermore, taking a little breather also seemed the wisest move, giving us time to send our spies to some lesser-known conventions (say, The A List Summit and MI6) and get the real scoop on larger issues bubbling under the biz's surface.
In other words, let other sites and pundits go into histrionics over "vital" concerns like Microsoft's rumored rip-off Wii controller or work themselves up over whether sudden public interest in gaming is just a passing fad. Instead, we've been busy lately digging up the dirt on a truly groundbreaking and as yet largely unreported sea change brewing under the radar of the biz that's about to affect the very way game makers and fans interact and communicate. This includes an element one that is, no less, also poised to explode onto TVs and desktop monitors across the globe -- as well as the general public consciousness -- within the next 6 months.
Are you sitting down? Here goes?
Today's shocking revelation (drumroll, please): Game marketing is no longer the evil, soul-sucking form of pagan witchcraft many still believe it to be. In fact, in terms of sheer entertainment value and innovation, it could soon become as much a force to be reckoned with as actual blockbuster outings such as Portal and Rock Band themselves.
Look carefully, and you'll see signs of the medium's shifting role everywhere.
There's MTV's branded 3-D Virtual Worlds, in which users can live out their dream lifestyle as interpreted through the (admittedly neon lipstick-stained) lenses of their favorite primetime teen-pleaser, or Halo 3's epic Believe campaign, which uses cinematic drama -- not to mention faux documentary pieces and video memorials -- to add unprecedented depth to the title's backstory. Heck, one can even find seemingly innocuous user communities that reward loyal participants for their contributions with exclusive game reveals and first-run access to new teaser content.
Forget the days of free online Madden multiplayer services brought to you by Dodge or in-game ads hawking Old Spice's Red Zone deodorant. Suddenly, the realization is occurring at upper management levels throughout software publishers and advertising agencies alike that "push" tactics, or messaging that's forcibly foisted on viewers (i.e. lurid print spots or garish banner ads), aren't working. Corporate shills are therefore increasingly turning to "pull" methods to get the desired message across, designing interactive and engaging content that's meant to instantly grab players' attention and, by association, actively cause people to seek out these skillfully-crafted campaigns.
So what exactly does that mean for you, the average Joe at home who couldn't give a flying flop where or how Ubisoft or Brash Entertainment hawks its newest $60 cluster-you-know-what?
Primarily, it means that marketers are affording fans a greater degree of respect that's been a long time coming. Finally comprehending just how savvy shoppers are, as well as the power we now have between TiVos, spam filters and countless entertainment/social networking options to both consume information selectively and tune out unwanted intrusions, advertisers now realize your attention comes at a premium. More importantly, they see that if they want to capture it, even for a second, there's got to be a reasonable value trade-off that occurs. In essence, they're starting to get that if they want to sell you on something (say, that Dark Sector sequel or Call of Duty map pack) going forward, all promotional vehicles are going to have to provide a meaningful reason for you to stop and give said content even a moment's passing glance.
These exchanges can be simple, such as merely letting you play a Flash-based amusement for free in exchange for watching a canned, pre-game commercial, but they can also be more complex, assuming the form of months-long, perception-changing alternate-reality games (ARGs) like Halo 3's "Iris." For that matter, they can also offer nearly commercial-level stand-alone entertainment experiences, as in the case of Heroes of Might and Magic V?s official mini-game, essentially product brainwashing disguised as a free Web diversion. From fake documentaries to quirky viral video pieces and desktop widgets that -- following your willing installation and approval -- automatically deliver new screenshots and updates on favorite titles, today's overt corporate shilling is sneakier than ever. This is mostly, to be honest, because it's designed to keep you just as entertained as the title or service it's promoting does, while simultaneously using sleight-of-hand (e.g. a carefully-placed logo here, the odd reminder that Final Fantasy 37 ships on June 15, 2040 there) to keep key message points top-of-mind.
Naturally, the effect this philosophical shift is having on all sides of the industry is profound.
Already, the Chiclet smiles and spray-on tan types' vocabulary has been extended to include self-descriptors such as "artists" and "storytellers." What's more, company men are further beginning to use words like "evangelism" and "thought leadership" to describe their chosen profession. Even more shockingly, I'll be darned if I didn't moderate or sit through half-a-dozen panels since January that routinely reinforced the fact that the people responsible for hitting you with those chintzy 30-second spots are suddenly beginning to view themselves on an equal plane as game creators.
As for actual gamers, I've yet to hear a smidgen of dissent over sneak-peek trailers "accidentally leaked" to YouTube or applications that let you build your own Death Star, or, for that matter, a single bit of meaningful backlash over promotions that began with fans finding USB keys in Portuguese bathrooms and evolved into worldwide manhunts designed to flog Nine Inch Nails' latest album.
Truthfully, it's easy to understand why: For little to no cost, audiences are provided with a stimulating, enjoyable way to voluntarily kill an afternoon, and barely notice the associated rhetoric subtly being force-fed down their throats. Besides, even if one did, we've all been trained since birth to realize nothing in this world is free. What's so wrong about sitting through the odd Milk Bone teaser if it means getting to play a "Terminator"-themed MMO for zero dollars flat?
But I digress: Coming from the guy who wrote the book on videogame marketing, this'll all sound somewhat trite, and certainly, there's a right way to do things here, as well as a disastrous way and shamefully misguided way. You can't pull the wool over people's eyes, rely on false testimonials, nor demand fans suddenly give of their time or finances to pay an up-front toll to access services such as online forums or level-building toolkits that should rightly be given away free for all to enjoy. However, by the same token, it's also time to wake up and comprehend that the changing face of the promotions business is good for all parties involved.
With interactive entertainment marketing now a two-way street, everyone's going to have to learn to better converse and parlay with one another, not to mention seriously take the opposing party's concerns into consideration. They also, of course, must be willing to trade something of substance and value for the other's time and interest, which is how things should've operated all along. As we all know: You're no mindless couch potato, nor the kind of sap that rushes out to the store and cops the latest cookie-cutter sequel solely because it's got some official band endorsement or A-list Hollywood strumpet's name tacked on the box. Thus software marketers are finally accepting the pressing need to approach you with candor and intellect, making fans as much an important part of the conversation as retail buyers and trade partners have been in the past.
Bearing this in mind, the next time you find yourself online, wondering how to waste 15 minutes between hitting the gym, texting your significant other (where u at, lol?) or downloading the latest Panic! At the Disco single, let's be frank. Don't be surprised to find yourself passing on World of Warcraft and reaching for instead for that The Sims On Stage-sponsored music video generator. Shameless? Maybe. But hey, these days, if that's what it takes to get the message across, what's a little product placement among friends?