The Hollywood (role)model: Marketing tactics of an impressionable game industry

With game budgets soaring to record heights, it's apparent that a large portion of that money goes, not towards the advancements of technology or elevation of form and content, but rather towards promoting a product. The concept is simple. You get the name of the game, and sometimes the name of the developer/distributor, out into the public which helps generate revenue and sales. In theory, the more money you put up, the better sales of the game. With the game market being a consumer driven and competitive market, it is no surprise that these budgets will start to grow over time. For Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto 4, the budget was a reported $100 million. Rockstar went as far as producing 4 trailers, at least 12 teasers and an oversized mural on the side of a building in New York City. Thus, these “game development budgets” are vastly inflated by the cost of large budget Hollywood film marketing tactics. The game industry has looked up to Hollywood as the benchmark for marketing, but is the end goal of this evolution problematic?

Game marketing, at one time, was reserved for simply the hardcore gaming subculture. While trailers play a large part of game promotion today, print ads targeting those core gamers of the 80s and 90s era were assigned to gaming magazines. These gaming magazines created a unique culture before the internet existed in the form it is in today. Back then, magazines were the only way that a sub-culture, such as gaming, could spread and share news of the industry. It was a tool of unification. Yet these magazines and print ads have largely died out. The overtly sexual and violent ads that were common place in gaming magazines have now disappeared in favor of other marketing schemes.

Game magazines, like other forms of print, are on the road to extinction. Gamepro, a popular gaming magazine that had been in production for over 20 years, recently discontinued its services. With the rise of gaming as an international entertainment industry, hardcore gaming magazines are less and less viable. The delayed reporting of events and cost of subscription have been easily edged out by free internet sites like Kotaku, which reports on events and announcements as soon as they break. Game magazines are also primarily targeting hardcore members of the game community, thus shrinking their demographic.

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However, gaming magazines aren't all gone. Some have realized a way around this shrinking demographic problem. The number 1 magazine subscription in the male 18-24 demographic is Game Informer. The magazine, which has a staggering 5 million subscribers, has managed to survive despite having the age of Gamepro. This could largely be due to the fact that Game Informer is offered with Gamestop's Power Up Rewards card. According to a 2011 Colloquy report the premium “Power Up members average 3x the spend of non-members, helping us skew our marketing dollars to the most engaged and profitable customers.”  Thus, unsurprisingly, the newest issue of Game Informer (Issue 226) does not feature print ads for games, but rather ads for Gamestop, tech industry learning institutes and the military.

While these are all ads targeting the 18-24 male demographic, the absence of gaming ads is still quite puzzling. Out of the 7 ads featured in the Issue 226 Game Informer, a 100 page magazine, only one of the ads is for a game. This simply boils down to demographics and the contact that gamers have with non-gamers in their household. The holiday season is when Gamestop does the most sales. Last year, Gamestop did a record $3.02 billion. The 18-24 male demographic, which largely makes up the hardcore gaming market, are the proprietary consumers of Gamestop year round. However, during the holiday season, this demographic is edged out by families who sink massive amounts of money into the gaming industry due to the casualization of gaming (Portable games, popular games, the Wii etc.) Having worked at Gamestop for over a year, I was trained to pay more attention to the families rather than the hardcore gamers. We were told to push the magazine as a stocking stuffer for kids while utilizing the card as a money-saver for the parents. That magazine, which is now featuring less of the overly sexual and violent game ads of the past, now feature ads which parents can enjoy. An ad for the Marine Corps is more appealing to a parent (who is inevitably plagued by the moral panic of video games causing social degradation) than an ad for any violent game.

Let's ignore the paradoxical and uniquely American jingoistic implications of the above statement and focus on what this means for parents who buy a subscription for their kids. While the kids will enjoy the articles on the games, which provide far more marketing ability than a simple print ad could ever strive for, the parents can take comfort in “positive” ads being displayed in the magazine. As a result, the parents are locked into a subscription due to a perceived sense of comfort, as well as saving money on games (with the rewards card) and the child's desire to stay up on news without exposure to the internet. Gaming magazines have largely shifted from being primarily for hardcore gamers and more towards families. The hardcore market is no longer the prime target for print ads. Marketing of triple A games has ignored the hardcore gamers in favor of reaching as many people as possible. This can be seen in the Call of Duty franchise with the dropping of various tactical gameplay elements to appeal to the ever growing younger audience. The evolution of the internet has forced the hardcore market from specialty magazine isles in Barnes and Noble and onto sites like Youtube and Reddit.

Due to the shift from print to the internet, the gaming market has had to adapt. The game industry has looked to the Hollywood film industry and has adopted a far more compelling way to market a product.

Trailers, often times done on a scale as large as the game itself, provide both a way to promote a product and a compelling emotional narrative. This maturing is due to the growth of the game culture and added significance of large expos like E3. In the past, trailers had either displayed gamers interacting with a game or gimmicky videos that would appeal to the occasional mass audience. They featured an “attitude” that can only be described as the Early 90s mindset of “radical.” It should be noted, that with the introduction of casualized motion gaming, that the involvement of gamers in trailers have come full circle.

Hardcore games, with trailers devoid of gamer interaction, have looked towards Hollywood for compelling trailers.

Starcraft and Starcraft 2, games which puts you into the seat of an intergalactic general to manage resources and carry out a war, is decidedly non-narrative. The connection built from interaction isn't created due to an emotional tie to a character, but rather the immersion of the experience. The game has transcended a narrative or gaming experience and has become a full blown E-sport. Yet trailers for Starcraft 2 present a Hollywood built narrative instance that is rarely representative of the final product. (It should be noted that Starcraft 2 does feature a storyline based mission system, but is fairly transparent. I've been playing since release and haven't touched the single-player campaign.) 

Along with the Old Republic, these trailers bring up the problem of false advertising. Both trailers would seemingly present a product that is either a triple A narrative game or the latest Hollywood modern epic. They are great, yes, but don't give a viewer any type of idea as to what the original product will be. Would it not be for gameplay demos, uneducated gamers and parents would be plaguing the game industry with accusations of false advertising.

While Starcraft is a decidedly hardcore game with a specific audience, the Sims has even become subject to Hollywood style trailers. The Sims 3, a mass appeal game with a broad demographic, has even put out trailers that rarely captures the gameplay experience.

While a trailer like this utilizes actual gameplay to make up the trailer, it is still decidedly Hollywood: emotional, appealing, funny and backed by a pop song. It is impressive, but relies on the fact that a gamer has heard of the Sims and is aware of the gameplay style it entails.

The interesting exemption from these examples comes from sports games like the recently release WWE '12. This shows real gameplay, but also interaction from the game's stars and athletes. This type of trailer points towards a more “name brand” type of marketing which is largely targeting a specific audience.

So do these trailers point towards a more mature industry? These cinematic pieces are appealing. The chills I felt after watching all three of those trailers would be enough to make me stand out at midnight and buy the game, but is there a problem there? The gaming industry is looking towards the film industry for cues. Games are a different medium than film and offers an entirely different experience. While the marketing is strong for games such as Call of Duty, Battlefield, Assassin's Creed and any of the other numerous franchises out there, the industry could start to stagnate. The artistic recognition that gamers so desperately seek is at risk of being undermined by the most popular and best selling franchises in gaming. While the tasteless print ads of the past decades have died out and gaming taking a more big budget approach, the industry should be heading towards a point of innovation where the form and content meld into an impressive piece. However, the attention to form and content has yet to be fully realized in the mass gaming industry and for good reason: Gaming is still a very young medium.

So, much like film, the industry has begun to polarize. Big budget games have taken the big share while smaller indie games have grown into a small but innovative space. Games like Braid and Flower utilize the narratives and gameplay in a way that complement each other. While these games are innovative and push the medium forward, they lack the appeal and marketing that triple A games have.

The marketing tactics of the industry may point to where the industry is leading. Hollywood film, has for the most part, become stagnant and outright devoid of artistic merit. Films like Transformers and Avatar bring in huge amounts of money but undermine the medium as a serious art form. The serious innovation in form and content isn't coming from Hollywood, but rather the indie film market. The game industry is becoming a miniature representation of the film industry. The widening appeal of triple A games and the Hollywood-like production of game trailers could lead to a system where producing big budget games and expensive trailers is rewarded, even if it contains a tired formulaic approach.

As with indie film occasionally hitting it big with a financial success, the indie game market has it's moments. Devoid of the inflated marketing costs of triple A titles, indie games like Minecraft do well. Minecraft, which utilizes the self-driven and nostalgic narrative specific to the player with the first person exploratory gameplay has managed to sell over 4 million units, has become a phenomenal success without utilizing marketing tactics. Minecraft has benefited from, what many believe to be the future of marketing, word of mouth.

So while the Hollywood film industry has pushed for the destruction of the internet with net neutrality killers like SOPA and PIPA, the game industry is presented with an opportunity to sink less cash into marketing and more into providing a compelling experience. Hollywood's inability to recognize the problems with their products has stifled innovation and forced them into pushing legislation that will ultimately harm them and their consumers. This isn't the role model that gamers want for their industry. Games offer an experience like no other art form, and while marketing has evolved considerably over time, the industry needs to step back and realize the potential of their medium. Instead of looking towards the popular film industry, game developers should push for the advancement of their art form without risking financial security.

The next evolution in marketing is seemingly player driven and largely socialized. The future of game marketing is as uncertain as gaming as an art form. We could see player word of mouth being the definitive next step or we could see the continuation of popularized mass audience cinematics. Perhaps we will see a synthesis of both, presenting gaming as the unique medium it undoubtedly is.

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