Friday, 16 August 2013

Smoke & Mirrors: Video game advertising in 2013

Last week, I wrote about my feelings on video game cutscenes - where they work, where they don't work, and why I feel game designers should be exploring other story telling methods.

Today I'm taking a similar position on one of the marketing avenues heavily utilised by game designers: trailers.

Marketing is an all important and powerful tool for getting a product - any product - out there. From "leaked" concept art to AMAs on Reddit, they all make up part of the ever broaden sphere of ways (some more costly than others, some more noble, and some more effective) individuals can connect with consumers.

More than likely, I'm a bit nostalgic for the days of picking up a copy of PSM, flicking through the articles on the way home, and then popping in the disc to play a couple of levels of Primeval, then save up to buy the game. Alternatively, I'd spend a few dollars and rent a game from Video Ezy for the night to see if I wanted to buy it.

Demos are distributed much more easily now online (definitely a plus), and as for rentals? Well, I'm pretty sure my nieces and nephews are going to lump renting DVDs in with silent films.

But even as the marketing world changes and adapts (sometimes not too well) to the new avenues of content distribution, video game trailers are consistently part of the make-up, perhaps more so now.

And hey, why wouldn't they be? They are easier to access now, resolution is better, and it is often the quickest way to get a substantial amount of information out to a consumer - you don't need to create any new content (more on that later) necessarily, and gamers can get a pretty good look at what to expect if they pick up the game.

If only they were all like that.

Video game advertising has really blown up recently. As AAA titles become the new blockbusters, advertising budgets are getting bigger, and marketing schemes are casting a wider net.

But what I probably find most interesting about video game advertising is its emphasis on cutscenes. To write off all video game trailers as such would be wrong - a lot of trailers do incorporate some degree of gameplay, or are even entirely gameplay. Conferences and panels often act as the primary form of advertising the gameplay aspects of a title, and argueably this is probably the best way to do it.

But the ability to form hype around trailers - and trailers often making up the crux of video game advertising, at least the more obvious forms - is quite astounding to me.

Take for instance Skyrim's initial trailer. The trailer showed NO gameplay, it didn't even show any elements of the world. It just had some cave carvings giving us a rough idea of the imagery and a voice over. All we actually learnt from the trailer was that the game was set in Skyrim and it had dragons. Okay, both those things are pretty awesome - especially since The Elder Scrolls players have been wanting dragons for a very long time.

The power of advertising through trailers with no gameplay when it comes to video games is just so fascinating to me because it so effective. Really, the game could be terrible: stale, repetitive crap with an awful story. But people buy into it because of a cool cinematic - most likely not appearing in the game - has been released.

Really, I'm not arguing for or against anything. Often these trailers act as teasers, and I see their part in the advertising world - it makes sense to use cinematics to demonstrate the general idea of a game to the audience to get them excited. I just think it is interesting how vested a lot of gamers become based on these things, when most people I know approach movie trailers - which are 99% of the time made up of shots from the actual film - with a much more skeptical view. Maybe it says something about gamers' interest in the concept and idea above the implementation, or maybe it speaks more to our brand loyalty and faith in developers.

Either way, advertising is a powerful and growing tool in the video game world. Just like with all products before it, it has the capacity to win us over quickly - when really all we can see are smoke and mirrors.

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