Monday, July 11, 2011

Editorial: A Criticism on The Video Game Industry Ad War

Date: 07/12/2011
By: Nate

Ever since the dawn of gaming, there have been ad campaigns geared to sell games and systems; it's a necessary part of the sales process; whoever can create knowledge and exposure about a product will generate sales first.

In the North American games industry, these ad campaigns have seemingly turned into an ad war, selling the gamer things they “must” have instead of the games they really might actually want. This war is waged in many ways. Ads come in all shapes and sizes, including game previews and, possibly, reviews.

Why not? A review is a brilliant selling point. It's also a legitimate way to have your competition unfairly criticised. It doesn't mean that reviewers are bought – and in fact, it's more likely that they're coerced over all sorts of opinions; Kotaku, for example, has been blackballed by Sony, and one of the 2K Games' marketing tools recently blackballed the entire reviewing industry on Twitter.

This ad war, however, is so pervasive that we're starting to lose big titles from Japan again like we were between 1985 and 2001. It's a hell of a gulf, but the market also didn't exist back then. It does now. Unfortunately, the big North American players don't care. They want it all to themselves, so they are using all of their buying power to acquire as much adspace as they can to attempt to sell their product. A consequence of this is that their opponents can't sell theirs.

And they're really only selling a handful of ideas – namely first-person shooters and rehashed sports titles, although anything Microsoft, Sony, and Hollywood want sold will always find adspace.

First person shooting and sports games have always been a constant. I think part of it is because sports games are actually pretty dynamic, and there will always be fans. Especially of hockey, American football and baseball. FPS's, on the other hand, are a different kind of animal.

The reason for this is pretty simple: It's the easiest genre to get immersed in because you see it from the perspective of the character that you're playing.

Many of the best selling games are played in the first person; Call of Duty, Halo, Borderlands, The Elder Scrolls and even the rebooted Fallout franchise. Luckily, three of these five titles actually have very different things to offer, but the Halo and Call of Duty franchises are both tactical shooters. And they sell far more.

If it weren't for Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo peddling their own wares as it were, I don't think we would have as much diversity as we do. However, Sony seems to have the only legitimate ideas at the moment as Microsoft is keen on selling mediocre games for its broken Kinect, and Nintendo would rather sell you garbage games from an external developer for your Wii than make a good title based off an existing intelletual property, or make a new one.

And Hollywood is all too happy to get Activision, Sega and EA to make rushed titles based off of half-baked super-hero movies.

Sports games, like the biggest sellers, don't evolve much either. And one franchise in particular, NFL, doesn't have to. Why? Because EA somehow got the right to run an oligopoly (which is illegal, in theory) on NFL games, thus almost completely shutting out their competition, 2K Sports. While 2K has other (and arguably more brilliant) avenues of earning income, to essentially lose professional licensing to exclusive contracts is shameful.

Even when the oligopoly didn't exist, the professional sports titles from these developers obscured more interesting alternative sports games like the overlooked Deathrow for the XBox. At least sports games are more dynamic, but you're essentially paying for little more than a new roster every year.

Roleplaying games are no different; as much as I may praise the Elder Scrolls, Borderlands and Fallout, there is little room for much else when one of these monsters gets released. That said, Final Fantasy 13's ad campaign was not nearly as extensive as either of these. In any case, because these blockbuster titles took up all the adspace, other games slipped through the cracks. A perfect example was the brilliant Sacred 2, which turns Diablo on its ear.

So why the ad war?

Reason one: Cut off the competition's ability to expose potential buyers to their product. If no one knows about it, no one cares. Reason 2: Create a virtual embargo on the competition. If you make it hard for them to sell their product, they'll take it to another market – usually one that is much leaner.

Realistically, it's most likely a case of “how gullible are you?” If you, the gamer, is willing to purchase incomplete games – and you know they are when the publishers are releasing day-one downloadable content, or DLC, or worse, putting it right on the disc making you pay for it if the game is used – and keep buying new iterations of these games, why should publishers stop foisting this crap on us? Ethics has nothing to do with it. It's all about money.

And there are two reasons for this: Budgets are skyrocketing (and they really are) and anything that sells well is a safe bet. Additionally, it paves the way for simple DLC at rediculous costs to bolster profits. Even if a few people download a map pack with 3 or so maps, it doesn't take very long to make those maps unless brand new game modes, weapons and gameplay options are added – which is rare.

At the same time, how much of the cost of the game is factored into marketing? Ten percent? Twenty? Fifty? I think this is equally important if publishers are going to piss and moan about astronomical budgets, because they could take another two or three million out of the marketing budget to make a better game, why won't they?

But FPS's aren't the only games that sell well. There are still platformers that do well – Mario is proof of this – and many first person action games do fairly well, especially open-world – aka “sandbox” - games.

So how come companies aren't making more clones of Super Mario Bros. or Grand Theft Auto? Because Super Mario Bros. isn't flashy enough and open world games require large virtual worlds to play in. In case you didn't notice, Call of Duty: Black Ops and Halo don't have the square mileage anywhere near the likes of Grand Theft Auto IV, Mercenaries 2 or Red Faction Guerilla. It takes a lot of time and bug testing to build worlds of that size and depth.

FPS's have the highest technical standards of any genre. They also tend to be among the most expensive to make, which is why few even try to develop anything like Far Cry 2 or Boiling Point. And a lot of people seem to think that the pizzazz that these games offer must translate to another genre entirely for the game to even be “good”. If companies are so concerned about the bottom line, why do so many push to make this kind of game when the risk is so high? Well, because Call of Duty: Black Ops has made over one billion dollars.

The thing is, the guys that have the best profit margins are the independent developers. And they make all sorts of games. While making money is still not guaranteed, development costs are significantly lower. Mind you, the end product isn't as flashy, but you don't need flash to make a great game. Rygar and Double Dragon III on the Nintendo Entertainment System/Famicom were proof of that. In fact, both of them, while being uglier than their arcade versions, are both far superior games because of their deeper gameplay and improved story elements.

There are far more games available that have both deeper gameplay and storylines than many of the blockbuster titles. These are overlooked for various reasons, although marketing and availability both play a huge role in their success or lack thereof.

And you'll learn about what studios not owned by Activision, Electronic Arts, Disney, Warner Bros., Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony are doing.

If there's a shining ray of light, it's the independent developers.

Their games aren't like everything else, so these guys have something different to offer. While I have not played Angry Birds, a lot of people have. And they love it. A lot of people have played Call of Duty: Black Ops, too, but I highly doubt that Activision's profit margins are as good on most of their other games.

But they – along with Microsoft, Sony, Nintendo, Electronic Arts and Hollywood – have won the North American ad war; they seem to dominate whose ads run when and where. And they all release a lot of first-person, tv, movie and licensed sports games

The problem is, with so few genres dominating the industry – or at least the Western side of it – there seems to be less room for anything else.

I'm not going to suggest that this will lead to anything quite as radical as games being buried in the desert and an industry going into a coma for a year or so, but the fact that the biggest companies on this side of the ocean are taking the fewest risks – with every genre, not just shooters – is pretty sad.

Of course, there's no need to take risks when you've beaten your competition in the ad race, is there? And yet it's the independent developers that are either making money hand-over-fist on their little projects or incurring reasonable losses.

We need to remember that at one point in time, Nintendo was a little independent developer (at least on this side of the Pacific). Now, they're a big independent developer as well as a publisher.

While I doubt that we'll start to see an Eastern lock-out, we will lose out on awesome titles. It's already happening – think Xenoblade for the Wii. It's like the days before the Playstation 2 where a lot of titles were just not released because it was deemed a major loss to localise it for a different market. We gamers do not need another Sin and Punishment incident, where we have to wait until it's emulated to play it.

And we need the diversity. It keeps our hobby fresh. I realise that I (and everyone like me) am now the niche gamer, but there's still a lot of niche gamers who appreciate more than just shooters, streamlined adventure games and short-bus RPGs.

So, how do we fix this? Outside of behavorial modification, I honestly have no clue, but maybe this raises an important question about our culture: Do we really know what we like as individuals? It's a good question because it's taken me a long time to answer it as a gamer.

I think an inability to think critically about value versus desire is the problem here, and this problem affects more than just buying video games. It affects everything from the food that we eat to the officials that we elect.

There's a second and possibly more important question: What are the consequences if we don't fix the problem? Our need to fit in with perceived popular opinion may eventually hurt our options as far as our hobby goes – let alone our existence in the real world. We never think twice about anything unless there's definite proof that it will harm us. It doesn't matter if it's food, pharmaceuticals or elected officials.

So, to put it into perspective, many of the more unique games that cater to diverse palates come from either Eastern Europe or Southeast Asia. If they can't afford to localise because they're being economically locked out of a market, they won't. North America is less than half a billion potential buyers. What do they need us for? Plus they've already got a market to sell in. And importing isn't an option if you can't speak Polish, Japanese or Korean – let alone if region locking is imposed.

Diversity makes the world go round, whether real or virtual. It keeps things fresh. And due to the fact that we don't place an embargo on another culture's games like some other countries have been known to do, our market is one of the most diverse. The problem is, if this keeps up, it will produce an embargo – whether or not it's intentional.

This is something we need to change.

There are really only two key factors to deal with here, too: Their money and our ignorance. It's pretty easy to fix the latter point. Don't believe everything you read and hear and the hell with the hype. Do your own research. Assess the value of things based on how they relate to you, not your friends – or worse, their friends. You'd be absolutely amazed with the games that you'll find if you only look past the ad bombardments and challenges toward whether or not it makes you cool.

In short, buy for you.


vgMastersClub said...

Great article and I will now follow your blog like I do Dread Pirate.

I agree with you on almost everything except that you are forgetting the generational game issue. Since you mentioned the landfill I assume you are an older gamer like myself who has at least grown up with the Atari 2600 or NES.

Younger gamers who have grown up with the PS1 and later do not have the same outlook on the gaming community as we do. It's the old age bring experience motto and it reigns true in games as it finally matures.

While we do have "disposable" income, it's still the parents buying the games for their kids that makes the most money. So unless a big company actually gives us what we want and starts to advertise other less "mainstream" genres, nothing will change.

The fact that the advertisements make it "mainstream" leaves us with this vicious circle we are currently in. What we need is another blockbuster Final Fantasy VII (doesn't have to be a RPG though) to bring the market back full circle.

Just think about the "mainstream blockbuster" generational games. IMO this didn't happen until the Nintendo 64/Playstation came out. That is when games would be sold out due to them not being able to keep up with the demand.

WCW/NWO World Tour and Revenge, Final Fantasy VII were the big ones that generation.

PS2 was GTA3, Madden, and Tiger Woods which we are still seeing the sandbox games and yearly sports games. Also, God of War brought the action genre started by Devil May Cry into the limelight. And Xbox had Halo which exploded the FPS genre with online gaming.

This Generation had the COD games which starting with Modern Warfare and brought in the realism as well as Gears of War with it's Third Person version. I don't really see anything mainstream that deviates from the GTA or God of War formula so much.

So there were are and that was a really long post!

Player_1 said...

You know vg, you also raise some good points. Althouhg to be honest, I didn't so much forget about the generation gap as simply omit it. See, most new gamers and parents get all of their information from the first ads they see. They don't have time for anything else. I mean, they have to work a job, raise kids, etc.

Then you have teenagers, who are actually the ones with the disposable income. Most of them don't really care; they see the ad, their friends are playing it, they're sold.

So your core is composed of two sets of buyers: One that really doesn't have time and just want their kids pre-occupied, and another that only cares about what everyone else is doing.

It's the rare few who keep themselves edumacated, right? I mean, to a lot of us, this is our life.

The truth of it is, most of us older gamers were in that spot in the N64 days. I know I was. So when I look back, I totally get it.

Plus I know a couple things about sales demographics :P Vicariously, though; my Dad's the salesman and he seems to almost have a psychic knack for understanding markets and buyers. But all the stuff he's taught me hasn't seemed to change much. If at all.