Op-Ed

Op-Ed
It's OK to Advertise - If We Like You

Russ Pitts | 9 May 2007 18:00
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There's a word often used by PR agents, advertisers and even game developers to describe those who play - and buy - games. That word is "fickle." Merriam-Webster defines the word thusly: marked by lack of steadfastness, constancy, or stability : given to erratic changeableness.

OK. So why would people use that word to describe gamers? Perhaps it's because gamers will often support a franchise, buying copies, wearing T-shirts, badgering their peers to play it as well, and then grow cold on the franchise without notice. Sometimes gamers will buy one game, of a certain type (let's say Quake 2), but refuse to buy another, similar game (Daikatana), for reasons that seem incomprehensible, making the business of making and marketing games appear to be somewhat of an enigmatic exercise in futility. Like predicting the weather.

To be fair, this criticism has merit from a certain point of view. After all, if you don't play games (or play very few), what's the practical difference between Quake 2 and Daikatana? They're both shooters, both use the same game engine and are both produced by members of the team that made the blockbuster Doom. On paper, they're the same game. But you and I know they aren't. To you and me, the folks who play the games, the difference is clear: Quake 2 is a good game, Daikatana is not.

But even this stark comparison is misleading. Often the qualitative difference between one game and the next is not so clear cut, and the lightning captured by, Diablo, for example, might be such an out-of-the-blue, enigmatic quality that even now, years later, those who played it have a hard time explaining why it was such a fantastic experience. Imagine how hard it would be for a non-gaming marketing exec to figure out. After all, a lot of games similar to Diablo have followed in its wake (we're looking at you, Dungeon Siege), but few have made the same impact.

So although we know better, the easy answer is that gamers are "fickle," which, obviously in this case, is a misrepresentation of the truth. Diablo was just a really good game. Sometimes lighting strikes, and that's just the way it is. Liking Diablo and disliking Dungeon Siege doesn't necessarily mean we're fickle, it could just mean we have taste.

When it comes to the subject of advertising, however, we're off the scale for fickle, approaching schizophrenic.

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schizo"phre"nia , Function: noun, 2 : contradictory or antagonistic qualities or attitudes. - Merriam-Webster Online

Let's look at the furor over in-game advertising. Microsoft and EA both made recent announcements that they'd be pursuing in-game advertising campaigns, placing region-specific ads into online games you may be playing this very day. The response from gamers and the game press was less than enthusiastic.

"Although financial terms weren't disclosed, you can bet that keeping things 'fresh and relevant' was low on the list of reasons to do the deal," wrote Ars Technica's Nate Anderson in an August, 2006 editorial. "Game designers who sell your eyeballs for a buck don't want you to 'challenge everything': they want you to pay your money, close your mouth, and play along."

And Nate isn't alone. You'd think, therefore, the games sporting these advertisements would sell poorly, but you'd be wrong. Madden, Battlefield and Need for Speed, the games most often targeted as "ad-delivery vehicles," are consistently among the top-selling games on all platforms, selling like hotcakes. If hotcakes, you know, sold by the millions.

So gamers don't like ads, but they'll buy games with ads in them anyway. Got it. Perhaps it's a lesser of two evils thing. Perhaps we do hate them but put up with them for the sake of games we like. So it's a grudging acceptance. OK. So, trying to see the issue from the point of view of the poor schlep who has to market games to us , these gamer folk are hard to get a handle on, but perhaps we can find a middle ground. We'll just keep on keeping on and be glad gamers buy our games, even though we're forcing them to suck it down. Agree to disagree, and all that. Super.

So imagine the surprise of our hypothetical game marketing guy when he reads yesterday's headline news. Guitar Hero developer (and their new masters, publisher MTV Games and "marketing partner" EA) have landed a few big name sponsors including guitar maker Fender, which, considering Gibson and others (hello, MTV) were key marketing partners for the Guitar Hero series, isn't very surprising. What is surprising is the reaction to the deal from gamers and the game press.

From Rock Band Plays Nice with Fender:

Harmonix has confirmed to GameSpot that it has signed an exclusive deal with Fender Musical Instruments to feature its guitars exclusively in Rock Band, as well as to base the upcoming guitar peripheral for the game upon the company's most famous model, the Stratocaster.

From "Rock Band Gets Fender Instruments":

As well as allowing Harmonix to feature its guitars, bases and amps in-game, Fender Musical Instruments has said that the official Rock Band game controller peripheral can be modeled on the legendary Fender Stratocaster (pictured), one of the most iconic models of electric guitar in the world.

"Fender to Equip Rock Band":

Fender Musical Instruments Corporation (FMIC) will have their instruments exclusively featured in the upcoming videogame Rock Band, an all-new platform for music fans and gamers to experience and connect with music. In addition, Roland Corporation and BOSS have agreed to have their brands featured within Rock Band.

Not "saddled" with advertising, but "featuring" exclusive products. It's a mad, mad world.

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fick"le, Function: adjective, Etymology: Middle English fikel deceitful, inconstant, from Old English ficol deceitful; akin to Old English be fician to deceive, and probably to Old English fAh hostile: marked by lack of steadfastness, constancy, or stability : given to erratic changeableness. - Merriam-Webster Online

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So it would seem advertising is OK if it's for a product that's "cool" or that people like. Like guitars. Never mind how practically appropriate it may be. Need for Speed; Carbon and Battlefield (EA properties) were panned for installing in-game ad systems advertising products from companies like Toyota, Kraft and Unliver, the makers of products like cars, food and toiletries - stuff people will actually buy - but how many gamers will actually be buying a Fender Stratocaster this year? Why is a Fender ad - and make no mistake, featuring the brand name, logo and product line is an advertisement, no matter what form it takes in-game (for crying out loud, the controller will be branded!) - any more appropriate than an ad for something people can actually use? The money is in the developer's bank no matter from whom it comes, and it all goes to the same place: making a better game. So why are gamers and the game press so uproariously down on some ads, but so effusively uplifted by others?

Perhaps they're just fickle. Or maybe there's another answer.

We're used to seeing ads for Toyota, Kraft and Unilever in newspapers, on TV and on billboards, but when we game we're supposedly trying to escape all of that. We don't want to be reminded that our six-year-old Hyundai has bad brakes, or that we need to pick up more Kraft Dinner at the store, or that we're out of soap. When we're holding that Stratocaster controller, we want to believe we're the rock star, and maybe we do have many choices when selecting an instrument and Fender is thankful for our business.

When we're playing Need for Speed, we want to believe that's our car we're driving, and that tomorrow, when we wake up late (having played too late at night) and drag our asses to work, it won't be in the aforementioned Hyundai, it'll be in that Lamborghini we've been drifting around hairpin turns.

When you've airdropped in to the combat zone and take aim at that weasly, little bastard lobbing mortars at you from the top of a burned-out building, seeing a bar of soap in high-res 3-D staring back at you through the high-powered scope is probably going to take you out of the game for a second. But when you hammer on the rock glory and pull off a 98 percent on hard with a genuine licensed Fender guitar, chances are you're not going to have a problem with that - even though it's the exact same thing.

And really, at the end of the day, who cares who's paying who under the table, what ads get served in your game and what logo is embossed on the controller? We say we want better games, bigger games, more innovative games, but then spend $60 a year on the latest, uninspiring Madden, bitch about ads but get googly over having genuine guitars in a game, courtesy of an advertising contract. We'll wear Nintendo (which is a brand) T-shirts to bed but throw sponsor-driven swag in the trash. Is there an advertising class struggle? Perhaps. Perhaps it's not about the ads, but all in how they're used, or what they represent. Replace Kraft dinner with Krystal and maybe the cries will be less hoarse.

Then again, we may just be fickle.

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