Video Games and Marketing

Video game marketing and TV commercials have come a long way since I’ve been a gamer. We’ve gone from these “corny” Zelda commercials (I say “corny” lovingly, because at the time I thought they were pretty awesome) to having a “World Premier Trailer” show up during an NBA playoff game. We’ve gone

As I’ve been thinking about it, I’ve also been thinking a little about marketing these games to kids. To be fair, those Zelda commercials were targeted to kids (albeit older kids) and maybe that’s why, twenty-five years later, they appear corny to my jaded eyes. But now, during the holiday season, I have become more acutely aware of how kids are targeted from all sides with commercials and marketing geared specifically for their attention. And it works. With the date of a hot new game release approaching, you can bet that the promotional efforts for the game will seemingly become more amplified. It seems like every time you walk into electronics section at Wal-Mart and other major stores, there are employees and displays with various products to offer as a promotion resource for the latest new videogame. If I were a kid, how could I resist.

They are effective. I recently read this good article by JP Sherman at the Escapist and suggest everyone go read. What struck me the most telling was that web advertising is still the wild frontier. While there is hardly any marketing of violent video games to kid audiences, websites that kids frequent still routinely show ads for M-rated games. Even shows that cater to the younger teenagers have decreased their advertising of violent video games, which was a surprise to me.

In the end, it’s still about monitoring not only the content our kids are consuming, but what is on the periphery as well. We let our kids use sites like Kizi, which houses tons of flash-based games, but the ads are still troublesome. We still look to find ways to let them have fun online but maintain that safety net at the same time.

I’d love to hear any techniques you guys use. Or sites you have found to be mostly safe.

Gross Anatomy

I have probably already mentioned this before, but Jeremy Parish is one of my favorite video game writers/historians. I add “historian” to that description because his knowledge of video game history (particularly console/Japanese video game history) is deep.

Lately he’s been doing these “Anatomy of a Game” posts and recently he started examining The Legend of Zelda for the NES. He hasn’t finished the series yet, but I am thoroughly enjoying all of these articles.

The Legend of Zelda is probably the most important contributor to me becoming a “gamer”. I had played many games before then (I owned a ET cartridge for the Atari 2600, people) but I have vivid memories of hours spent playing Zelda. My exploration of Hyrule actually mirrored those formative years of growing up for me. We moved to a new city the year I turned twelve years old. I went from going to schools in the not-exactly-the-pinnacle-of-education Cleveland City School District to the relatively successful schools in the peaceful suburb of North Royalton. At the start of the seventh grade I didn’t have any friends and video games served to fill that vacancy for a while.

I was playing The Legend of Zelda and, quite honestly, I was pretty lost. Not making a lot of progress in the game nor in the game of life. I happened to bring my fold out map of Hyrule to school one day and a girl in my class noticed that I was studying it before class started. She took it from me and started drawing on it. Horrified, I asked her what she was doing. “Just helping you out,” she replied. She proceeded to mark out places where bombs would open new caves, bushes would reveal secret passageways and where I should go first. She didn’t reveal everything (I honestly don’t know how she had memorized as much of the map as she did), just like the game. Her hints and suggestions gently guided me on the path to discovering things for myself. My eyes had been opened to the possibilities.

I don’t know how many times I actually finished The Legend of Zelda, but I will never forget the sense of wonder I experienced exploring that world. Jeremy’s posts have definitely stirred those emotions almost twenty fives years later.

(You can see all his Anatomy of a Game links here.)

It all makes sense

This is a like a video game version of The DaVinci Code. The more you read, the more it makes sense. And the sadder you’ll become.

Then read this and get really sad. (Note that there are multiple chapters):

The idea, here, is that The Sims Social is rife with sticky walls and mental fly-paper, trying to keep you staring at the world until you become so accustomed to its face it’s the same as being in love: you’re staring at your guy making nachos, or writing blog posts, because the game has attached this mammoth importance to making more money, to moving up in the world, to buying new furniture, and here it is giving you a fifty-percent bonus. You’re trapped, whether you’re actively “enjoying” yourself or not. You’re “doing it correctly”, and the game is rewarding you, and it’s easier than pressing the right buttons with the right timing in Rock Band, and all it required was a little sleight-of-brain. You feel good about yourself. You look at this cartoon world long enough, and something of an Inverse Pavlov happens. Your brain begins to know that you are “enjoying” yourself, even if you hate this insipid thing. In spite of a love-shaped hole in the center of your spirit re: this electronic monster, you will not turn away.

The game is a Chinese finger trap of the mind: soon you realize that inspiration is free, which, in economics terms, means that the inflated value of single-energy-point actions when “inspired” is not a “bonus” or a “maximum” value — it’s the baseline; it’s the “minimum”. Once you grasp that your character can be made inspired with a little flick of the game’s mechanics, you’ll never want to do money-earning actions without being inspired — and if you do (and this is the important part!) you’ll feel lazy.

Random Monday Morning Thought

Watching AMC’s The Walking Dead is severely hampering my ability to thoroughly enjoy Dead Rising 2. #ZombieGuilt

Sony, You Have It All Wrong

Allow me to respond to this video. (If you don’t see it in your reader, come to the site.)

I will admit this video is funny with the whole texting grandma bit. However, this video does not logically make sense. First, some disclaimers:

  • I like my PSP. I pull it out once every three months and play it.
  • I love my iPod touch. I use it every day for email, surfing, checking weather, and an occasional game.

Sony’s major argument is that you can play high-quality games for only $9.99. I can play three maybe four games on the iPod for that amount.

Second, this doesn’t make sense because there’s hardly anything there for $9.99. Let’s see, I can get GTA: Chinatown Wars for $10 on the App Store or $20 on PSN. Sure.

Certainly the argument can be made that there is a lot of trash on the App Store. I agree, but usually amongst the trash there is a gem or two. Before PSP fanboys get up in arms, I do have some PSN games on it, but I only ever bought them on sale (God of War, Savage Moon, Thexder Neo, Pixel Junk Monsters Deluxe, and a few other unimpressive titles).

The PSPgo had so much potential to be awesome, but there was nothing available for it but full-retail priced titles and a few small games. If the thing had been “opened” up like the App Store they’d be swimming in cash, but no, they had to keep a lid on it and so it’s a loss–for everyone.

This video does not work for me. Curiously, who does it work for? The few 13-30 somethings that are not socially connected and know better?

Games as art

I’ve always liked the quote, “I don’t know if it’s art, but I like it!” One of the biggest issues I have with the whole “Games as Art” debate is that in 10 years no one will even care.

Alright, I know that is a helluva statement to make, but let me clarify it. How many children do you know don’t play videogames? Let’s take that a step up, how many teenagers? How many twenty-somethings? Depending on who your general social crowd is, I’ll bet you don’t hit a significant group of non-videogame participants that you know until the 30’s or maybe even 40’s. Even then, they may not be in the majority.

Ta da! Videogames are mainstream. Notice the almost overnight irrelevance of Jack Thompson. Sure, we have the occasional obnoxious legislator trying to pass some bill or another, but it almost always passes in and out of the news. Some random news commentator desperate for attention may ride out the tired trope of evil videogames and protecting children, but it’s about as original as writing an article on Rock ‘N Roll and the decadent influence it has on youth.

The entire concept of what is and what isn’t “art” is fairly nebulous, but if you care about a videogame being “art” you have little to worry about. Anything that is mainstream eventually produces dedicated artistic endeavors. There are numerous games (Which I am intentionally not going to name. Can you guess why?) that are already considered “art” by the videogame community. Outside of the videogame community why would anyone care? The rantings of Ebert on the art-worthiness of videogames are about as relevant as a dog’s opinion of a squirrel. A passing distraction that causes a lot of commotion and barking but will never get.

As for me, I could care less. I don’t worry about how artistic a game is before I play. I am here to be entertained. This is not a different standard. Movies, books, and music are all things I enjoy but I feel no need to support anything for reasons beyond my personal interest. My personal opinion is that videogames are entirely better off without adding some artificial layer of snobbish elitism to them somewhere. Do we not already bemoan innovative games that don’t sell to big budget titles? Doesn’t that sound like the stereotypical struggle of the artistic endeavor already?

Girls only want boyfriends who have great skills

I wonder how this virtual reality experiment would translate to the video game world:

Even in virtual-reality settings, men will take risks to impress the opposite sex.

Does playing with a girl (either in person or online, playing in a multiplayer setting) affect the way you handle yourself in-game? I know it has affected me.

How to avoid the next game industry crash

Bill Harris thinks the videogame industry is heading for a crash. I’m not sure if I like Bill, but I do respect him. His general antisocial ways probably appeal to my misanthropic nature and so I try not to have too much positive personal bias, but I can rarely argue with his analysis. He makes some good points about a potential looming crash, though I don’t think he goes far enough.

I don’t like to rehash other people’s blog posts, so I don’t want to talk about why we’re heading for a crash, just that I do think we’re heading for one. Right now the four big players are playing a four-way game of chicken except the only way to win is to not veer off course, crash into your opponents as hard as you can, and hope you’re the one who can still walk away. While there is the possibility that one or more participants could survive such a contest, a far more likely scenario is that all four wind up on life support.

Then it occurred to me this week that while the crash is almost certainly inevitable, there is a way for at least one company to win.

Instead of playing this four way game of chicken, one company needs to reverse course and completely change their whole approach. Almost every strategy being proposed by EA, Activision, Ubisoft, and Take Two focuses on nickel and diming consumers if not outright treating them like garbage. If one company starts to focus on making consumers happy, they win. That’s not a minor proposition though because it flies in the face of everything the movers and shakers in the market are working in.

Quit spending money on day one DLC. Either it’s in the game or not. Drop your prices for 360 and PS3 games to $50. Stop development on every game we all know is not going to sell. Do we really need a Kane and Lynch 2? Quit worrying about the secondary market. I’m not saying embrace it, just quit drawing attention to it and quit making it look like your trying to screw consumers. In general, start looking at ways to make gamers feel good about spending money on your products. Also, let’s face it, the current release model is unsustainable and the current economy will only make it worse. I don’t have the answer to how, but these companies are supposed to be full of smart people. Figure out how to make the “long tail” work for you and quit this ridiculous death march of trying to sell a million copies in the first two weeks of release just to break even.

Also, I know I didn’t spend much time on the above points but I’m sure the price point thing is going to stick with some people. Look, $30, $50, or $60, the actual price doesn’t matter so long as a game recoups it’s development costs. Once a game gets past the cost of development it is essentially printing money. Valve has proved time and again that lowering the price of games increases sales exponentially. $60 is an off-putting price. There are many more games I’d be willing to buy on day one for $50 instead of $60. There are many games I do buy when they hit $10 off. The difference to consumers between $40 to $50 is not the same as $50 to $60. It is not “just $10 more” in the minds of consumers. I’ve worked in software development for over a decade now and I promise you that a piece of software is only worth as much as someone will pay for it. Trying to sell $20 games for $60 is part of the reason the videogame industry is struggling so much in today’s economy. Trying to market $20 games as though they are worth $60 is just throwing money down the toilet.

The overall strategy needs to be a shift towards doing something good for the consumer.

A letter to my kids about videogames

I have regular discussions about videogames with my kids, but I also have a lot of parents who are less game savvy ask me about what I do and don’t let my kids play. I think the most common question I get is “Why?” In other words, why is one game ok and another is not? Why do I sometimes follow the ESRB recommendations and other times do not. The short answer is that I am using the greatest power any parent possesses. Discretion. However, if I had to sit down and give a lecture to my kids about playing videogames it would go something like this.


Look guys, you see Dad playing videogames a lot. It is one of my favorite pastimes. I play videogames pretty much any chance I get and I play them with you guys on a regular basis. Obviously I think videogames are fun and I know you guys do to. I think we just need to come to an understanding about a few things so we can continue to enjoy them in this house.

First, let’s always remember the word game in videogame. Games can get serious. In professional sports multi-million dollar careers can be made or broken over a game. In this house though, we use the term “game” in the more traditional sense. We play games for fun. If a game is leading to hurt feelings, frustration, or anger, then it’s probably something you don’t need to be playing. Yes, even I can get frustrated at a game. You know what though, there is a point where I’ll give up on a game and simply get rid of it. Games are for fun and if a game is not providing entertainment we don’t want it in this house. Also, Mom says we’re too mean during Rock Band. I know we all want to five star every song and we hate it when someone flubs their part. We need to be more constructive though. Yes, I still entirely approve of you two playing Super Smash Bros. rather than actually beating on each other. When the whining starts the game goes off though.

Second, I know some of your cousins get to play games like Modern Warfare 2 or Gears of War. I want to say I respect that I trust you guys enough that I don’t have to put those games up and you’ve shown a lot of maturity. More maturity than some kids your age that are allowed to play games like that. I know you guys get exposed to worse language at school and I’ve watched some pretty intense PG-13 movies with you. I think there is a difference between spectating and participating though. When we play games, we’re a participant. We choose to shoot that bad guy, we choose to race down city streets with reckless abandon. Our willingness to make choices when there are no real consequences does say something about us as people. I want you guys to grow up some more before you’re put in a position to make serious choices without consequences. Just because games are for fun doesn’t mean they can’t be thought provoking. I want to make sure you guys have the proper knowledge to fully understand and appreciate what you’re doing.

While we’re talking about content, I want you to know that the answer to your question “When will I be old enough to play game such-and-such” may well be never. Look, guys, your Dad has held jobs that are best done by rough and occasionally unruly men. You guys know I’m no saint and I’ll never pretend that I was or will be. That said, I want all of us to be good, strong, moral men. To that end there are certain games that I do not play because they contain some very negative content that doesn’t reinforce the type of person I want to be, and certainly not the kind of person I want you to be. Reckless escapism is acceptable in small doses. We’re doing a good job in this house so far. Let’s just remember that we want to be the good guys in the real world. You can role-play as a Sith Lord in Knights of the Old Republic if you want. I think you may have fun but find it’s less fulfilling than you might have guessed. What I really want though is that when your adults and the choice is all yours that you will still ask the question, “Do I want to be exposed to that?” before you see that movie, read that book, or play that game.

Third, we need to always remember that games are just games and that just because we can do something in a game doesn’t mean we should try it in real life. The real world has consequences that we ignore at our peril. You’re my kids and we have a long family history of doing stupid and illegal things in our teenage years. I shudder to think what I’m facing in just a few years time. I just want you to remember that before you go off and do the same stupid stuff that I, your grandfather, and great-grandfather did that you will face Hell’s Wrath if I ever have to come get you out of jail. So be certain that if you try to pass the buck like some of these kids and say you got the idea from a game it will not do anything to lessen your punishment. I’m hoping about talking to you guys about this early and with my own experiences working at a jail you realize there is plenty of fun to be had in your teenage years without involving law enforcement officials. You know right and wrong and you know where the right places to learn it are. Movies, videogames, books, or music will not be your moral compass.

I hate to talk so seriously about something that is for entertainment. I’m only having this discussion because other people have taken this topic way too seriously already. I want you guys to understand appropriateness about everything. Videogames fit in a very particular place in our lives. They are for entertainment, they are for fun, and they can and often do stimulate your minds. Enjoy them, but don’t take it too far or ever forget their proper place in your life.

How Weak I’ve Become

Whenever I intend on buying an XBLA game, I always download the demo first, no matter how sure I am that I will love the title. This is to avoid contributing to the many “I think this game was going to be like this, but it was like that!” posts that I see on gaming-related forums. No matter how sure I am of a game’s quality, I always try the demo first.

Except for Perfect Dark.

I’m not sure what possessed me to skip that step. It isn’t like I have to redownload the game after trying the demo. Buying the full version of an XBLA game from the demo is pretty easy and quick to do.

Luckily, Perfect Dark is just as great as it was when I played in on my N64 all those years ago. I haven’t finished it yet, so I won’t be writing a review right now, but I wanted to mention how much more difficult this game is when compared to modern FPS games. I don’t mean in terms of the AI, but in how little guidance the game gives you.

While walking through the Carrington Institute (the hub area that missions are launched from), I couldn’t figure out how to actually begin a mission. None of the terminals were lit up or had a floating button above it or any sort of indication of what to do with them, so I assumed I couldn’t interact with them. That isn’t the case at all; most of them can be used in some way. I just had to hit the A button. In the years since I have played Perfect Dark, I had forgotten about that.

I was off on my first mission. After infiltrating dataDyne’s tower, I saw a light switch on the wall. “Hmm… what happens if I hit A on it?” I hit the button, and the lights went out. I pulled down on the left analog, moving away from the wall. All of a sudden, I was lost. There was no way to get back to the switch, forcing me to restart the mission.

During the three missions that take place in the tower, I learned the following:

  • Joanna’s health will not regenerate.
  • There are no maps to guide me.
  • There are no checkpoints, so when I die, I start the mission all over again.
  • The game will not auto-select items for me; if I need the Data Uplink to hack into a computer, and I don’t think to use it, then I will be stuck until I figure it out.
  • As mentioned before, anything I can interact with will not be called out in any special way, forcing me to figure it out on my own.

The more I play this game, the more I realize that modern FPSes (and games in general) have all these crutches in them that I have come to rely on, and I am a “softer” gamer as a result. I plan on playing through Perfect Dark a few times. I hope to finish it on Perfect Agent difficultly; a feat I was never able to accomplish in the N64 version. Perhaps this game will toughen me up a bit.

On a related note, the auto-aim feature is insane. Most FPSes will nudge the reticle a little to line up your shot. This game jerks the reticule halfway across the screen to make sure you hit your target. While it is a little much, it makes me feel like a secret agent when I one-shot a room full of dataDyne agents. I don’t recall the original doing anything like this.