Alternative Marketing

Extra Credits is one of my favourite online productions: what started out as a couple of animated lectures on videogames as art written by then student Daniel Floyd and posted on YouTube has now attracted attracted a huge fan base of gamers wishing to greater understand videogames as a form of artistic media.  Nowadays the show is hosted by Floyd, utilises the art services of LeeLee Scaldaferri and Scott deWitt and its content comes straight from the mind of James Portnow, one of the videogame industry’s leading lights when it comes to advancing them as a respected form of media and art. It provides intelligent yet easy-to-understand discussion on a topic too frequently ignored and trivialised by gamers and the general public alike, and its existence is a boon to the gaming world.

However, a while back they produced an episode that I found particularly interesting. Creative Assembly, the developers behind the hugely successful Total War franchise, apparently had some money left over in the marketing budget for their latest game, Total War: Rome II, and offered to subcontract the Extra Credits team (with their old art maestro Allison Theus) to make a few episodes about the Punic Wars, possibly the single most crucial event in the Roman Empire’s rise to power. They weren’t asked to mention the Total War franchise or Rome II at all, or even so much as mention videogames, just to make some short historical lectures in the engaging style that has made them so successful. The only reason I know of this origin story is because they deliberately chose to mention it in their intro.

As a marketing tactic, hiring somebody to not talk about the content of your game is a somewhat strange one, at least on the surface of it, but when one works backwards from the end-goal of marketing Creative Assembly’s tactic starts to seem more and more clever. The final aim of games marketing is, of course, to make more people buy your game, which generally takes one of two forms; the creation, expansion and maintenance of a core fanbase who will always buy your game and will do their own viral marketing for you, and the attraction of buyers (both new and returning) outside this core bracket. The former area is generally catered for by means of convention panels, forums, Facebook groups and such, whilst the latter is what we are interested in right now.

Generally, attempting to attract ‘non-core’ buyers in the gaming world takes the form of showing off big, flashy adverts and gameplay demonstrations, effectively saying ‘look at all the stuff our game can do!’ amidst various bits of marketing jargon. However, gameplay features alone aren’t everything, and there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that, for many gamers (compulsive Call of Duty players perhaps being an exception) story is just as important a consideration in their games as gameplay features. For a game such as the Total War series, where there is no predefined story and a distinct lack of character interaction*, one might think that this consideration becomes irrelevant, but it nonetheless demonstrates a key point; the core motivation behind videogame players is frequently not concerned with the gameplay features that form the bulk of most marketing material.

For a Total War game, the key motivating factor is based around a power fantasy; the dream of the player controlling the entire world at the head of one of the greatest Empires in history and of winning epic battles against great odds. From here we can dissect the motivation further- the thrill of victory in some great, decisive battle against your nemesis comes not just from the victory itself, but also from the idea of the players’ skill allowing them to outsmart the enemy and overcome the no doubt overwhelming odds. The dream of dominion over all Europe and beyond comes is partly satisfying for the sense of power it alone generates, but this sense of achievement is enhanced when one knows it is being played out against some great historical background, full of its own great stories, giving it some context and allowing it to carry even more weight. In Rome II for example, you have the options to emulate or even surpass the achievements of the mightiest Roman generals and Emperors, placing yourself on a par with Scipio and the various Caesars, or alternatively you can play as another faction and overcome what history tells us is one of the greatest empires and most unstoppable military forces ever to walk the earth. You can literally change the course of history.

One might ask, therefore, why marketeers don’t focus more on these aspects of the games, and to an extent they do; adverts for games such as the Total War franchise are frequently filled with inspiring messages along the lines of ‘Lead your nation to victory!’ or ‘Crush all who dare oppose you!’. But the very format of an advert makes really delivering on this historical power fantasy difficult; with screen time expensive and thus at a premium, there is little room to wax lyrical about any great history or to debate military tactics. A convention panel or gameplay demo can go a little further, but the usefulness of these is limited since most of the people who are going to be there will be fans of the series anyway; their main focus is community-building. And that’s where Extra Credits come in.

What Creative Assembly have realised is that Extra Credits have a large audience of gamers who are already well-indoctrinated with the concept of buying games (as some advert-viewers may not be) and think deeply enough about their games that flashy adverts are unlikely to impress them as much as they might some audience. Thus, to recruit members of the EC audience to buy the game, they need to sell them on the core appeal of the campaign, that of the epic history surrounding the game and your chance to manipulate it; and thus, they came up with the idea to simply educate the gaming world about this amazing piece of history, get them interested in it and make them want to explore it through games, their favourite sort of media. The Punic wars too are a masterful choice of subject matter; once commonly taught in schools (meaning there’s a pretty decent body of work analysing them to draw upon), they fell out of favour as Latin and other features of classical education began to drop out of the school system, meaning the majority of the population are unfamiliar with this epic tale of warfare on the grandest of scales. Given how relatively cheap and simple a technique it is, since it lets others do most of the legwork for you, it’s a truly masterful piece of marketing. And I’m not just saying that because it’s resulted in a video I like.

*I didn’t mention it in the main post because it disrupts the flow, but even without a preset story grand strategy games most certainly have a narrative. Indeed, the self-made stories of beating down a simultaneous rebellion and foreign invasion, and in the process gaining the moniker of ‘the Great’, are one of the main things that makes me enjoy playing Crusader Kings II. There’s an entire post’s-worth of discussion on the subject of videogames’ potential for fluid, non-linear storytelling, but that’s for another time

Attack of the Blocks

I spend far too much time on the internet. As well as putting many hours of work into trying to keep this blog updated regularly, I while away a fair portion of time on Facebook, follow a large number of video series’ and webcomics, and can often be found wandering through the recesses of YouTube (an interesting and frequently harrowing experience that can tell one an awful lot about the extremes of human nature). But there is one thing that any resident of the web cannot hope to avoid for any great period of time, and quite often doesn’t want to- the strange world of Minecraft.

Since its release as a humble alpha-version indie game in 2009, Minecraft has boomed to become a runaway success and something of a cultural phenomenon. By the end of 2011, before it had even been released in its final release format, Minecraft had registered 4 million purchases and 4 times that many registered users, which isn’t bad for a game that has never advertised itself, spread semi-virally among nerdy gamers for its mere three-year history and was made purely as an interesting project by its creator Markus Persson (aka Notch). Thousands of videos, ranging from gameplay to some quite startlingly good music videos (check out the work of Captain Sparklez if you haven’t already) litter YouTube and many of the games’ features (such as TNT and the exploding mobs known as Creepers) have become memes in their own right to some degree.

So then, why exactly has Minecraft succeeded where hundreds and thousands of games have failed, becoming a revolution in gamer culture? What is it that makes Minecraft both so brilliant, and so special?

Many, upon being asked this question, tend to revert to extolling the virtues of the game’s indie nature. Being created entirely without funding as an experiment in gaming rather than profit-making, Minecraft’s roots are firmly rooted in the humble sphere of independent gaming, and it shows. One obvious feature is the games inherent simplicity- initially solely featuring the ability to wander around, place and destroy blocks, the controls are mainly (although far from entirely) confined to move and ‘use’, whether that latter function be shoot, slash, mine or punch down a tree. The basic, cuboid, ‘blocky’ nature of the game’s graphics, allowing for both simplicity of production and creating an iconic, retro aesthetic that makes it memorable and standout to look at. Whilst the game has frequently been criticised for not including a tutorial (I myself took a good quarter of an hour to find out that you started by punching a tree, and a further ten minutes to work out that you were supposed to hold down the mouse button rather than repeatedly click), this is another common feature of indie gaming, partly because it saves time in development, but mostly because it makes the game feel like it is not pandering to you and thus allowing indie gamers to feel some degree of elitism that they are good enough to work it out by themselves. This also ties in with the very nature of the game- another criticism used to be (and, to an extent, still is, even with the addition of the Enderdragon as a final win objective) that the game appeared to be largely devoid of point, existent only for its own purpose. This is entirely true, whether you view that as a bonus or a detriment being entirely your own opinion, and this idea of an unfamiliar, experimental game structure is another feature common in one form or another to a lot of indie games.

However, to me these do not seem to be entirely worthy of the name ‘answers’ regarding the question of Minecraft’s phenomenal success. The reason I think this way is that they do not adequately explain exactly why Minecraft rose to such prominence whilst other, often similar, indie games have been left in relative obscurity. Limbo, for example, is a side-scrolling platformer and a quite disturbing, yet compelling, in-game experience, with almost as much intrigue and puzzle from a set of game mechanics simpler even than those of Minecraft. It has also received critical acclaim often far in excess of Minecraft (which has received a positive, but not wildly amazed, response from critics), and yet is still known to only an occasional few. Amnesia: The Dark Descent has been often described as the greatest survival horror game in history, as well as incorporating a superb set of graphics, a three-dimensional world view (unlike the 2D view common to most indie games) and the most pants-wettingly terrifying experience anyone who’s ever played it is likely to ever face- but again, it is confined to the indie realm. Hell, Terraria is basically Minecraft in 2D, but has sold around 40 times less than Minecraft itself. All three of these games have received fairly significant acclaim and coverage, and rightly so, but none has become the riotous cultural phenomenon that Minecraft has, and neither have had an Assassin’s Creed mod (first example that sprung to mind).

So… why has Minecraft been so successful. Well, I’m going to be sticking my neck out here, but to my mind it’s because it doesn’t play like an indie game. Whilst most independently produced titled are 2D, confined to fairly limited surroundings and made as simple & basic as possible to save on development (Amnesia can be regarded as an exception), Minecraft takes it own inherent simplicity and blows it up to a grand scale. It is a vast, open world sandbox game, with vague resonances of the Elder Scrolls games and MMORPG’s, taking the freedom, exploration and experimentation that have always been the advantages of this branch of the AAA world, and combined them with the innovative, simplistic gaming experience of its indie roots. In some ways it’s similar to Facebook, in that it takes a simple principle and then applies it to the largest stage possible, and both have enjoyed a similarly explosive rise to fame. The randomly generated worlds provide infinite caverns to explore, endless mobs to slay, all the space imaginable to build the grandest of castles, the largest of cathedrals, or the SS Enterprise if that takes your fancy. There are a thousand different ways to play the game on a million different planes, all based on just a few simple mechanics. Minecraft is the best of indie and AAA blended together, and is all the more awesome for it.

Think of the CHILDREN!

My last post dealt with the way that sex in our society is something kept very much under wraps, dusted under the carpet and kept out of the conversation of everyday life as much as possible. This post however could be said to be completely debunking every point I made in the last one, for today I will be considering the issue of the increasing use & prevalence of sex, sexuality and sexual connotations in society today.

The main people voicing a strong opinion against this trend are, of course, the kind of militant parents who started a war in the South Park movie (good film, see it if you can). They argue that modern media and marketing strategies place a lot of emphasis on the use of sex symbols and sexual connotations, and that these strategies are, more worryingly, being aimed at a steadily younger audience. Young girls in particular are often quoted as being aggressively targeted by clothing companies from as young as 8, companies trying to buy them into the whole ‘looks and clothes are the most important thing ever’ mentality in order to turn them into fashion-obsessed consumers as early as possible.

There’s certainly a lot of evidence to support their theory as to the increased prevalence of sexual symbolism in today’s culture. Sport may be a good place to look for examples- modern female sports stars are nowadays judged mainly by the way they look, and in many sports where men and women have roughly equal exposure (such as tennis) female competitors often have larger sponsorship deals. Is this because they are better at persuading people that sports equipment is awesome? No, it’s because they are capable of advertising perfume by wearing hardly any clothes and exploiting their sex appeal (think Maria Sharapova, whose game suffered heavily in the few years after she won Wimbledon as she turned into more of a model than a tennis player). And then what about tabloid newspapers and their page 3 hooks for readers, ‘lads mags’ that now have enough status to be invited as judges for the nomination of Sports Personality of The Year (not the BBC’s proudest moment), and clothes companies that now market ‘sexy high heels’ at under 10s?

So… where can this be traced back to? Well, if we, as the pressure groups tend to, blame everything on businesses and clothing companies, their reasoning is actually very simple. Firstly, to consider the issue of children being targeted in one way or another, it’s a well recognised fact that kids love to appear grown-up. They get fussy about their ages (“I’m not 10, I’m 10 and a half!”), copy their parents’ habits and what they see on TV, hate not being able to do stuff on account of age or size and might even try on Mummy and Daddy’s clothes when they’re a bit younger. A child’s ultimate fantasy (and probably one shared by a few adults as well) is to live with all the opportunity and ability of an adult, and without any of the responsibility. For them, therefore, all this sexually-related material that permeates their life is not about sex (which they probably don’t understand properly if at all), but about adulthood, and this just screams ‘awesome’ directly at them. We must also remember that it’s not just the kids who’re at it either; parents love it when their children appear ‘grown-up’ and mature because it makes them seem special, a cut above their peers, subtly suggesting to parents that not only are their kids better than everyone else’s, but that they themselves are better parents. Therefore, whilst some parents might be appalled at the sight of a 9 year old in heels and a miniskirt, others might think of her as quite the young woman, and perhaps even be jealous of the maturity that child seems to have compared to theirs.

And then we must consider a fact that countless bits of market research has shown- sex appeal sells stuff. Even if children don’t get the symbolism, their parents do, and whether the stuff they’re buying is for them or their kids, a bright, smiling, good-looking woman is more likely to encourage them to buy something than an advert featuring a dour looking bloke showing no interest whatsoever. This is especially true when we consider fields such as scent, beauty products and fashionable clothing, all of which are selling products actively designed to make you seem more attractive and, according to Freud at least, get you more sex. Even if you don’t make that connection consciously, there’s no doubt that your subconscious mind picks up on the connection, and that’s before we even consider how totally blatant use of sex, such as in tabloid page 3 columns, acts as a straight marketing hook to sell things. Put simply, sex appeal is an undeniably successful marketing strategy that makes perfect sense, from a purely fiscal point of view, to use.

To finish off, I would like to offer just a snippet of a history lesson. The 1920s were a great time for the USA, producing an economic boom thanks to the likes of Henry Ford,  massive growths in cultural areas such as major league sport, and reinventing social mobility. For the first time, women had a degree of social freedom, particularly among those known as ‘flappers’, who would cut their hair short, drink and smoke in direct and deliberate contravention of the classical female norm. The invention of the car gave young people freedom from their parents and invented the date for the first time, and in jazz music the young of the Roaring Twenties had their own music and social scene as well. This lead, among other things, to a huge increase in sexual freedom among the young, and the media of the time reflected this. This was especially true in the cinema, a relatively new phenomenon, which quickly developed the first sex symbols in the likes of Rudolf Valentino and Clara Bow, prompting advertising and marketing of the time to begin exploiting sex appeal as a means to sell their products. Understandably, the older generation went into uproar over this cultural revolution, but it didn’t make a scrap of difference, and a fresh wave of American culture swept across the world.

Sound familiar? It should do- it’s the same thing people are complaining about now, and people have complained in the same way about the changes in every successive generation, be it teenagers in the 50s, hippies in the 60s, or metal in the 70s. Culture changes, and that’s just a fact of life. There’s nothing wrong with being angry about it, but we must remember that society has survived each new wave of culture and come through each none the worse for wear. If you want to uphold society, then forming a pressure group for each successive thing that offends you probably isn’t the bet way to weather the storm. You’ll have far better results just sticking to what you do like, upholding the values you think are important, and trying to pass those off to your children. It’ll be a lot less painful.

The Hidden Benefits

Corporations are having a rather rough time of it at the minute in the PR department. This is only to be expected given the current economic climate, and given the fact that almost exactly the same feelings of annoyance and distrust were expressed during the other two major economic downturns of the last 100 years. Big business has always been the all-pervasive face of ‘the man’, and when said man has let us down (either during a downturn or at any point in history when somebody is holding a guitar), they tend to be (often justifiably) the main victims of hatred. In essence, they are ‘the bad guys’.

However, no matter how cynical you are, there are a couple of glaring inconsistencies in this concept- things that can either (depending on your perspective) make the bad guys seem nice, make nice things seem secretly evil, or just make you go “WTF?”. Here we can find the proverbial shades of grey.

Let us consider, for instance, tourism. Nobody who lives anywhere even remotely pretty or interesting likes tourists, and some of the local nicknames for them, especially in coastal areas for some reason, are simultaneously interesting, hilarious and bizarre. They are an annoying bunch of people, seeming always to be asking dumb questions and trailing around places like flocks of lost sheep, and with roughly the same mental agility- although since the rest of us all act exactly the same when we are on holiday, then it’s probably better to tolerate them a little. Then there is the damage they can do to a local area, ranging from footpath erosion and littering to the case o the planet Bethselamin, “which is now so worried about the cumulative erosion of 10 billion visiting tourists a year that any net imbalance between the amount you eat and the amount you excrete whilst on the planet is surgically removed from your body weight when you leave- so every time you go to the lavatory there it is vitally important to get a receipt” (Douglas Adams again). The tourism industry is often accused of stifling local economies in places like Yorkshire or the Lake District, where entire towns can consist of nothing but second homes (sending the local housing market haywire), tea shops and B&B’s, with seemingly no way out of a spiral of dependence upon it.

However, what if I was to tell you that tourism is possibly the single most powerful force acting towards the preservation of biodiversity and the combating of climate change? You might think me mad, but consider this- why is there still Amazonian rainforest left? Why are there vast tracks of national path all over southern Africa? We might (and in fact should) be able to think of dozens of very good reasons for preserving these habitats, not least the benefits to making sure that all of our great planet’s inhabitants are allowed to survive without being crushed under the proverbial bulldozer that is civilisation, and the value to the environment of the carbon sink of the rainforests. But, unfortunately, when viewed from a purely clinical standpoint these arguments do not stand up. Consider the rainforest- depending on your perspective this is either a natural resource that is useful for all sorts of namby-pamby reasons like ensuring the planet doesn’t suffocate, or a source of a potentially huge amount of money. Timber is valuable stuff, especially given the types (such as mahogany) and sizes of trees one gets in the Amazon delta. Factor in that gain with the fact that many of the countries who own such rainforest are desperately poor and badly need the cash, and suddenly the plight of the Lesser Purple-Crested Cockroach seems less important.

And here tourists come to the rescue, for they are the sole financial justification for the preservation  of the rainforests. The idea of keeping all this natural biodiversity for people to have is all well and good, but this idea backed up by the prospect of people paying large sums of money to come and see it becomes doubly attractive, interesting governments in potential long-term financial gain rather than the quick buck that is to be gained from just using up their various natural resources from a purely industrial point of view.

Tourism is not the only industry that props up an entire section of life that we all know and love. Let me throw some names at you: Yahoo, Facebook, Google, Twitter. What do all of those (and many other besides) have in common? Firstly, that all are based on the internet, and secondly that the services offered by all three are entirely free. Contrast that against similarity three, that all are multi-billion dollar companies. How does this work? Answer, similarity 4: all gain their income from the advertising industry.

Advertising and marketing is another sect of modern business that we all hate, as adverts are always annoying by their presence, and can be downright offensively horrible in some cases. Aggressive marketing is basically the reason we can’t have nice things generally, and there is something particularly soulless about an industry whose sole purpose is to sell you things based on what they say, rather than what’s good about whatever they’re selling. They are perhaps the personification of the evils of big business, and yet without it, huge tracts of the internet, the home of the rebellion against modern consumer culture, would simply not be able to exist. Without advertising, the information Facebook has on its hundreds of millions of users would be financially useless, let alone the users themselves, and thus it would not be able to exist as a company or, probably, an entity at all, let alone one that has just completed one of the highest-value stock market flotations in commercial history. Google would exist perhaps merely as a neat idea, something a geek might have thought of in college and never been able to turn into a huge business that deals with a gigantic stake in web traffic as well as running its own social network, email service and even the web browser I am typing this on.

This doesn’t make advertisers and tourism companies suddenly all angels in the light of the world, and they are probably just as deserving of all the cynicism they get (equally deserving, probably, are Facebook and Google, but this would ruin my argument). But it’s worth thinking that, no matter how pushy or annoying they start to get, it may be a small price to pay for the benefits their very existence lends to us.