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