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

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Why Stealth Features Make Not A Stealth Game

After a lukewarm reception to Assassin’s Creed III following its release that some fear may have disillusioned some fans, Ubisoft went all-out in their marketing campaign for Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, the latest in the series. As a fan of the series (and, incidentally, one who didn’t buy AC3 following the less than perfect feedback it got), I have no problem with this, and was intrigued and excited to see some of the features being implemented get put to use. However, one particular bit of promo material that caught my eye was the stealth gameplay walkthrough, which talks up the various stealth features employed in the game.

[Yes I am perfectly aware that this post is hideously out of date- I’m working through a backlog here]

Y’see, watching that video got me thinking about the role of stealth in the Assassin’s Creed games, and eventually led me to the conclusion that, at its heart, the Assassin’s Creed series is not a stealth franchise. I could justify that statement by pointing out the huge variety of stuff the game offers beyond stealth (free-running, the admittedly awkward ‘wait around for counter chances’ combat, and traversing the high seas spring instantly to mind), or by pointing out the extent Ubisoft is prepared to go to to ensure you don’t ever actually have to use stealth if you don’t want to- I mean for heaven’s sake, they’ve just announced a new mobile game based on Black Flag called Assassin’s Creed Pirates, which allows you to do all the sailing around and piratey things without any of the exciting running around on rooftops that made the game so popular in the first place. But this wouldn’t actually address the core reason behind the AC franchise’s non-stealthness- for that we must consider exactly where the stealth genre comes from.

To explain: every game genre is basically defined by a single, core game concept, a sort of combination of mechanics and the emotional hooks that get us to enjoy (or not, as the case may be) games of that genre. In an RPG it’s about the characters and your advancing skills, in a strategy game it’s about the concept of ‘playing god’ and dictating how a whole system works rather than an individual, and in a stealth game the core concept involves hiding. This central concept naturally extrapolates itself into a series of other features after a while. In many (but not necessarily all) cases, waiting becomes a core mechanic too, as once our protagonist has hidden from whichever bad guy is appropriate it would be strange for him to be able to move out of cover immediately- as Extra Credits said during their episode on the subject of stealth, the trick to making a good stealth game is to make waiting fun. Not only that, but a key part of making the experience of hiding compelling and fun is for the player to be able to use it aggressively to their advantage. Thus, protagonists in stealth games are also generally able to make highly effective sneak attacks on an unaware enemy, frequently one hit kills such as slitting the throat or the Dishonored choke hold.

Thus far, Assassin’s Creed is sounding very like a stealth game, and it’s true the games have always featured stealth gameplay heavily. The game’s most characteristic feature is, of course, the hidden blade, intended specifically for insta-killing an unaware enemy (with the option for a suitably dramatic dive throwing them to the ground for good measure), and in later games this can be adapted to allow an enemy to be poisoned, meaning he won’t die until you’re well out of reach of any blame. AC2’s introduction of attacks from ledges, hide spots and rooftops also expanded on this, introducing a new range of ways for a player to get into a killing position whilst remaining undetected. Not only does the series’ ever expanding array of hide spots help this, but they also give the option of helping a player to run away from a fight if they so choose, meaning fighting need not be the only option. But then again these features alone aren’t enough to make a stealth game: by way of example, Skyrim had a sneaking system that allowed for high-powered sneak attacks on unaware enemies, but is quite clearly an RPG with a few stealth elements rather than a true stealth game.

Thus, mere adoption of stealth gameplay features does not make Assassin’s Creed a stealth game, and it fundamentally is not one for the following reason: for hiding and waiting to become a game’s central features the player must have a reason for doing so; hiding must benefit the player in some way. Not only that, but the usually slower-paced stealth approach must some how become the more attractive option compared to a full-frontal assault, which from the start has the advantage of being faster, more direct and more exciting. One can attempt to railroad the player down this route by making the player instantly fail if they are detected (as the AC series has done on multiple occasions), but this is a clumsy way of doing things that fails to make the stealth experience more fun and only serves to frustrate the player as to why they can’t just rush in all guns blazing. In most true stealth games, the player is forced into hiding by making it the most favourable defensive tactic (ie the best way to stay alive), which is achieved by making sure they have relatively little health/armour/defensive ability so can’t really stand up in proper combat.

And this, really, is what distinguishes Assassin’s Creed as not fundamentally being a stealth game. The combat in AC games is frequently (and rightly) criticised for being formulaic and repetitive, and part of the reason behind this is that all AC characters are really good at defending. To block just about all incoming attacks merely requires the ‘high profile’ button to be held down, and if the counter button is pressed at the appropriate moment then almost every incoming enemy can be killed the moment they attack. If countering isn’t your style, then many a foe can be taken down by simply bashing the attack button, and as later games allow you to upgrade your weapons by the end this can result in a very quick death for any NPC foolish enough to get in your way. And all that’s presuming the player wants to stand and fight; even in AC1 enemies could be taken out from afar with throwing knives (which I suppose could be tenuously considered stealth weapons), and by later games our protagonist has grenades and a ****ing gun* at his disposal, which aren’t stealthy by any stretch of the imagination.

By making it so easy to fight, to cut through swathes of enemies with hardly a thought, the developers of Assassin’s Creed have ensured the focus of their game is not about stealth, and although this is by no means a bad thing (not every game need be stealthy) this fact does, I feel, somewhat undermine many of the stealth features they have chosen to include in their various games. Just so I can consider my point proven, some months ago the Assassin’s Creed Facebook page asked its readers which series was their favourite: Assassin’s Creed or Thief, the series that almost single-handedly invented the stealth genre and had recently announced a new game (the fact that this game has subsequently turned out to be terrible is, of course, an entire other point). How did these people, who I shall remind you were writing on the official Assassin’s Creed Facebook page, respond? Why, overwhelmingly in favour of Thief, of course.

This was, however, before AC4 was released.

*That list doesn’t even mention stuff like the hookblade and parachutes which, cool though they are, do nothing for the games’ stealth elements other than distract from them.

Gaming Concluded

And so I return, wiping off my smirk and trying not to laugh at anything that sounds French, back into the foray of my regular blogging experience, in an effort to conclude the topic on gaming. So far I have considered the two main complaints that non-gaming people tend to have with gamers and games themselves- today I want to get more into the guts of exactly why gaming, over so many other things, appears to be a target for particular dislike from large sections of the mainstream.

In case anyone reading is in any doubt that games ARE as much of a target as I am painting them to be, I refer you to a situation a while ago in which the American Supreme Court agreed to hear a proposed Californian state law restricting the sale of games to minors, especially ‘violent content’ Please bear in mind that these laws pop up all over the US from time to time and are always shot down for violating the First Amendment- but in this case the Supreme Court, the ultimate last line of appeal, the highest court in the most powerful nation on earth, was willing to give voice to an argument claiming, based on claims made from rather spurious studies that ‘games harm U18’s’, that games do not offer sufficient value to the world as a whole to warrant First Amendment protection. Anyone could see the law was unconstitutional- but the political voice was loud enough to get the Supreme Court to have a listen. Can anyone imagine them hearing a case proposing the restriction of film content in this way? Or TV? Or music. Of course not- but games? Whole other kettle of fish apparently.

(I could spend all day shooting this law down, but since I only know about this from an Extra Credits episode and they are going to do a far better job of it than me, I suggest you hit PATV and watch their take on it: http://penny-arcade.com/patv/episode/free-speech)

So yeah- people and politicians don’t like games, but why? What is it that what’s basically giving a film a joystick and controls suddenly turns that film into something that everyone thinks just doesn’t matter? The reasons are, as with all such widespread emotions, many and varied, and I have certainly not thought of all of them, but here are just 3 that especially spring to mind:

1) The Social Gap

It’s no secret that gamers are a fairly predictable group of people in terms of who they are- young, often middle-class, men aged between 14 and 28 ish probably comprise at least 70% of the game-playing population (my own guesstimate, so shoot me down if you know any better figures). But, for starters, half the world’s population are female and the majority are outside the ‘game-playing’ age bracket- especially in the western world where advances in living conditions and healthcare have meant that seemingly everyone is middle-aged. Thus, gamers are something of a group unto themselves- in my social circle, for instance, just about everyone will be a gamer to some extent, but in, say, my mum’s, none of them would know the difference between Final Fantasy and Battlefield. So games become less of an all-encompassing medium, and more of a seemingly ‘niche’ product that just doesn’t seem very important to large sects of the population- particularly the small rich, white, middle aged, upper middle-class sect that dominates the western political and (to a large extent) cultural landscape. This is compounded by the fact that, unlike TV or film which have been around for years, gaming in its current, industry level, world-dominating form is really a creation of the last 15-20 years or so, so there has been little generational ‘trickle-down’- ie the more elderly sects of society will NEVER have played a game, much less grown out of them, so are even less inclined to be sympathetic towards them.

 

2) Internet Connections

As I’ve just said, modern gaming is really an invention that began gathering speed around the mid-to-late 90’s- almost exactly the same time that the internet was first invented. As such, with gaming and the web growing up to becoming the fully-fledged entities they are now almost in parallel, they have since developed a close bond. For example, a lot of internet memes, such as the whole ‘arrow to the knee’ thing, are gaming-based, and while gaming may only be relegated to a small back page every fortnight in the paper, online it has entire sites and communities dedicated to it in a way even films can’t match on the web. Unfortunately, this internet link, and especially the tie-ins the web also has to the same middle-class young men group who make up the core gaming stereotype means that a lot of the ‘bad boy’ parts of the internet that disgust big corporations and governments seem to have an inherent link to gaming- and thus gaming gets tarred with the same ‘we don’t like you’ brush. Not only that, it also gets landed with all the active dislikes people have of those sectors of the web- its juvenile and rather crude sense of humour, the potential for hacking dangers, and the generalised sexism and borderline-offensive ‘banter’. It is this, in part, which turns mere indifference to the gaming population into genuine dislike and mistrust of the medium.

 

3) Content & Style

The very nature of gaming and gameplay itself demands an action-driven plot & content style- even in the more cinematic or narrative games, what keeps the plot ticking over is you as the player actively doin’ stuff. If we make a quick comparison to films for a minute, this does happen in the film industry- action flicks for example often go for plots almost entirely driven by the protagonist’s actions over the course of the film. However, this is not the only way for a film to go- different genres, be they romances, ‘arthouse’ films, even horror movies, can push the film forward via other means, such as dialogue or even acting expression. This variety is one of the reason films are so accessible- there is something for every taste. However, the action-driven nature of games inherently limits the variety of experience delivery they can offer, which isolates large sects of the non-game playing public from giving them a chance. Basically, to a non-gamer, all games would, if they were films, have Jason Statham in the lead. Now, people not naturally inclined towards that sort of thing don’t find it so much of a problem with films because there is still space for the sort of delivery they prefer- but the image of gaming as ALL being like this makes it all seem a bit juvenile and not worth all the bother. This is a problem unfortunately compounded by the fact that the popularity of games like Call of Duty, where action is so central it seems to hide all else. This makes it seem like all modern games are about KILLING EVERYBODY- not the image that best portrays the emotion and general awesomeness that really good games can inspire. Thus, once again, an image of a medium that’s ‘just not for me’, is turned into one that is juvenile, grotesque, occasionally obscene and thus not worth the same merits as other forms of media.

This list is far from exhaustive but to me it covers the main points as I see it that make gaming a seemingly exclusive and disliked medium. What can be done about it? Well, a little just being more grown up about stuff and sharing quality gaming experiences with the rest of the world wouldn’t go amiss, as would not taking the piss constantly out of the Nintendo Wii- while it may not be a serious gaming platform, it has done more for gaming’s image than the PlayStation 50 ever could. As for any less ‘woolly’ ways out… well, do you want me to make this a four parter, cos I don’t?