Game Over: Boring Footage And Formulas

F or seven years, PlayStation ads have implored gamers to “live in your world, play in ours,” and now TBWA\Chiat\Day creatives are lining up to work in Jerry Gentile’s world. “We’re on another upsurge with the PSP and PS3 coming, another renaissance in gaming that will change things dramatically, and that’s true for game advertising as well,” says Gentile, who is the lead creative director on Sony at TBWA\C\D. “Everyone here is champing at the bit.” So much so that the account may soon be opened up to the whole creative department, he says.

Ten years ago, creatives at the Playa del Rey, Calif., shop were less enthusiastic. Game graphics were nothing to trumpet, and clients were leaning on a boilerplate template that depended on game footage—a formulaic approach similar to movie marketing. Ad spending in 1995 by the three industry leaders—Activision, Electronic Arts and Sony for PlayStation—was, respectively, $800,000, $6 million and $11 million, per TNS Media Intelligence. In 2004, Activision spent $75 million; Electronic Arts $70 million; and PlayStation $90 million.

But, imminent hardware advances signal a looming marketing war, with Microsoft’s latest Xbox expected by Christmas, Sony’s PS3 coming out next spring and Nintendo’s (codename) “Revolution” slated for 2006. New-generation hardware has typically meant additional advertising for the boxes, as well as spending on new titles written to take advantage of them. The gaming industry is catching up to the movies as revenue-producing entertainment, with PricewaterhouseCoopers projecting the U.S. game market will equal the domestic box office next year and zoom past it in 2007, to $14 billion (includes hardware and games).

Game marketing, at least in TV, continues to evolve as an ever-exciting creative category. If the Cannes 2004 Grand Prix film winner, Sony PlayStation’s “Mountain” out of TBWA’s London office, didn’t indicate game marketing has come of age, the continuous increase in spending indicates category creativity will be propelled even further.

“There are two parallel paths now,” says Carolyn Feinstein, group vp of marketing communications at Electronic Arts, Redwood City, Calif. “We’re moving away from the templated format to live action, but also moving to an approach where the game’s interactivity is at the center.”

EA’s ads, from Wieden + Kennedy, showcase both trends. For its best-selling “Madden NFL,” a spot features a filmed montage of Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb and gridiron action coming from a PlayStation Portable—and no game footage. In contrast, the Portland, Ore.-based shop’s campaign for EA’s “The Sims 2” exemplifies the countervailing trend of using hyper-realistic or unusually styled footage from games as the centerpiece of campaigns. In more than a dozen spots, cd Steve Luker and copywriter Mike McCommon show various gamer-created mini movies, then add the author’s picture and bio at the end. Luker contends that the sophistication of the ads has to keep up with players. “I feel we’re in a golden era,” he says. “We’re getting support from EA at the top levels to do things differently. It is the most exciting time to be in the category. And, historically, it has been one of the toughest because of the artificial set of rules the industry put on itself.”

Adds McCommon, “The more you see, the better the campaign works.” A Sims-branded content program called This Sims Life, also by Wieden, airs Monday on MTV.

“There’s always been a tug-of-war between agencies and product managers in love with showing the product,” says Patrick Adams, managing director of Activision’s agency, Secret Weapon Marketing in Santa Monica, Calif. “In the past, they’ve been known to act like car managers who insist on showing sheet metal. Now we’re starting to see the agency difference, though it’s mostly in the cream at the very top.”

Creatives agree the license granted by game marketers is more evident in TV than print. For “NBA Live,” out of Wieden, Houston Rockets’ Tracy McGrady dribbles up to Miami Heat’s Dwyane Wade. McGrady’s body disassembles robotically; a man climbs out, then locks himself into Wade’s skin. For EA’s “Marvel Nemesis,” Luker’s team shows the kind of comic caprice virtually unheard of before Gentile’s team shattered the mold for PlayStation’s “Ratchet & Clank” three years ago. A falafel salesman unpacks his comic-book underwear collection, wondering to himself who would win a superhero battle. “Brigade? Spider-Man? Johnny Ohm? Wolverine?” He finally dons Paragon underpants and strikes a macho pose: “I am the alpha and the andronica [sic]!”

Secret Weapon’s work for Activision this season also contains a mix of game-based spots (“Ultimate Spider-Man” features the heavy, black-line comic-book style), realistic ads (“Call of Duty 2: Big Red One” contains CG footage that appears straight from the climax of Saving Private Ryan) and live/animation combination (“Tony Hawk’s American Wasteland” shows a live-action skateboarder cruising through an imaginary landscape). Using CG to replicate game footage in high resolution “opens things up,” Adams says. “As the new-generation platforms come on—and they are phenomenal—there might be a push to more game footage.”

Says Feinstein, “Somewhat like the movie industry, consumers do want to see the game. But there are so many other forms for depth of information. The fact that online advertising goes very deep on product features does open up TV. We’re working hard to innovate in that space.”