Tuesday, March 14, 2006

The root of shock game advertising

I was flipping through my copy of EGM with my fiancé just the other day. It was a rather embarrassing tour through the current gaming culture. In the first few pages, we perused the standard mixture of guns and ultra violence. “Look,” I pointed, “there’s Lara’s bum festooned with some charming grenade accessories. And check out those flying WW2 chaps on page 10. They certainly do bounce about when consumed in a massive fireball.”

Finally, we happened about a vivid image of a violated female corpse with a bloody bullet hole gaping in her forehead. Ah, the delightfully rank odor of publicly condoned misogyny. Apparently this is a great way to sell games. It is rare that you see such crude advertising images in movie, books or even comics, a market that supports far more extreme depictions of ultra violence. Yet they are commonplace in game advertising. It has always perplexed me.

The immediate response is to blame the marketing departments. Obviously, they are bastards. Yet, in the broader scheme of business, marketing is mostly a mercenary that attempts to convey a product’s value proposition to a potential customer. At its core, game advertising merely reflects and promotes the value that is exchanged between product developers and their customers.

So let’s turn this question of shock advertising around. What value proposition are mainstream games promising to customers that inspire our advertising to look like this drek?

Visceral Feedback
To find the answer we need to go back to the basics. Games at their heart are about feedback cycles in which the player performs an action and the game provides either a reward or a punishment. The potency of your feedback system has a major impact on the addictiveness of your game play. Thus feedback systems are one of the most heavily developed areas in the majority of game titles.

Early in the history of games, developers realized that the emotional impact of the game’s feedback can be easily magnified by using visually rich and shocking imagery. The introduction of faked ‘dangerous’ stimuli makes your reptile brain react in a physical manner is not so different than the thrills of a rollercoaster ride. You are never in any danger, but critical portions of your brain react as if you are. The brain evolved to deal with real threats, not 3D video cards pumping out super realistic explosions complete with force feedback. The flow of blood in your brain changes, your heartbeat increases and the excitement builds. The game play goes from interesting to thrilling. I call this ‘visceral feedback.’

Visceral stimulus enhances existing reward systems in games. For example, it is easily arguable that the fatalities of Mortal Combat improved the actual game experience. The thrill of finally ripping out your opponent’s spine kick starts your adrenaline and wakes up your brain. For another example of visceral feedback, check out this simple yet effective Flash game at http://www.winterrowd.com/maze.swf. The use of sound is particularly nicely done.

The core value proposition of games?
Visceral feedback is a very popular technique with both customers and game developers.

With customers, several very public blockbuster success stories such as GTA, Doom and Quake suggest that “Visceral feedback means better games”. The link is questionable, but still the theory has become accepted as The Way of Things. Experienced gamers, indoctrinated into the gaming culture accept and promote the benefit of visceral rewards. They historically have put their money into better graphics and more extreme settings whenever the opportunity arises. Better visceral feedback has become a key indication of game quality, despite the general lack of real world correlation.

The business side of game development also appears to support the use of visceral feedback. This makes the most sense in light of modern game design’s attempt to constantly reduce and mitigate short term risk.
  • Generally visceral feedback relies on the production of new assets, not the creation of new game play systems. Asset production is a well studied and highly reliable activity that is unlikely to introduce schedule slippage.
  • The advances in hardware mean that taking advantage of new hardware allows designers to easily pump out a new title with the same mechanics and updated graphics. They merely increase the impact of the risk / reward systems and hope that this will give them a competitive advantage in the market place. By targeting R&D only at technology and not in the areas of game mechanics or business models, companies also reduce short term risk. Why bother creating a unique competitive advantage when you can recycle one?
Naturally, these two sides of the coin feed upon one another. Over many years, these patterns have led many in the industry to make the implicit assumption that the ultimate value proposition of games is to “provide players with visceral experiences.”

Marketing’s response
If you boil a game’s core value proposition down to “providing visceral experiences” then the job of marketing is to promise increasingly powerful visceral experiences. Marketing people aren’t being obnoxious. They are simply doing their job based off the assumed benefits of gaming and assumed desires of the gaming population.

Unfortunately, game marketers are also encouraged to over promise a game’s visceral rewards due to the bizarre structure of our retail channel. We live in a “Buy and then Try” environment. The promise of an intense experience is often more cost effective at creating sales than actually developing a real experience. A photorealistic box illustration costs much less than a photorealistic game environment. Yet arguably the box and perhaps a few screenshots are more effective at driving sales. This is not a recent trend. The advertising of 2600 titles such as Combat are direct forefathers of the visuals used to promote modern games.

Shock advertising comes into play when someone always increases the viciousness of their ads in an attempt to compete in a market where the emotional rawness of your product is a major selling factor. Customers have two reactions. They can either leave gaming behind in disgust or they can learn to ignore the shock ads. Over time, the shock ads have increased in potency in order to reach an increasingly jaded, distrustful and hardcore audience.

Of course, non-gamers see gaming ads as well. They assume that the highly prevalent shock ads display the true nature of gaming. There are massive generation issues at work here, but gaming ads are structured in a way that deliberately and intentionally provokes an intense negative response from outsiders. A gamer would retort, “They are meant to be shocking, duh.”

The problems with visceral feedback
The response of marketing reveals a deeper issue. Basing a game on visceral feedback is a remarkably shallow value proposition for your customers. Visceral rewards might seem exciting for the customer and easy to create for the developer, but they have some longer term issues.
  • The burn out rate on visceral rewards is very high. Sure, each fatality in Mortal Combat was rather cool the first few times you saw it, but after a while you begin thinking of them more strategically. A fatality rapidly turns into an abstract demonstration of skill and finesse. This deeper appreciation of the game mechanics can often be serviced using reward mechanisms that are much less expensive to produce. Players quickly stop experiencing the visceral nature of the reward.
  • Since value diminishes quickly, customers get little value for their money. Where a game like chess might last a lifetime, most games that rely on visceral rewards last mere hours. The gamer value per dollar is perceived as quite low. The more desperate gamers with money to spare burn through multiple games. This artificially buoys the industry. The less desperate (or less well heeled) will often give up on gaming completely due to the lack of value that it provides.
From a business perspective, visceral rewards are also one of the least effective.
  • Rapidly diminishing return on investment: Past a certain level of quality, customers have difficulty telling the difference between ‘good visuals’ and ‘great visuals’. Developers can quickly find themselves spending substantial amounts of money with no obvious return on their investment.
  • Poor competitive insulation: Great graphics and other visceral rewards are one of the easiest elements to add to a title and the most difficult to maintain leadership in over time. Any publisher can hire a bevy of talented artists and pump out gloriously sexy movies. Because the cost of entry is so low, it is easy for others to do the same. Competition drives down profit. Ironically, short term risk mitigation development strategies result in long term market instability.
To summarize, games that rely primarily on visceral rewards end up causing several issues:
  • They provide poor value to customers. Long term this lack of value often alienates customers.
  • They are a poor business practice that seriously increases the competitive risks for your company and the industry.
  • As a side effect, they encourage increasingly demented ads that strive to promote a shallow value proposition. This helps alienate both marginal customers and the world at large.
You are responsible for shock advertising
If you develop a game that is ‘the same, but more intense’, you are directly responsible for the miserable and degrading ads that it spawns. You set forth a shallow value proposition in your product that the marketoids promote to the best of their ability.

You are also responsible in part for the vitriol flung at the game industry by an offended moral majority. I’m all for freedom of speech, but when the vast majority of content in a medium is radically out of step with other popular forms of media, there is something questionable going on. It would be the rough equivalent of the entire movie industry only producing porn. When you produce a shallow product that feeds on the subconscious base instincts of your customers, you should expect to get a bit of well deserved flak tossed your way.

Alternative approaches
There are alternatives and they start with adjusting the core value proposition of your game. It turns out that visceral rewards are only one technique for increasing the emotional impact of feedback systems in games. Here are several alternative feedback techniques which are highly effective, lower cost and have much lower burnout rates. For example:
  • Real world rewards: Rewards that tie into real world goals of the customer. Examples include money in gambling games or the promise of better mental capabilities in the DS Brain Training titles.
  • Social rewards: Reward that leverage or help build social networks. Examples include prestige-based feedback in a title like Counterstrike’s leader board or Guild housing in an MMO.
  • Nested rewards: The nesting of carefully balanced feedback systems that augment and encourage the continual learning of new strategies. An example includes the turn structure in Civilization in which various building schedules encourage the player to continue for ‘one more turn.”
Possible paths towards better advertising
In order to have more positive advertising messages, you need to create games that have a positive benefit for your customers.
  • Stop relying on visceral rewards as your game’s primary selling point. Use visceral rewards sparingly in your designs. You may lose a few hormonal teenage ‘hard core’ gamers who have bought into an empty gaming culture, but that is okay. There are better things you can do with your mad skillz than virtually stimulating their tender amygdala with sensory overload.
  • Focus on alternative feedback systems such as real world rewards or social rewards. You’ll actually be providing substantial, positive benefits to your customers and the smart marketing people will build their campaigns around this concept.
  • Encourage ‘Try before you buy’ distribution methods. The current retail channel encourages and promotes the status quo of both game design and advertising. The best marketing is to provide authentic, high value experiences to your customer and then leverage of word of mouth and other viral or grassroots techniques. When you encourage user trial of your product, you are no longer hiding behind the veil of questionable box shots, previews and magazine ads. Instead, you are establishing an honest, experience-based connection with your customer. The rapidly growing markets of casual gaming and MMO games follow this sales model very successfully.
Many in our close knit industry are always willing to defend the excesses of visceral feedback as art. But I wonder if the situation isn’t the exact opposite. Art to me is the act of creating great and wondrous things that communicate the breadth of the human condition.

When I look at many games and the sorry advertisements that reflect back their pitiful value, I see people mechanically spewing out “more for the sake of more.” A game that only offers perfectly modeled bullet paths or the ability to murder beautiful women is a waste of talent and a blight upon our industry. I say this not because I’m morally opposed to such content, but because it doesn’t accomplish anything worthy for the customer, the industry or our industry’s wonderful developers.

Make something worthwhile. The game ads, though never perfect, will improve in direct response to the value of what you create. Perhaps, many years from now, I’ll be able to flip through EGM with my fiancé and not feel like such a dolt. :-)

Take care

Defender: http://www.vgmuseum.com/scans/scans2/defender.jpg


Ms Pacman


Other old box shots


  1. I absolutely agree.

    I'd like to add, though, that I think there are two kinds of viscerality. One is the visual/aural kind, with the usual blood and guts, and your post did a magnificent job of showing why it's really overemphasized these days.

    The other kind is a lot more subtle. Think of the rush of hanging onto an A-wing's six in TIE Fighter, chasing it down little by little and wearing down its shields until you finally punch through. Think of, yes, Quake II in multiplayer mode - one of my most cherished experiences was when I "went zone" with the double-barreled shotgun and just overran an opponent - rushed him and took him out in one shot, without even thinking about it. Think of Metal Slug - even if you're fighting zombies or mummies instead of enemy soldiers, even if the "blood" has been turned white in an attempt at censorship, there's an extremely visceral element to the act of mowing down a rush of oncoming targets.

    The second kind, I think, is not something that can be done through graphics. It's embedded in the gameplay, to wit: certain player actions can induce a visceral response. Destroying large numbers of "enemy" tokens with a powerful attack, especially through direct manipulation, is one (Metal Slug). Pursuing and defeating an "opponent" token is another (TIE Fighter, racing games). In regards to the latter, have you ever wondered why Mario Kart engenders such a... visceral response in players? I think it's because it taps into the fundamental hunter-instinct to "pursue and overrun". I suspect that the idea of BEING pursued could also induce a response, as your comment on "dangerous" stimuli seems to suggest.

    The question: we all know that Type 1 viscerality can't sustain a game; you've proven that pretty well in the post. How about Type 2, though?

  2. What you are describing is seems quite related to the state of flow (by a man whose name I cannot pronounce, much less spell) You can link to his book here: Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience

    If I were to borrow a page from Raph's book, this tends to come about when you are executing smoothly on behavioral patterns that you've learned while playing the game. Then you see a rarely occuring situation, you reuse your existing knowledge, and rapidly adapt to and chunk the new experiance. That feels great.

    I find that this tends to happen most when you are dealing with carefully balanced interlocking feedback system of risk and reward. You find it in Civilization and Tetris in addition to more violently themed titles.

    There is a rhythm to good gameplay. A good game creates situations where there are large scale releases of tension. Often these are emergent or intermitent rewards that occur at a much longer interval than the majority of the rewards. You see them, you learn from them and you experience joy.

    This is a very pure form of fun whose value proposition is "I will exercise your brain and teach you interesting patterns". It is very different than "I will provide you with an intense visceral shock."

    I don't have Raph's book within reach (a sin, I know), but this roughly translates into rewards based on mastery vs rewards based on shock.

    take care

  3. The vgmuseum.com shots aren't working, apparently they don't take kindly to direct linkers around there.

    Back on topic, yes it is clear for all to see just how crazed the game industry presents itself when compared to other popular media. The only thing I can think of in quite the same light is the more gangter end of hip hop, and Rockstar even borrowed on that one in San Andreas...

    My own taste in games has always been to explore the gameworld and the capabilities of the engine, to screw around with what the developers have left me to play with more than to actually jump through all the hoops first time out of the box. And of course games with that kind of philosophy (such as Black & White) have more staying power for me than more linear fair. But how does one market something like that exactly I wonder? Screenshots on the box with player actions only those with some experience of the game already can recognise as daft? I think you've already identified my particular subset of the buying public though so enough of all that.

    The day when gaming loses its negative image is the day when we'll finally see our Citizen Kane. The cultural expression of high art only comes after a certain point. Like the various genres of folk music which took their time to emerge from obscure roots into culture at large.

  4. This essay touches on my chief frustration with this industry. The window dressing of guns and swords are so engrained in the minds of game developers that most seem incapable of imagining game objectives that don't involve killing. Outside of this blog and a few other "snooty" game blogs, it seems like the media, gamers and developers alike are mostly incapable of imagining games that don't boil down to killing your enemy, and when there's a game like Katamari Damacy or Spore that captures people's imaginations, they are anomalies rather than inspirations. Keep the essays comin, Danc!

  5. The challenge will be to get a lot of the major developers into the mindset of the average indie developer. That is, get them away from larger (and more traditional) publishing structures so that they can create better games that spawn their own grassroots marketing. A shift like this would effectively see the death of visceral advertising, because profits from it would become negligible compared to other methods.

    I also see a minor inaccuracy with your "try before you buy" argument. A vast majority of (well advertised) demos are available for games that primarily push the visceral response. True, a large number of games in general issue demos or betas, but (ignoring MMOs) how many of these are pushed on the front portals of your favourite gaming sites? My guess would be that 2:1, FPS and related visceral titles are downloaded in demo format. The demo provides enough high impact feedback to interest the player in purchasing the game. Whether burnout occurs soon afterwards or not becomes irrelevant as the damage has already been done - the player has voted with their dollar.

    In response to N. Ng – As I understand it (and I may have to chat with my boss a bit more to get a better grip on how the brain handles these situations), the chemical brain has an immediate and uncontrollable response to threat. Irregardless of the origin (internal, external, or entirely imagined), the brain treats any threat essentially the same. The first step is to throw you into a heightened state, commonly referred to as “Flight or Fight”. This has a number of effects including, but not limited to, increase heart rate/blood flow to the brain, increased oxygen intake, adrenaline release, etc. Essentially, the brain gets you ready to run away. The second step is to set the brain on alert for future threats. It does this by chemically damaging itself in such a way that it takes more of the same kind of threat to set it off, and more time to shut it down again. (This is where I need more info). So you experience burnout because the game cannot produce the increasing levels of threat, forcing you to find other sources (if you happen to like that kind of thing) such as the next big game. That or you become stuck in the “On” state so much that you lose the thrill of being threatened.

    The other kind of visceral you are talking about relates more to the internal and external feedback the game produces to create positive response. People play Mario Kart (especially in a social environment) because it creates challenge. Challenge doesn't create the same sort of threat, but success and failure do create positive and negative reinforcement. There are much different chemical responses in the brain, and there is pleasure from any social interactions that take place surrounding the game. Games like Counterstrike continue to do well after the visceral thrill becomes irrelevant because there are other forms of feedback. Notice that most FPS gamers who play for a long time with a single game tend to do so because there is a social community that they can relate to.

    Excellent analysis, Danc, on the state of game advertising. Keep up the excellent essays.

  6. I feel the situation with game advertising would be radically improved if we could just convince the publishers that their audience share could grow by more than 100% if they expanded their notion of who the audience were. In particular, to include women in the potential audience capture.

    Just a small point, but I found Koster's book rather inaccurate on the topic of Flow. On the other hand, I can't recommend Csiksentmihalyi's book as after the first chapter it becomes quite tediously repetitive. Borrow from your local library and just read the opening chapter would be my recommendation. Or, read the entry on Flow at the Wikipedia. It pretty much covers it.

    And I believe the name is pronounced 'sick-sent-mee-hal-i'. :)

    Continuing to enjoy your work, Danc; wish I had more time to comment more often...

    Take care!

  7. Danc- I apologize for posting this publicly, I can't find any contact info on this site:

    I've started a new site, www.qatfish.com, which aggregates syndicated blogs on game development. The site allows users to rank posts, and the top rated recent posts get bumped to the top page.

    The site only grabs the title and the first 260 characters of your posts, and it links directly to your site. The site is intended to increase traffic to high quality blogs.

    This comment is just to inform you that I've added your blog to the list of blogs I syndicate. If you'd prefer that I not include your blog, please email me at qatfish@pocketwatchgames.com and I will remove it from the list.

    Incidentally, your site is my favorite blog on game development, and it's what got me started with reading blogs. I started Qatfish to help others find blogs like yours.

    And feel free to delete this comment once you've read it...

    Andy Schatz
    Pocketwatch Games

  8. I don't know if "you may lose a few hormonal teenagers" is quite right, especially if we are talking to the industry at large. How many people would actually be interested in more intelligent games? Shadow of the Colossus topped UK sales charts, yes, but that was only for a single week. That's the purchasing power of intelligent gamers: a wonderful achievement, but not enough to convince a publisher.

    The proportions are reflected in the gaming media, with sites like this and the Escapist nowhere near as popular as GameSpot and even IGN. The sad fact is that gamers are a lowest common demominator bunch, and it's going to take a lot more than console games (with their setup fee of the console) to attract 'smart people'. Brain Training and Colossus are helping of course, but the wider audience just isn't there yet.

  9. Chris, I totally agree with you that Koster doesn't seem to have grokked the idea of flow.

    As for Duncan's comment - You're probably right on the threat-response thing. However, the visceral experience I was mentioning in part 2 is not at all related to challenge (well, not entirely). Perhaps you might be right on the specific issue of Mario Kart, but at gut-level I get the sense that it's different from flow, different from challenge, different even from power-tripping. The interesting thing is that this kind of visceral experience can mess up your judgment and introduce tunnel vision - ever been chasing an opponent so intently, in any given game, that you fail to notice a hazard until it's too late? But you smell blood, you're closing in for the kill, and while the rational part of your mind is telling you that this is an Idiotic Idea, the predator inside simply overrides that.

    And as for Mr. Anonymous - I have an alternative explanation for the prevalence of physical violence. Games are contests. Contests tend to model conflict - social, mental, economic or physical (among others). Of those types of conflict, which one is the easiest to design and model on a computer?

    Which is not to say that we shouldn't model the other types, but rather to say that social and mental conflict are often harder problems (notice the amount of time put into making Facade, for instance). Game designers like easy problems. Game programmers like easy problems. This is why we get ridiculous numbers of violent games (physical conflict), tycoon sims (economic conflict) and empire-building games (combination of the two).

  10. The ads that are most effective for me are those that demonstrate the game, usually with lots of screenshots so that I can tell if the graphics will annoy me or what, perhaps detail some of the units, and communicate something about what the game's about.

    Then again, I don't buy shooters or what I might call, "Adrenaline Simulators", and let's face it, showing a boxy picture of a speedway in still print is pretty boring, and until recently screen resolutions have translated very POORLY to magazine print.

    There's another element to big ads...

    Full page spreads give you the impression that the game is mainstream, that everyone's playing it (else how could we afford all this space in your magazine! We're EVERYWHERE!), and that you'll be able to brag to your friends that once you master the game they'll all envy you.


  11. Finally, we happened about a vivid image of a violated female corpse with a bloody bullet hole gaping in her forehead. Ah, the delightfully rank odor of publicly condoned misogyny.

    Amazing levels of exaggeration couple with psuedo intellectualism so painful I'm literally cringing.

    At least you got it out of the way early so most of us can avoid the inevitable regret at the loss of five minutes of our lives we could never have returned were we to waste it reading this article.

  12. Ah, Slashdot has arrived. :-) Welcome!


  13. http://www.sethgodin.com

    I say give the marketing budget to the game designers and make a game worth talking about. Crappy games with shock ads are still crappy games.

  14. You are responsible for shock advertising

    Perhaps publishers aren't the only ones who are out of touch with their audience... (smilies are against my religion, but if they weren't I'd put one here)

    In any case, the article hits the nail on the head as usual.

  15. You said visceral twenty six times.

    In some countries that is illegal.

  16. Quite spot on. Some of your entries should be mandatory reading for all people involved in game development. You never cease to impress me with your insights on the forces that drive certain types of decisions within the game industry, Danc.

    However I´ve yet to hear about the *Braining* Training games. ;) On that, do you believe they will be the same runaway hit in America that in Japan? It doesn´t seem that people are so worried about dementia over there.

  17. *Grin* That was a hilarious typo, Saul. Thanks for the catch...it is now fixed. Someone really ought to make a parody flash game called Braining Training where you pummel various items in short timed mini games in order to determine your braining age. "Darnit...it says I'm a 70 year old. I was only able to beat up 15 body guards. Back when I was younger, I could knock down 20 at a time with my super combo."

    Speaking of overuse of the word visceral, I'm surprised how often I see it now that I've been sensitized by writing this little essay. EGM has it in several places and so does Computer Gaming World. I need a t-shirt with very small Courier text that says 'visceral'.


  18. Gorgeous words. I no longer have to wind out my own (nearly identical) feelings in conversation. I'll just link everyone to this fine post ;P

    Funny, reading through this I could never shake this bizarre image of a pasty-white muscle man chopping monsters apart with blades on the ends of chains... Cough, cough...

  19. You didn't spell mortal Kombat correctly. :)

  20. Thank you for this wonderful and distinctive theme

    I am waiting for new topics

    Thank you

  21. Some games that are violent do not necessarily need shock advertising, a fine example would be the Resident evil series, which instead used mood music and flashes of zombies to set the atmosphere for potential buyers, the sequels more or less needed little advertising once the name and genre had been established.