Tuesday, March 14, 2006

The root of shock game advertising

I was flipping through my copy of EGM with my fiancĂ© 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.
Conclusion
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 fiancĂ© and not feel like such a dolt. :-)

Take care
Danc.

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

Berzerk
http://www.vgmuseum.com/scans/scans2/berzerk.jpg

Ms Pacman
http://www.vgmuseum.com/scans/scans2/mspacmanA.jpg

Combat
http://www.vgmuseum.com/scans/scans2/combat.jpg

Other old box shots
http://www.vgmuseum.com/scans/atari2600.html