By Rich "Beaker" Wyckoff
I've been designing games professionally for three years and thinking about designing them for most of my life (when not playing them). I tend to present strong opinions, but I want to make it clear that these are only opinions, and I don't want to come off like some of the famous names in the industry who seem to think that selling a lot of copies of a game and getting attention from the press makes them an expert on everything about making games. My tenet is that if you claim to know everything, you're missing out on the fact that there's always something new to learn, some other opinion which is worth considering, some experience you are still lacking...
statement I've heard from friends in computer game marketing is that ads in game magazines don't sell much product. ("Sell product" is one of the disturbing ways 90s business-types express themselves). The explanation I have heard for this is that the circulation of the games magazines is comparatively low and mainly comprised of hardcore gamers who don't need to be convinced to buy new games anyway. I can accept this, but I have another theory as well.
Put simply, my theory is that most computer game ads suck. Now, some of you might even go so far as to say that all ads suck, and that advertising in itself is incredibly evil. On my more anti-capitalist days, I might too say that, but as an American and a post-modernist, I have to admit to finding some ads as much works of pop art as Warhol's soup cans, and others as entertaining as the best of the television shows and magazine articles they interrupt. In my opinion, some ads can be "good."
Why is it, then, that when I page through the average computer game magazine, I find myself flipping as quickly as I can past almost every advertisement? There have been some ads I have seen which are so hideously repellent that I have been unable to even leave the magazine flipped open to their page. In short, while more mainstream magazines are filled with classy, occasionally even brilliant product-selling filler material, the large bulk of computer game ads appear to be put together by brain-damaged and socially retarded teenagers with a desktop publishing program.
Rather than follow a more usual essay format for this article, I think it will be useful to examine some actual examples to truly appreciate the mind-numbing, soul-draining horror of contemporary computer game advertisement. You can play along at home with the February 1999 issue of Next Generation - the one with Final Fantasy 8 on the cover.
Things start out fine, with an ad for Motorhead, a racing game from Fox Interactive. This is a foldout ad with a nice technical sketch of some engine parts to the left, and some text to the right. Aesthetically, the red background is rather eyestraining, the number of fonts used excessive and clashing given how little text there is, and the CG background image of the car inside the cover incredibly glassy and computer-rendered-looking in the worst "I learned CG at the technical institute" sort of way, but at least the overall composition is nice. You could almost be reading some other magazine funded by ad agencies with taste.
After two pages of magazine, things go somewhat downhill with the very next ad. It is a two-page spread for Environmental Audio by Creative. Ignoring that it doesn't even sell a specific product despite Environmental Audio almost exclusively meaning the SB Live card at the moment, the ad itself is acceptable, but shows the amateurish approach which plagues game advertisement. The left-hand page shows the Environmental Audio logo, a pleasing if generic blue and green swirly thing backed by (in an incredibly cliched way) a list of games supporting the technology. The background words are distorted in the vicinity of the logo, no doubt in an attempt to make it look as if "sound waves" were affecting them, but actually looking more like someone accidentally applied some Photoshop filter and missed it in the proofs.
The right hand page of the Creative ad is worse, dominated by the word "LiStEN" formed out of letters taken from six different games' logos. Besides looking incredibly awkward on the page and the "joke" behind the use of the letters being incomprehensible even to a large portion of the hardcore readership of Next Generation, the word itself isn't quite centered above the text and comes closer to the right edge of the page than is pleasing (to be fair, this could be a printing problem). LiStEN is followed by some typically purple advertising prose with the "sound" words picked out in yellow, followed by the Environmental Audio logo and brain-hurting slogan "So real it has to be live" at the bottom. Except for the trying-to-be-clever-but-failing right page header, this ad is workable, but nothing which will stick in your mind unless you are particularly offended by its aesthetics.
Turning past the contents table, your eyes are suddenly blasted with a sight perhaps summoned from one of the lower circles of Dante's Inferno, a Heat.net advertisement. The only possible explanation for this travesty is that Heat.net is a Sega-related enterprise and Sega never quite grew out of their "in-your-face" (shudder) advertising campaign of the Genesis days (you remember - they all ended with someone shouting SEGA - oh, you'd repressed that memory - sorry).
This is another two-page spread, set against yellow-and-black concentric ovals that tend to induce one to purchase a painkiller rather than a Heat.net account. On top of the ovals, as if they are swirling "psychedelically" towards you, are trophy-mounted heads, intended to represent your vanquished Heat.net victims. These heads are people who have been covered with makeup and hair spray so amateurishly and excessively that they would feel awkward even among a crowd of gothed-out teenagers. They have been coached into ludicrously overwrought expressions, no doubt due to a memo commanding the maximum amount of "attitude." Filling the center of the page is text in the often imitated, rarely well-used "random different sizes" format popularized in the early 90s by the avant-garde typography magazine (and font purveyor) Émigré.
A quick aside to all desktop publishers: why don't you actually go out and pick up some back issues of Emigre magazine and see a first hand a good example of what you are copying from some other hack who copied it from Raygun who copied it from sources like Emigre in the first place?
Croaking out "the horror, the horror," and trying not to think about the fact that if there are any people who actually like this ad Darwin was wrong about the process of evolution after all, we move quickly on. The very next ad is a thin sidebar from a mail-order game seller which looks exactly like the page 300 classified ads from the old days (and presumably even the new days) of Computer Shopper. This ad merely consists of "creatively" manipulated text in black and white on red, with some dubious grammar, and is no worse than any other shoestring budget advertisement from a tiny firm (which is to say it is extremely lame, but not maddeningly ugly). What is surprising is to find this kind of thing, usually relegated to the dead waters of other magazine's last pages, proudly standing at the front of such an arbiter of taste as Next Generation.
Another page over and we discover an ad for WCW/NWO Thunder, a PlayStation wrestling game. Consisting of a huge logo over a somewhat poorly Photoshopped-together collage of wrestler photographs, this ad works about as well as you could hope for, given the subject matter. I could wish to never see professional wrestlers in any magazine I like to read, but as long as these games sell, there will be advertisements.
After the wrestling ad, we come across another racing game ad. Could it be that to ad-makers for racing games "incredibly lame CG image" is de-rigeur? At any rate, the design of this full page ad is acceptable once you can get by the uninspired image, and it certainly doesn't suck your eyes into any black hole of awfulness, so we can pass on by.
Next, we come across a several-page Electronics Boutique advertisement. I somewhat respect EB, but their ads have always lacked any class. This one starts with a profile shot of some model-kid holding a controller way high in the air and looking exactly like those kids you'd see in the toy section of the Sears catalog when you were young, who were theoretically "playing" with the toys but looked more like they were part of some really bizarre performance-art troupe mocking consumerism. The rest of the pages of this ad present products and coupons, and include many textbook examples of how not to create a readable and aesthetic layout. Not a travesty by any means, but this kind of poorly executed throwaway ad belongs in free circulars and not the pages of a major magazine. Do you see Walmart's latest products in the pages of People? I don't think so.
The quality of ads starts to descend again after the Dreamcast feature, with a full-page Unreal ad. I've never thought the Unreal ads looked very good, but this is one of the worst as it is almost entirely composed of text jammed together as tightly as possible. The intent of the ad is to show how many magazines think Unreal is so great, and how many neat technologies and platforms it supports. Instead, the eye sees a jumble of confusing icons and text, with the logo of the game almost disappearing amongst the similarly colored, similarly-sized bullet points. Furthermore, the single shot which has been used to represent the game looks a lot like it was made by a preschooler with an Unreal Colorforms set, rather than like an actual game, or any well-composed shot at all. Given how many creatures are jammed into the single screenshot and the odd positions they are in, it seems likely that this is a faked shot, making me question all the more why, if the shot was faked, it was done so poorly.
Soon after the Unreal ad is a two-page Fireteam ad. Much like the Heat.net ad, this one features photographs of supposed "actual gamers." Also much like the Heat.net ad, the people have been coached into somewhat ludicrous expressions, but luckily not quite so painfully "attitudey." In general, I feel that showing "real people gaming" in game ads never works, but the real problem with this ad, like so many others, is layout, layout, layout. The background is black and the fonts, images, and screenshots disappear into it, and it is impossible to take in the ad content by scanning across the page - bullet points are scattered around, and the main slogan has been broken across the center of the page, with "Team" above "Up &" on the left hand side, bending into the center of the magazine, and "Talk It Up" on the right hand side, at the same level as the word "Team," such that the slogan appears to read "Team Talk It Up" with "Up &" seeming almost a typo.
There are two Eidos ads next, both on the same theme: jam all the imagery of your upcoming games together onto a single page, even if that imagery includes Lara Croft's ever-so-bothersomely incorrectly proportioned face, the horrendously frightening Daikatana player models, a photograph from Braveheart, a fantasy-painting-style depiction of the Revenant character, a rendered-cutscene version of the Soul Reaver character, and some sort of indecipherable "flames and crosshairs" image from Warzone 2100, all fading into a white center with some big text. Apparently, the Eidos ad firm likes this style so much that the next ad is exactly the same, except on another one of those concentric circle backgrounds which worked so well for Heat.net, with slightly different games and the center text done in a nigh-unreadable font that someone obviously thought was clever and dynamic.
A quick scan of the rest of the first half of the magazine follows in the same vein: an embarassing gamedealer.com ad obviously from the same school as the original Genesis ads featuring a big photo of an attitude-filled granny playing video games with her weirded-out grandaughter; a Deathkarz ad in a similar vein to the other two racing game ads, yet another creative ad with some really hideous but luckily tiny images of a guy photocollaged into game situations and other ridiculous scenes; a two-page Duke Nukem Zero Hour ad which is fine, but evokes crappy superhero comic books with its painted central image; and an Abe's Exoddus ad satirizing beer ads in a less-clever-than-it-thinks-it-is manner.
A significant part of a game's budget can go for advertisements, especially for a console game. When marketing departments are throwing around 30-50 grand for single ad in a single magazine, which could be used to upgrade half a team's machines or employ a lower-level artist or designer for a year, I would hope that they would at least be spending the money wisely. In-game interfaces are, to a large part, better laid-out and more classy than the average printed advertisement out there. A bad game interface turns off the more mainstream customer, and I feel that bad game advertisements do exactly the same thing. If an average person happens to start leafing through a game magazine, they are going to be assaulted at every turn by the kind of thing that wouldn't be accepted in almost any other entertainment press - perhaps this is one of the reasons that game magazines are still thought of as "for geeks only," despite the fact that games themselves are becoming such a giant medium that giant conglomerates like Sony are restructuring their business to emphasize games almost primarily. There will be a time, perhaps soon, when magazine advertisements really do matter in selling a game. Before then, the marketing departments and ad design firms which have been coasting by on sub-par talent are going to have to figure out how to do things well.
- Rich Wyckoff is a professional game designer.
|Credits: Beaker's Bent logo illustrated by and is © 1999 Dan Zalkus. Beaker's Bent is © 1999 Rich Wyckoff. All other content is © 1998 loonyboi productions. Unauthorized reproduction is strictly prohibited, so don't do it. We have ways of making you talk.|