In my first article, I talked about the retro days of arcade cabinets back in the 70s and 80s. Since then, the video game industry has evolved significantly. The 90s brought personal computing entertainment right into our own homes, followed by the advent of mainstream consoles like the PS2 and Xbox which made gaming more accessible than ever. The game industry is now worth billions, exceeding the value of Hollywood blockbuster movies.
Naturally, the games themselves have evolved over time to match the changing hardware. Long gone are the days of monochromatic pixel blocks from Space Invaders, or the one dimensional floating Pac-Man. Instead games are now ultra realistic, delivering detailed worlds and larger than life characters to our screens. We no longer need fantastical illustrations to help paint a more exciting picture of a game, because these days, whatever can be imagined can be brought to life.
In this article, we’ll take a look at how the world of marketing and selling games has changed over the past two decades.
With the rise of home gaming, game publishers had to resort to some pretty drastic, out-dated tactics. Back in the 80’s and 90’s, the gaming industry was heavily male dominated and unfortunately this led to a disturbing number of sexist advertisements. Take for example these two gems below, one for the Sega Saturn in 1994, and the Nintendo GameBoy Pocket in 1996.
Both these companies (who were giants in the early 90s) decided the best way to sell hardware was to show barely clothed women lying on a bed. Nintendo just decided to take it to a different level with a super creepy vibe.
You might think it was a sign of the times and that we’ve moved on from this sort of teenage boy mentality, but check out this Sony PS Vita advert that came out as recently as 2012.
When game publishers aren’t making over half of the population of the planet feel awkward and ostracised, they might instead look toward celebrity endorsements – often leading to some hilariously odd propaganda.
Back in 1994, basketball player Shaquille O'Neal was a household name – just like Michael Jordan, who went off and delivered possibly one of the greatest sports-spin off movies of all time, Space Jam. O’Neal also wasted no time capitalising on his fame, lending his name and likeness to one of the worst games of all time: the now-legendary Shaq Fu. Appearing on the Super Nintendo and Sega Mega Drive (and plenty other terrible ports), it was a Street Fighter clone where Shaq must beat up aliens from a different dimension to save a little boy, because... well, reasons.
Yet the game sold well. Kids clamoured to not just get the latest game but also to see their favourite basketball hero beat up creatures from outer space. Even terrible games moved off shelves back in the day because without the Internet to spread the word, you would only know if a game was awful if your rich friend bought it first and then told you not to. There was no Twitch or YouTube to watch gameplay before buying, and game reviews were delivered via monthly print magazines. Marketing games with celebrities and catchy artwork resulted in thousands of little kids’ pocket money being thrown down the drain.
In that same year we saw another cash-grabbing gem, Home Improvement: Power Tool Pursuit! For those who remember the comedy show Home Improvement, it featured Tim Allen (before he became the voice of Buzz Lightyear in Toy Story) and the game had this bumbling fool run around shooting people with a nailgun. How a family game promoting the deadly use of a nail gun ever got released is still a mystery.
Sometimes famous names can turn a game into a franchise. Often it’s clearly just for the money and it still happens today. We have Arnold Schwarzenegger peddling Mobile Strike; Kate Upton promoting Game of War; James Franco making a fool of himself for Guitar Hero Live (check out the cringe-factor 4000 in the video below); Cara Delevingne playing Call Of Duty; and for some bizarre reason, Mariah Carey also endorsing Game Of War.
The Call of Duty franchise however has taken the whole Hollywood celebrity connection to a whole new level. The aforementioned Cara Delevingne is one example, but over the years we’ve seen digital renditions of well-known actors in the game. Kevin Spacey, Jonah Hill, Kit Harrington, Heather Graham, and Jeff Goldblum have all appeared in Call of Duty games or advertising, blending that divide between video game and movie. Just recently the franchise announced that David Tennant will be joining the cast for their upcoming WW2 Zombies spin-off.
It makes sense as video games are now able to rival Hollywood movies in terms of visuals and storytelling, except they have that extra layer of interactiveness that movies can’t deliver. “Play a game starring your favourite actor” seems like a pretty bullet-proof way to sell a video game.
Continue reading on page 2.