The Evolution of the Video Game Commercial

By: Jeff Rivera

The Evolution of the Video Game Commercial

As the video game industry grows and makes bigger strides into the mainstream, publishers have changed the way in which they market video games to their potential buying audience. And video games aren't alone in seeing a big shift in marketing strategies, but I've noticed that over the years some distinct patterns in video game advertisements that have cropped up. Let's take a look at some notable trends in video gaming and how the approach to advertising within the industry has evolved. There's obviously many trends that we don't have the time or space to cover, but these are some of the most memorable ones from the past 30 years.

The 8-bit Era

During the 8-bit era, gaming consoles were a new thing for many families. Arcade cabinets were in every gas station, mall, supermarket, and anywhere else where three feet of square space could be found. With the Atari, the promise was made to consumers that their favorite arcade games could be played at home. All that fun you had outside the home, could now be had in your living room. The ads focused on bringing that fun home.

Once the concept set in, marketing messaging change a bit. They were still heavily focused on the novelty of having arcade-quality experiences on your TV set, but they begin to incorporate the idea of you being the character or of you controlling an actual character, rather than a handful of pixels. The approach was quite effective. Mario was somebody, and you had to help him out. You were an ace starfighter pilot, and you were earth's best chance at holding back an alien invasion! This concept would hold strong for a very long time and we still see it used often today.

The Early System Wars

Eventually competition between hardware makers started taking shots at each other through their ad campaigns, and gamers were being recruited as soldiers in the war. The first system wars ads focused on game libraries and exclusives, especially coming from Atari.

The system wars only got more fierce, even with the slipping away of several compeitors like Atari and Intellivision. Nintendo and Sega would dominate the '80s and early '90s as they fought for your gaming dollar. Sega was the first of the two to join the 16-bit era, and naturally they began to focus on all that their Genesis console could do that the NES could not. Remember, Genesis Does What Nintendon't. But once Nintendo joined the 16-bit fight, they spat their stats and specs out while thumping their chest loudly as well. Atari would try again with the Jaguar, but unfortunately for them their 64-bit system just didn't have the library to make people care.

The Extreeeeeeme Years

The mid-1990s gave us some highly obnoxious ads. Everything needed to be extreme, dialed up to 11, loud, and fast. The louder and faster, the better. Sega introduced their ads where characters would yell "Sega" and Nintendo ratcheted up the flashing lights. Sony would step in during the '90s and from the get go they aimed to be bigger, better, and of course, MORE EXTREME!

Everybody is a Comedian

Mixed in with the extreme ads and surviving a while beyond them, game makers began to leverage comedy more than they had in the past. One that everybody seems to love to reference was Nintendo's original ad for Super Smash Bros. Sony and Sega did their fair share of humorous ads as well, especially when Sony was using Crash Bandicoot to clown on Mario at every turn.

The Second Console Wars

We're again in the midst of a heated and competitive console war. Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft all are raking in billions of dollars and they desperately all want a bigger slice of a market that has grown by several orders of magnitude. These days the console makers rarely take shots at each other directly as they did in the past. Sony has been the most militant of the three, but it's been fairly tame. These days 3rd parties are driving development much harder than 1st parties are, so focus has shifted to "play it first" or "get exclusive content on" types of messaging. Many times this simply entails tacking on a quick 2-3 second message at the end of a standard TV ad.

The Current Trend

Over the past few years video game commercials have started to evolve from showing how fun games are to how much of a cinematic experience they provide. Rockstar makes their commercials look like movie trailers, many publishers employ expensive and flashy live action sequences, and lots of commercials these days include little actual gameplay in favor of composing a more cinematic look and feel. Words like "epic" are tossed around like candy on Halloween while terms such as "fun" have been reserved for another day.

These live action trailers aren't new, as we've seen ads from the '80s incorporate live actors, but never have they been so high budget as they are now. It seems as if every major release is now accompanied by either a live action or full CG trailer at launch, and the trend only seems to be gaining traction.

So what era of advertising was your favorite? Do you prefer the current trend of the big and cinemetic ads, or do you prefer the more goofy and lighthearted ads from past generations? Were you a fan of the aggressive ads during the early system wars? What trends did we miss that you enjoyed?

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