It's that time of year again. Shooter season is well underway and, as sure as the deluge of grey/brown, firstperson, dystopian action that floods the market ahead of the holiday season is the equally grey/brown barrage of TV advertising that comes with it. From Resistance 3, Gears Of War 3 through to Battlefield 3 and all the way to Modern Warfare 3 – the formula is set and we all know exactly what to expect.
The battle lines are drawn between these somewhat undifferentiated products, but how does one side make an impact when the viewing public is bombarded with all that moody cinematic advertising? Not all the parties involved have played their hands yet, so its far too early to call the winner of the war of creative. However, it isn't at all too soon to talk about who is and isn't doing interesting work.
Microsoft announced at the end of last week something fascinating as to the launch campaign for Gears Of War 3. In what it described as an "industry first", UK television ads for the game will include live statistics of how many people were playing it online at the very moment the ad is on air.
The concept grapples with a specific problem games have with advertising, particularly on television, because games are an interactive medium that doesn't translate particularly well into other non-interactive formats. It's dancing about architecture. The default response to this conundrum for 99 per cent of videogame ads up to the present day has been to default to the same formula as the movie business – use the end product to create a cinematic montage that sums up at least the aesthetic and mood of the game. Get a celebrity to blurt out key game features and you've got your ad. While sufficient, no part of that well-worn methodology solves the fundamental problem of how you translate the live, immediate experience you get in a game into a piece of communication.
The Holy Grail of game advertising
I'm not about to claim that flashing up some stats about who is online right now is the solution, but it's an interesting step in an interesting direction. After all, with online multiplayer has become at least half of the appeal of most modern shooters, these games are sat on vast amounts of rich live data – data that describes thousands of personal conflicts all playing out right now in realtime. Why wouldn't you talk about that? Why tape together snippets of often rendered action when the technology exists to jump into those players out there living and dying this very second? There's so much more immediacy there.
There is also something else at work in this concept. Microsoft were confident in the number of people who would be online in the first place. 1.3 million pre-orders would attest to that. Demonstrating, right in front of the viewer's eyes, that a vast number of people have already bought into Gears 3 would achieve an effect known as social norming. This is an epoch-old marketing and rhetorical trick that taps into a fundamental human quality which dictates that people will generally do what they believe other people like them are doing.
Of course, overall success is utterly reliant on execution, and depending on whether you make these stats the centre of the ad or a peripheral proof point of the game's popularity, they will have a different effect. But again, the technology is there. If Honda can do this live, I don't think it is beyond the wit of man to go big with the concept of live videogame ads.