While there are always a few great ads and campaigns for games and consoles, the majority end up being patronising, offensive, childish, desperate, dull or just mystifyingly bad. With 80’s power suit-wearing advertising executives trying to sell products they didn’t understand, the earliest marketing campaigns had a good excuse for being so terrible. These days though, marketing agencies full of creatively bankrupt, soulless young husks are paid to stir up controversy and discussion any way they can. Whether it’s obvious (but plausibly deniable) racist billboards, fake viral videos or tasteless PR stunts that offend very carefully chosen minorities, there’s no lengths to which modern games marketing won’t go to avoid actually showing some gameplay footage. Here are ten of the worst offenders:
10. The Nokia N-Gage price announcement
Sometimes a newcomer enters the gaming market and makes a big splash. The PSone was a great example of a company entering the gaming domain in strident form and shaking up a complacent industry. Meanwhile, there are plenty of other companies that get it spectacularly wrong. Enter Nokia.
The mobile phone giant was riding high off the back of its domination of the mobile phone market. It was arriving onto the gaming scene with a strong and (at the time) revolutionary concept: a mobile phone that also played “proper” games. The days of snake and solitaire were over, this baby could crank out 3D graphics. You could play Tomb Raider on it for crying out loud!
As Nokia geared up for their first E3 there was some trepidation amongst the other platform holders. Could Nokia swoop in and become the new Sony, shaking up the industry and making the competition look like aging dinosaurs?
No. No they could not. The E3 conference was an unmitigated disaster. The audience looked on bemused as the PR team tried desperately to connect with an audience they didn’t understand. Like Granddad at a rave, they seemed hopelessly lost and as the show went on it was clear how much they were in over their heads. Everything the crowd heard made them sure the platform was dead on arrival. A screen longer than it was wide. The requirement to remove the battery to change games. The way you held it to your head: like you had a plate imbedded in your skull. The awful design. The awful games.
Worse was to come though. In a toe curling-ly embarrassing move, Nokia paraded out a bunch of dancing girls with the price tag written on their bellies. They hoped it would result in riotous applause, but at $299 dollars it was far more expensive than anyone expected. Nokia obviously thought they would get a warm reception for their bold pricing like Sony had received when they released the PSOne a hundred dollars cheaper than the Saturn. All they got was silence. Painful, protracted silence. The painted girls slinked off the stage into embarrassed obscurity, and the N-Gage followed not long after.
9. Lair Reviewers Guide
Released in 2007, Lair was one of the early batch of PS3 exclusives. Created by Factor 5 – the team behind the amazing Rogue Squadron games on N64 and Gamecube – it was a flying game where you rode a dragon into battle. While superficially a great concept for a game, the whole experience was crippled by Sony who insisted that the developer utilise the PS3’s stillborn motion control support – Sixaxis.
Shoehorned in at a late stage of the Ps3’s development cycle, this awkward motion control was included to help Sony compete with the then-vibrant Nintendo Wii. With less control fidelity or responsiveness than a Wiimote and far less a control stick, the Sixaxis was mostly used for gimmicks and one-off minigames within full retail titles. Lair meanwhile was one of the only games that forced this awkward control system on the player throughout the whole game. It was reviewed accordingly and suffered a low metacritic score as well as a legion of angry gamers who demanded control stick support be patched in.
Rather than admit the mistake and, you know, listen to what the fans said, Factor 5 instead sent out a “Review Guide”. Despite that rather happy looking picture of Greg Miller of IGN above, it seems that for some reason, Reviewers didn’t like being told how to play games. The PR debacle continued when advertisements ran in magazines featuring a stern headmistress chastising gamers for playing incorrectly.
Just to clarify, when every single gamer and reviewer said it would be far better if one small change was made to the game, the developer refused to make the change. The developer then called them stupid, blamed them for failing to understand how to play the game and prepared a huge two-page advert and expensively printed booklet explaining why they were wrong. Month’s later control stick support was added to a game no one wanted to play and the developer went bust. Bravo. Bra-vo.
8. GTA4 tattoo
Perhaps not the most egregious case of bad marketing, Peter Moore’s temporary GTA tattoo was still symptomatic of how embarrassingly bad Microsoft was at PR back in the early days of the 360.
Back in 2006 Microsoft was still struggling to win over the developers who had a lingering affection for Sony. The announcement of GTA4 appearing on Microsoft’s console was seen as a big deal back at 2006’s E3. There were still a number of problems with how it was presented though. A temporary tatoo is certainly one of the least cool things in the world, but on a middle aged man? Perhaps if he was nine years old he could have pulled the look off, but the bravado and shamelessness that Peter Moore showed as he paraded his GTA4 tattoo – like an embarrassing uncle chaperoning at an N-Dubz concert – showed just how far Microsoft were from achieving the effortless street cred Sony had always exhibited.
Back in the early days of 360 marketing Microsoft tried everything to make their console appear cool. From converting J Allard from techie geek to suave, hairless messiah to covering old men in temporary tattoos, there was nothing they wouldn’t try to compete with Sony. Little did they know that all they had to do was wait and Sony’s marketing would collapse spectacularly of its own accord.
7. John Romero’s about to make you his bitch
Daikatana was one of the most delayed, overhyped games of all time. Shifted from one game engine to the other repeatedly, its collapse is such a compelling story that books have been written about it. Conceived by one half of the creative paring responsible for Doom, hope couldn’t have been higher for the revolutionary FPS back in 1997. It was three years later before the game was actually released though. The end result was a game that finally answered a question PC FPS gamers had asked for a long time. Back in the early days of PC FPS’s, it was never clear whether the success of Doom was down to the creative genius of John Carmack or John Romero. After Daikatana, everyone knew it was John Carmack.
While I encourage you to go out and read all about the collapse of Ion Storm and their rock star lifestyles, Playmate games designers and bust ups with disgruntled employees, its one particular advertisement that really derailed the train. With gamers angry both at the delays and the stories of lavish excess amongst developers clearly not working hard enough, the marketing around the game focused on mocking those angry gamers. Claiming that “John Romero’s about to make you his bitch”, and inviting the furious masses to “suck it down”, this reference to Romero’s gaming smack-talk was lost on the fans. Like an overexposed celebrity that the public has grown tired of, everyone wanted to see Romero’s overblown project fail. They would have to wait a long time, but eventually Daikatana was released to a world of gamers united in a collective “m’eh”. Badly designed and technologically superseded by its competitors, Daikatana was a failure. In one way the advertising was right. Those who were unlucky enough to buy the game had no choice but to “suck it down”.
6. All i want for christmas is a psp
If there’s ever been a console that’s been the victim of terrible marketing, surely its the PSP. A technologically impressive handheld with a selection of good games, it’s been a success in its own right. Despite its relatively strong sales though, it has been overshadowed completely by the dominance of the Nintendo DS.
Every decision Sony made regarding the PSP seemed like it was trying to sabotage its own success. From the hardware revisions that added few new features (or actively downgraded the quality of the screen) to the mystifyingly awful PSP Go, it almost seemed like Sony secretly hated the little handheld device. After trying to force UMD’s on us then abandoning those that purchased them, it was clear that Sony didn’t know what it wanted to do with the PS3’s little brother. Perhaps if Sony couldn’t destroy its own child with hardware revisions, it could kill it with bad advertising?
Enter stage Zipatoni, an American marketing company that provides clients “zany” and “off-beat” marketing services. If that doesn’t make you want to vomit, I don’t know what will. Zipatoni specialise in viral marketing. They basically get paid for lying online, making fake twitter accounts, writing blogs where they pretend to be excited teenagers who want to buy an iPod/PSP/Coke/Handgun and generally being below plankton in terms of morality and worth to society.
Zipatoni created a campaign based around blogs and videos which were filled with terrible “leet speak” and purported to be written by a bunch of teenagers trying to get their friends parents to buy him a PSP for Christmas. As well as being completely out of touch with how teenagers (or humans) actually communicate, the whole thing was quickly exposed as a lie. Here’s just one example of the way marketing executives think teenagers talk, dawg:
“we started clowning with sum not-so-subtle hints to j’s parents that a psp would be teh perfect gift. we created this site to spread the luv to those like j who want a psp! consider us your own personal psp hype machine, here to help you wage a holiday assault on ur parents, girl, granny, boss – whoever – so they know what you really want.”
So as well as patronising the youth they hoped would buy a PSP, they also tried to piss off the “parents, girls, grannies” with pester power. When they were caught and exposed as being soulless, shameless husks, they apologised by saying “Perhaps our speech was too funky-fresh”. No, you monster! We’re not annoyed because of what you said, we’re annoyed because you lied, and you didn’t even lie well enough to avoid being caught!
The video above is such an embarrassment that Sony keep trying to delete it, but it keeps resurfacing again and again to remind them of their mistake. How much of it can you stand to watch?
5. Blast Processing
Engaged in bitter and ill tempered competition with the Super Nintendo, the Sega Genesis (UK: Mega Drive) had several technological disadvantages. It was on the market two and a half years before the Super Nintendo and it had more games available but it could not compete with the SNES’s colour palette or later innovations like the SuperFX chip. To combat this, Sega had the incredible idea of marketing and advertising a hardware feature unique to the Genesis that made all of their games better than their competitors. They decided the most efficient way to do this would be to simply make something up. Thus was born “Blast Processing”.
You have to give Sega props for making such a bold move. “Blast Processing” was put forward as the reason why Genesis games were so much more “awesome”, but it was an intangible thing, never explained or discussed. It took a while, but the increasingly sophisticated gaming market started to question what exactly “Blast Processing” was. If Zelda on the SNES was so good without it, did we really need “Blast Processing”.
When the aforementioned SuperFX chip was released for the SNES and games like F-Zero appeared, we could finally see a noticeable difference in the games that we played (and you could see the SuperFX chip right there on the cartridge). Blast Processing had become a joke, and today it’s a term used to describe any woolly or il-defined gaming technology that’s offers unconvincing technological advances. It took a while, but Sega’s boast that it does what “Ninten-don’t” was eventually exposed as a marketing ploy rather than a real thing.
4. Battle Cruiser 3000/Evony
How best to market a complex and deep space science fiction game with a long and troubled development history? How about with a hot model using the box to cover her privates?
Using attractive models in games art is nothing new, but the females normally at least depict in-game characters. In this case not only does the hot model have nothing to do with the game, but those looking at the ad would know what the game was about. In an amusing moment of controversy the advertisers were forced to airbrush in some pants on the bottomless model.
Lest you think we live in more enlightened day, the horrible Civilisation knock-off Evony used similar buxom models who also bore no relationship whatsoever to the game they were advertising.
3. PS3 This is Living
The problem with “arty” advertising is that it’s easy to miss the mark and fall into pretentiousness. Sony’s “This is Living” campaign was the very definition of self important, artistic wankery. Summing up everything that was wrong with advertising in the early 00’s, this campaign seemed desperately out of touch with how games systems were being marketed at the time. While Nintendo and Microsoft started to realise the potential of marketing towards families, Sony seemed trapped by the success of their edgier marketing successes and couldn’t adapt. It’s easy to see how little Sony had moved on in ten years when you look back at their successful campaigns for the PSOne.
The worst thing about this advert is the obliviousness with which Sony responded. They claimed the ad was completely race neutral and was not a comment in any way on race or racism. That’s strange Sony, because although your “words” say that, your “poster” says, “dominant white woman puts submissive black woman in her place”. So yeah, you can put a swastika on your arm and say that it means “fun swirly design” with your “words”, but what it actually represents is the massacre and subjugation of millions of innocents. You see the problem Sony? You can’t redefine what you mean with words when your imagery is perfectly clear.
1. Atari Jaguar Advertising – Do the math
How appropriate that this final ad begins with a sign that reads “Videogame Marketing 101”. There’s advertising that’s boring, that lies or that’s offensive, but it’s the advertising that annoys that will always be the most hated. This ad is annoying. So annoying that the word “Jag-war” still sounds like nails on a blackboard to me. Forever. Oh, and it also lies.
The “Jag-War” was not really a “64 bit” console, but the truth is that measuring the power of consoles by their “bits” was less useful than it had been in previous generations. Having two parallel 32 bit processors was impressive for the time, but the difficulty of programming on the platform as well as its ridiculous controller were major drawbacks.
Perhaps Atari’s desire to focus on its purported hardware superiority was the only weapon it possessed in the console war. Faced with gamers who seemed nonplussed by the supposed graphical superiority of the games, they needed some way to express their technological strengths. Some creative maths (and some terrible ads) later, only three words can express the worst games marketing fail of all time: JAGWAR! JAGWAR! JAGWAR!
I hope you liked the list, I had fun making it. Let me know if I missed any possible entries in the comments. I’m sure I did, but these are the ten that stuck out in my mind!