Intellectual Properties are hotly contested in the console space. Hit titles often generate sequels; with publishers quick to satisfy consumer demand for “more of the same, but better”. And more than anything else right now, landmark system exclusives are paramount for showcasing the power and functionality of a console, and proving to consumers exactly why they should part with their hard-earned cash to get that system, and not another.
It’s no secret that PlayStation 3 isn’t doing as well as Sony would have hoped, particularly in North America. A recent analysis on Sony Computer Entertainment’s first-party IPs for PS3 prompted me to add my own two cents to this subject. Obviously, there are many factors that can be attributed for the lack of sales regarding PS3’s first-party exclusives – least of which the system’s premium price – but the main aspects that I would like to discuss is marketing.
There’s no question that marketing and advertising is a tough game. Unfortunately I don’t have first-rate experience of all of SCEA’s marketing efforts for PS3 and its first-party titles this generation, however, I have seen plenty from across the pond. Primarily, though, I will be making examples of SCEE promotional efforts.
Back in the days of PlayStation and PlayStation 2 bad marketing on individual products didn’t appear to hurt Sony all that much. A bevy of impressive franchises, all with sequels on the way, and some smart promotion on the hardware front, tandem with a focused approach to their target consumers meant that PlayStation quickly secured itself as a trusted brand. Things weren’t perfect, though. Your average TV viewer my never understand many games until they actually get their hands on them, and some top-rated SCEE titles have been criminal under-promoted – ICO, Sly Raccoon, War of the Monsters, Primal, Rogue Galaxy. Understandably, not all of these games may be considered ‘system-sellers’ and promoting 8-10 first-party games, all releasing during the holiday season, must be tough in itself, but the stakes are even higher now.
Looking at the competitors, it’s clear that SCEE are doing something wrong with their marketing. I don’t even need to bring up the fact that Nintendo have pretty much cornered the market on video game TV advertising. They pay top dollar to get their TV advertisements for the Wii, DS and any software they’re releasing for their systems, shown not just weekly, but daily. In fact, I’m pretty sure I could get up from my sweltering hot bedroom right now, switch on the TV and catch a Nintendo advert on some channel. Wii Motion Plus (the Wii Remote add-on that makes the thing operate more like everybody wanted it to in the first place) isn’t even out for a month and I’ve been seeing adverts and 2-second indents for the device for a week. And more so than Microsoft, Nintendo are persistent with their promotion and advertising – almost across the board. Mario Kart Wii’s been out for a whole year, you say? Well, that doesn’t stop Nintendo filling magazines with the same print ads or running the same TV ads they ran at launch. This monotonous advertising may induce inadvertent channel-flicking from hardcore gamers, but clearly, the message is reaching that mass audience.
So, why can’t SCEE plonk a few more bucks on the table and get ITV, C4, Virgin or Sky to air their adverts on a more regular basis, especially when the new releases quieten down in summertime? inFamous, the electrifying open world adventure from Sucker Punch, was only released last month, and yet still, I’ve not seen a single TV advert for it. No ads on buses, buildings or billboards… not so much as a cereal box competition. Oh wait, I did see one print ad in OPM – for readers who have more than likely bought the game already! This game was awarded fantastic scores by the media and adds yet another genre to the ever-expanding first-party portfolio of SCEE. If I were in their position, I may even resort to shouting from the rooftops at the top of my voice just to tell people about this product.
In addition to the low-key TV ads and limited print campaigns that SCEE fork out for, there is also the question of conveying a message. I’m no marketing student. Unique-Selling Points (UPS), logos, captions, all that stuff… I take a sound interest in it now and again, when something cool catches my eye, but I don’t actively study it. What I do know is that SCEE could have spent a lot more time and money on their adverting campaigns for Ratchet & Clank: Tools of Destruction, Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, LittleBigPlanet, Resistance 2 and Killzone 2. With the exception of the first two, which I think are rather good examples, the phrases “too generic” and “what the heck is this?” spring to mind. And, I know this is my personal opinion, but surely it would have been better to advertise LittleBigPlanet with a series of TV spots showcasing its core themes – play, create, share. I often find myself smiling at SCEE’s ads. They’re quirky and fun to watch, but I can’t help but admit that the overall message is probably lost on many consumers. When it comes to promoting the PS3 itself, two and a half years after the console’s EU release, I don’t think I can think of a formidable TV advert.
Microsoft aren’t considered the most creative bunch out there these days, but their games division has been commissioning some pretty impressive adverts, since the launch of Xbox 360. Although, it could be argued that CG footage isn’t the most truthful method to advertise video games – I’ve always preferred the route of showing in-game footage – but it’s undeniably one of the most effective. Like Nintendo, Microsoft is very active in heavily promoting most of their first-party offerings. Their print ads are in many magazines in the build up to, during and after a release. They pimp third-party games on their console to no end, and they have been consistent with their brand image, even if their goals and objectives have changed over the years. ‘Xbox 360’ ‘Jump in’ – no matter what the game, if it’s on Xbox 360 you can bet that you’ll be seeing these logos after every trailer and advert that’s shown. And, of course, ‘Live’ has become a whole new noun, thanks to the popularity of the Xbox Live service. Simple, but effective. It’s an approach that has helped Microsoft fashion a brand that’s leading in the US and putting up a good fight in Europe.
Looking at Microsoft and SCEE side-by-side not only shows differences in promotional approach, but differences in business practice. While localising mainstream promotion for the European audience in some cases, the majority of the time Microsoft roll out exactly the same marketing campaign for Europe that they’ve scheduled for the US – at least from what I’ve seen. Let’s take a classic example of two titan franchises duking it out this generation – Resistance vs Gears of War. When Resistance: Fall of Man was first released in Europe, alongside PS3, Gear of War had been out for almost six months. Microsoft had run a huge campaign with buses, billboards signs, online flash adverts, print ads plastered with critical acclaim, the whole ‘emergence day’ thing and one of the most impressive video game ads I’d seen in a long time. In short, the whole production was charged to the level of a blockbuster movie release. (Halo 3 only upped the ante for how much Microsoft were willing to pump into mass marketing.)
SCEE, on the other hand, generally like to rollout promotional campaigns tailored specifically for their region. So, US consumers got a sweet Killzone 2 ad, that highlighted precisely what genre the game was and why people should buy it, and Europeans got 30-seconds of gameplay highlights that meant nothing, unless you already knew what the game was. The original Resistance got a fair bit of promotion, and even despite the Manchester Cathedral incident, the game got plenty of momentum behind it. Yet, things may have been even better with the right campaign and application of assets.
Continuing their efforts to make their product launches grandiose events that capture the attention of the mass media, Microsoft spared no expense and, once again, no gameplay, in order to cinematise Gears of War 2. The game’s mainstream launch trailer, titled the ‘Last Day’, was even tied to a number of complaints that it wasn’t representative of the game’s content. Hey, no sense complaining if a marketing agency can cut together a decent trailer that gives the sense of a cohesive and engaging story. That’s their job, and I’m sure Microsoft is pretty pleased. Add this impressive TV campaign to the sizeable six-month promotion Microsoft had been doing and Gears of War 2 was almost unavoidable.
Consequently, it was with some disappointment that I had to still through what was, comparatively, a poor effort on SCEE’s part to market Resistance 2, in early December last year. I’d joined some friends for a cinema viewing and during the pre-film-pre-trailer-ads there were two game ads. The first was an edited version of the Resistance 2 E3 2008 trailer, redubbed, yes… redubbed, with a British voice actor and filtered as if it had just popped out of a 1950s television set. It was grainy, forgettable and simply appalling. And for the life of me I can’t understand why they would even bother redubbing Henry Stillman? The game is set in America for goodness sake! Needless to say, the Gears of War 2 trailer was next. With its melodic opening and character-focused editing it showed just how powerful game marketing can be.
Finally, I’d briefly like to comment on PlayStation’s status in the arena of word-of-mouth. Just like Atari, and then Nintendo, PlayStation use to be the colloquial term for “playing video games”. It was stunning tech when it was first released, but cost just enough for consumers not to switch off the moment the price was mentioned. Hardcore gamers wanted it, teenagers wanted, kids wanted it. The buzz behind PlayStation was overwhelmingly positive in the 90s. So, how then, did things get so bad for Sony and the PlayStation brand ten years later? Again, I believe the factors are many. It’s certainly no small fault of Sony and its management and PR teams.
However, a huge anchor attached to Sony’s running shoes has undeniably been the PlayStation 3’s price tag. £425, $600, €500 – whatever your currency, that’s a heck of a lot of money for a ‘computer entertainment system’. As it stands the competition has made Sony’s lives a lot more difficult by convincing consumers to buy into other brands. “It’s just a games console, right? Same as the others”. The other problem is that communicating their product, and its unique functions, to the public has proven harder still with the mainstream media Wii-crazy right now, and the majority of the specialist media favouring the Xbox 360.
Most of all, though, it seems that the multitude of factors that gave PS3 a bad start have fed into mainstream culture and has left it with even more catching up to do. Xbox 360 arrived first and has quickly established a user base and a solid brand image. Wii followed and has taken over the living and recreation rooms of mainstream consumers. Meanwhile, PS3s sit on store shelves, the top-rated system exclusives piling up beside it. Yet still, consumers refuse to acknowledge the system as a viable entertainment option. Could it be the price? Have they already invested too much in their precious Xbox 360 or Wii library? Or is there just so much negatively around PlayStation (particularly on the internet) that it’s tipped over into mainstream culture?
I can’t answer any of these questions at present, but in the words of an anonymous internet game fan, “Only time will tell…”
I hope this little marketing analysis has proven insightful and entertaining for you. No matter what I’ve rationalised in this post, Sony make unique games that Microsoft and Nintendo don’t even come close to, and I would most definitely like to see their titles more widely appreciated. Thankfully, things have been getting better, despite the naysayers, flamers and trolls of the gaming world. The buzz around PlayStation’s compendium of exclusives (Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, God of War III, Heavy Rain, The Last Guardian, Gran Turismo 5, to name but a few) coming out of E3 2009 couldn’t be better. Uncharted 2 is turning heads, in more than one console camp. There are plenty of games and experiences in store for PlayStation and the promotion behind their games. In the meantime, I’ll be doing my bit to make sure these games are given the proper promotional justice and acclaim they deserve. You know, it’s not too late to track down a copy of Ratchet & Clank: Tools of Destruction.