Video Game Ads: Creating Solid Commercials

Video Game Ads: Creating Solid Commercials

Both monster video game franchises Halo and Call of Duty have utilized live-action commercials to promote their brands to a hardcore customer base that is more concerned with how these games utilize graphics hardware than watching actors ham it up on primetime TV. So where does this fit with each series’ marketing plan?  Is it a creative divergence meant to engage and entertain the audience, or is it a blatant deception to ensure that sales don’t suffer from a lackluster demonstration of what is really in the game?  Does this type of advertising really influence hardcore enthusiasts or does it frustrate them? And is this a full-fledged video game marketing and PR trend, or is it a luxury only available to the select few who can afford it?  The answer is not without variables, mind you, but you can bet that storytelling and live-action commercials are here to stay in the gaming industry, just as they have been in other industries for years.

In the recent commercial for Call of Duty: Black Ops, a roster of everyday individuals go toe to toe with deadly military weaponry and join forces with the likes of Kobe Bryant and Jimmy Kimmel. Warriors all, they move through a town devastated by war and take the fight to their enemies. A homely waitress blasts a door open with a shotgun, Kobe puts a 40MM grenade through a window and a paper-hat-wearing fast food chef walks out of an explosion dropping his pistols akimbo to the ground with swagger and that ever-loving John Woo style. When the tagline “There’s a soldier in all of us” covers the screen, we haven’t seen a single second of gameplay. The only thing to tell us that all this chaos even concerns a game is the Call of Duty: Black Ops splash screen at the end.  Like all great marketing efforts, this ends with a call to action, that the viewer acknowledges and embraces their inner soldier. But does this really matter to a gamer; one whose adventures have taken them to foreign lands of every description for battles with every weapon conceivably known to mankind?

When most gamers go to a website to look up an upcoming title, they usually go straight to the gameplay footage clips and get a good gander at how the game looks in order to decipher what they can expect from the game in its finished state. These gameplay video clips start arriving at the media outlets at the same time a game is ready to demo at events such as E3. Once these start coming out, you know that in-game graphics are close to finalized and what you are seeing is pretty much what you will purchase on release day. It’s what makes a gamer salivate and project forward in time to when the game is in their console spinning up hours of joy. Viewership numbers from major media sites prove over and over that gameplay is the number one draw for video content.

The reason this works so well for a hardcore gamer is that they don’t have to decipher the fluff.  They can use the cues they already know from endless hours of gaming to read into what they see in the gameplay to make an educated decision if the game is going to be a “must buy.”  In the case of live action shots though, the gamer has to weed out all of the marketing speak and window dressing to make that decision. Gaming culture has a distrust of fluff, marketing and hype in general, and if the marketer makes a bad assumption during execution of the media, the gamer will shut them off and even be very vocal about the missteps.

In short, hardcore gamers will always distrust anything that is not representative of the actual game. This goes back to the deeply ingrained memories of buying that one game that didn’t live up to their expectations and became a waste of months of mowed lawns. (I’m looking at you, The Legend of Zelda 2.)  You see, back in the day, before a high quality screenshot could be properly displayed in print or online, publishers had illustrators make beautiful images of the main characters to promote the games.  If they were lazy, they may have just published the concept art.  What gamers got was seldom what actually inspired them to buy the game in the first place.  We accepted this because it was the norm.  Going back to that would probably not make a lot of sense to the modern gamer.

That said, what all gamers care about is fun, presentation and emotion: The same things they care about in all their other media. If they make an emotional connection with a title, they will buy and a savvy advertising creative can help create that connection. It’s what they do for countless other products. So couldn’t a terrible video game be wrapped in an awesome live action commercial and you’d never know it?  If an agency with a stable of talented live motion directors can create a commercial that engages this audience as well as new buyers, so be it. But never forget that the cache is in the core and that a fancy live action commercial will only let you get by so far if the game isn’t there to satisfy vocal fans.

Bottom line: Generating buzz and positive word-of-mouth is crucial, yet you won’t get it from the core fans if you only produce a fancy commercial.  What you will get is awestruck viewers. Whether that adds up to more sales alone is extremely dubious, especially if there’s not a high-quality product to back the live-action shot up.

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About Tracy Peterson
Tracy Peterson is a video pro who’s provided services to the game industry for years, and the head of leading production studio One Two Many. He’s created videos for top media outlets and game makers, and often offers insights for both press and producers.


  1. There is however a basic assumption in this piece – that those tv commercials are designed to get hardcore gamers to buy the game. I might sugggest that this is not actually the case.

    As the article points out, hardcore committed gamers will seek out gameplay footage and either buy or not buy the game on that basis. This costs very little in terms of incremental marketing spend.

    However hardcore gamers are not representative of all video game buyers. There are many people out there who may not even be aware of a particular franchise until they see a TV ad. I’d suggest that these live action films are designed to pull in that audience and broaden the fanbase beyond the hardcore who would buy it anyway.

    In which case, given the huge opportunity in reachng out to the more casual market, these ads may be money well spent. After all, if they didn’t work, people probably wouldn’t do them more than once.

  2. Tracy Peterson

    @Jacob: I think we agree: these efforts are best spent on the flanks of the market not the core. Live action commercials are extremely effective even ON the core, but any gamer is going to be dubious if they haven’t seen a huge amount of game play in the weeks before launch. As for the more casual market, yes, this is the best way to get to them, they tend to go on feeling rather than tech and a pretty commercial will get them to at least TRY the game and that’s all one can ask, right? I think your point about spend related to cost of game play footage is spot on, this is an inexpensive MUST to influence your market, but would never capture the hearts of the non-hardcore gamers.

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