Bill Scolding offers a CRASH course in understanding the amazing, incredible, stunning, revolutionary, unique, fast, furious and nearly realistic world of
You’ve seen the film, you’ve read the advertisements, now buy the game...
There it is on the shelf of your local software store, in its double cassette library case, with its glossy packaging and thrilling game description: “Startling action! Innovative game play! Revolutionary 3D graphics!” It only cost five pence short of a tenner, so you whip out a crisp Nightingale, scamper back to your trusty Spectrum, load it up and Bob’s your uncle.
Except that Uncle Bob’s looking suspiciously like a turkey, and the game’s the absolute pits.
Where did you go wrong?
Well, firstly, you didn’t wait until out hardened games reviewers at CRASH Towers had given their expert opinions on it. You might not always agree with what they say, but at least you’ll be better prepared before you part with the folding stuff.
And secondly, you believed everything said in the advertisements — or you were taken in by the promise of untold excitement that was suggested by the brilliant artwork on the advert and the packaging.
We’re all guilty of falling for this at some time or another, and not just in the games software industry. If we weren’t, then advertising wouldn’t fulfil the vital role that it does. Without advertising, this magazine couldn’t even exist — or not in the form it does, with over 160 pages and lots of glorious colour.
But that doesn’t mean that you should always be taken in by what the ad-men say (or don’t say), or that CRASH shouldn’t occasionally bite the hand that feeds it, and put adverts under the same microscope that we use to examine games...
So, here we go with another CRASH Reader Service: a (reasonably) light-hearted look at the pages which make up around a third of the magazine. At the end, there’s a chance to have your say. Maybe the software publishers and advertising agencies might even listen to what you think. Then again, maybe not...
Advertising is an expensive business, and highly competitive. Each advert is fighting against all the others, and against editorial to grab your attention. When there are 120 different martial arts games all going for your jugular and your pocket, how does any one software house make sure that their product is the one which gets noticed?
The secret lies in the Stun Factor — that elusive quality which makes the advert jump off the page and hit you right between the eyes for those precious seconds before you turn the page.
Sometimes ads rely on top quality artwork to deliver the death blow; at other times an arresting headline or catch phrase does the trick. Here are some of the slogans which have recently shouted from these pages:
“THE GAME THAT ROCKED AMERICA...”
“REACH NEW HEIGHTS IN TENSION!”
“NOW THE LEGEND COMES TO LIFE!”
“THE MAKING OF SOFTWARE HISTORY... AGAIN.”
Can you identify the games belonging to these catchphrases? Either way, you’ll have a good idea of how successful these slogans are...
In the neverending quest for original, stunning, shock-packed headlines, the result of the advertising copywriter’s efforts is often ludicrous or impenetrable; just what did Imagine mean by “THE GOTO BLASTERS!” in September’s CRASH? Perhaps Ocean were chancing it by asking, in their April spread, “WOW! HAVE I BEEN PLAYING GAMES!” when the obvious reply was “Not Knight Rider you haven’t.” And should Firebird really proclaim proudly “IT’S WHAT YOU’VE COME TO EXPECT FROM FIREBIRD...”
But words alone are not enough to sell a game, and competent professional artists are now highly prized for their ability to take a game — often one not even programmed — and produce a visually exciting image for advert and packaging. Bob Wakelin — for Ocean and David Rowe — for Quicksilva, Melbourne House, Beyond and many, many others — are amongst the most well known, but the field is hotting up all over. The days of embarrassing juvenile scribbles are (almost) gone, and even Mikro-Gen have ditched the nameless craftsman responsible for the Wally and Herbert sketches and with Steinar (Stainless Steel, Frost Byte) and our very own Oli (Equinox) are now producing some pretty dramatic adverts.
Just as the record industry made some young artists into household names — Roger Dean being one — so too is the comparatively immature software industry. There are probably some glossy software illustrations looking down from your bedroom wall as you read this.
The trouble is, the artwork is so often miles better than the graphics of the game itself. Occasionally — well Okay, frequently — you feel cheated on loading up, and begin to take top-notch airbrushing with a hefty dose of salt.
And this is where the copywriter comes in.
Knowing that you’re not going to be impressed just by pretty pictures, some publishers attempt to win you over with a glowing game description — known as the advertising copy or BLURB. This has the same purpose as the stuff you read on the back of paperbacks, and is just about as reliable.
Blurbs are usually crammed with well-worn phrases like ‘stunningly realistic’, ‘state-of-the-art’ and ‘fully animated’. All this is fairly meaningless as (a) the copywriter hasn’t always seen the game, and (b) he’s not likely to write ‘yet another Knight Lore rip-off’ or ‘you’ll be amazed at the colour clash’.
As a rule of thumb, you can assume that any game described as ‘unique' or the ‘ultimate’ is actually neither, and if the copywriter had had to fall back on ‘fast and furious’ then you can be certain that the game he’s describing is bereft of any original or outstanding feature whatsoever.
The more informative blurbs are those which describe the plot, graphics and gameplay in factual terms, minus hysteria. They are also the most boring to read, which is why you don’t see them on adverts too frequently.
Most informative of all are the quotes taken from magazine reviews which appear on the ads — but these should be treated with caution. Disregard anything inside quotation marks which is not attributed to a specific writer or magazine — the chances are that the publishers themselves have said it. Addictive Games are old hands at this, though at least they have the honesty to admit that it’s Managing Director Kevin Toms who’s responsible for this (utterly impartial) accolade: “Headcoach will become for American Football what my Football Manager has been for soccer fans — unbeatable.”
Quotes can be taken out of context, too. Have a guess what a desperate advertiser might extract from the following review: “Wow! I thought at first, what incredible graphics! After a few seconds, however, I realised that the game was 100% unplayable.” Yep, they sure as hell aren’t going to put “unplayable” in inch high letters across the top of the advert!
And, of course, reviews don’t usually appear until after the game is already completed, so either the software house has to go to the expense of designing a new advert, stuffed with reviewers’ raves, or else they have to use quotes from previews. More often than not, they decide it’s cheaper, and safer, to stick to their own exciting prose.
A screen shot is worth a thousand words. At a glance you can tell whether those ‘state-of-the-art’ graphics are the same old monochromatic matchstick men, or the ‘totally realistic simulation’ is the usual bunch of pipe-cleaner tanks advancing across a blackboard desert.
And it’s precisely because such photos confirm your worst suspicions that most adverts don’t feature them. Those that do display an uncharacteristic confidence on the part of the publishers that the graphics really are something to shout about. Even then it’s advisable to look for the small print: ‘Actual screen shots from the Atari ST’ might not appear quite so wonderful when they’ve been crammed into 48K of attribute problems.
There’s another very good reason why software houses don’t always put screen shots on their ads.
Because there aren’t any graphics to photograph.
To take screen shots, you’ve got to have some computer graphics already up and running. And to have graphics, you’ve got to have started programming. Once in a while a software house takes the bold step of advertising a game which, surprisingly, EXISTS. In other words, the team of crack programmers have already got their heads down and are making progress.
But there is a widely-held belief in this industry that a good title alone is enough to sell software by the bucketful, and often the rights to that title, if it’s based on a book, film, TV series or amusement arcade game, will cost more than all the programming, packaging and marketing of the software put together.
Consequently, as soon as the deal has been signed, some flash artwork is quickly cobbled together and the first advert appears — sometimes over a year before the game sees the light of day. That ad will contain no game description, no plot, no screen shots, because the publishers haven’t got the foggiest idea of what the game is going to be like. They’re lucky if they’ve even decided on a price. But none of that matters, because they believe that the TITLE is so thrilling that you’ll be queueing up just to buy a blank cassette with those magic words printed on it. Or so the theory goes.
And so the theory goes badly wrong, too. Jumping the gun has caused more than one successful company to bite the dust when, faced with the heavy cost of continual advertising, their programmers are still bravely trying to convert a best-selling 2000-page novel into an arcade game which bears some minimal relevance to the source material.
Knight Rider, Street Hawk, Popeye, Superman, Dr Who, Asterix... These titles should be engraved on the wallets of all software publishers in search of the elusive licence to print money. Such golden eggs have a protracted and painful delivery, often hatching into turkeys, and the whole thing can take so long that everyone loses interest in it.
Mind you, the adverts for games such as these are the most attractive of the lot. Fabulous illustrations, uncluttered with messy text and muzzy screen shots, and after a few months they’re so familiar they’re like old friends. But do they sell games?
Where does all this get us? If you want to make sure that you never buy another Great Space Race or World Cup Carnival, wait for games to be reviewed, and then decide.
But if you just can’t wait to rush out and buy something, then take a long hard look at the adverts, and ask yourself:
If the graphics are really revolutionary, then why aren’t there any on the ad?
If a game is truly remarkable, then how come it’s described in the same amazing, stunning, state-of-the-art cliches used by everyone else?
If a quote isn’t credited, then who said it, and why?
Have I really got enough spare cash to buy a game costing £9.95 about which I know nothing except that it has the same title as a TV series and there’s a very nice picture on the cover?
Over to you.
Now it’s your turn.
Thumb back through the last 12 month’s issues of CRASH, starting with January 1986, and pick out the one advert which you think stands head and shoulders above the rest. Maybe you reckon that the presentation is the best, or the blurb is well-written, or the whole thing tells you all you need to know about the game. Whatever your reasons, jot them down BRIEFLY together with your nomination, and the date of an issue in which it appeared.
And while you’re about it, why not choose the worst ad of the year, the one with tacky artwork, or banal copy, or just straightforward lies? Again, give the reasons behind your choice. Send you nominations to: THE WORM TURNS, CRASH Towers. (Don’t forget to vote in the CRASH Readers Awards ballot in the Christmas Special as well, mind.) We’ll publish a selection of the best nominations, with some of your choice comments, if they’re printable. Should make interesting reading for some software houses who think they know their market.
To help you on your way, we’ve reviewed some classic adverts: we’ve tried to find some which commit many of the sins and excesses described in this article, as well as some which are relatively free of them.
But we’re sure that you can dig out some better examples. Send them in.
Producer: US Gold
A strong contender for the most poorly drawn ad in software history — though the frog’s exploding genitals in Mikro-Gen’s Witch’s Cauldron are still fondly remembered by many. At first glance the graphics are merely abysmal, but closer scrutiny reveals an ignorance of the female anatomy which still baffles to this day.
The accompanying blurb is a masterpiece of suggestion. It waxes lyrical about the ‘unknown’ location, the ‘ghostlike images’ of wild women, the ‘unimaginable combat and untold adventure’. Presumably the game hadn’t been written when this advert went into print. Pity the copywriter didn’t have the benefit of LMLWD, too...
One of those rare ads where the artist’s impression is actually worse than the graphics of the game, Legend of the Amazon Women is also remarkable in that few will ever forget it. Perhaps it is, therefore, also one of the most successful ads in software history.
What do you do if you’ve got a mediocre card game which you want to unload on an impressionable young audience? Simple — just add the tantalising words ‘Samantha Fox Strip’ and we’re all drooling from Edinburgh to Ealing.
Particularly unsavoury in its ‘nudge-nudge, wink-wink' teasing blurb, the advert is nevertheless successful in revealing absolutely zilch about the game. Were told that it includes ‘Video Digitised Pictures' but do they show us one? Not on your life, mate. If they had done, then the full horror of pixellated Sam baring her dotty attributes would have put even the most lecherous off the game.
Curiously, Martech attempt to promote the ‘added bonus’ of International 7 Card Stud in the bottom righthand corner, which they claim is ‘Probably the most powerful simulation ever written for a home computer.’ It says a lot about Martech that they feel the only way to sell this exceptional simulation is to hitch it to a game riding on a pair of mammoth jugs.
Sam Fox. Probably the most powerful stimulation ever to appear on a home computer.
Such is the consistent quality of Bob Wakelin’s artwork, now the hallmark of Ocean’s adverts, that it is difficult to single out any one illustration as being particularly outstanding. The Great Escape is one of his best, though, because unlike some of his other work (Nightmare Rally, Mag Max), it is uncluttered, relying on a simple image — hands gripping barbed wire — to convey the spirit of the game.
Ocean has, presumably, some confidence in the graphics as they’ve actually included three shots in the ad. These are significantly missing from some other recent Ocean promotions. In all other respects, however, there’s not a hint of a game description. Would you buy The Great Escape purely on the strength of this ad?
Still, it’s a nice picture.
Producer: Digital Integration
Here’s an advert that strives to be both eye-catching and informative, with moderate success.
It’s got a great illustration to begin with. And it’s also got some copywriting which isn’t too exaggerated, except for a momentary lapse with ‘stunningly realistic’ (you might want to question the ‘authentic battlefield conditions’ too). Beneath all this is a list of game features, dotted with evocative terms like ‘Doppler navigation’, and there’s also a couple of typical screen shots for good measure, though they’re hardly crystal clear.
Maybe there’s too much text, too much going on But then again, most CRASH readers probably scrutinise the ads with the same devotion as they do the editorial, and enjoy an advert with lots of copy. And at least the lads at DI are giving a pretty good idea of what’s in the game.
The CRASH Smash seal of approval helps, of course.