The Art of the Game

NEW YORK If you’ve yet to consider video games as a source of inspiration for your ads, you might ask how your work is being regarded by the 145 million Americans who play computer and video games, per the Entertainment Software Association.

Our guess: Not as highly as you’d like.

Video games, to state the obvious, are hot. U.S. computer and video game software sales grew 6 percent in 2006 to $7.4 billion—almost tripling industry software sales since 1996. They’re playing an increasingly influential role in pop culture in general and other media in specific. (Last month, for instance, MTV Networks announced a $500 million, two-year investment to make video games a key part of all new programming plans.) They’re even creeping into university curriculums. More telling, video games are the model for a New York City school for sixth through twelfth graders: If the concept passes muster with the Department of Education, the Game School will open in 2009 with game design and strategies teaching everything from math and English to social studies.

According to Alex Bogusky, CCO at Crispin Porter + Bogusky—which created the Burger King Xbox, a promotion-slash-game that won the Titanium Lion at the 2007 International Advertising Festival—one way “we learn things is through the narrative of storytelling. We learn through fables and mythology and books. That was our dominant cultural process for teaching. Now our dominant cultural process for teaching is gaming.”

Additionally, Jon Kamen, @radical chairman and CEO, who was on the 2007 Titanium jury, says the “design aesthetic” of video games can now be seen in such things as “package design and general art direction.”

The medium—from game development and art design to its inherent interactivity—is indeed now influencing, albeit slowly, the way creative is conceived and produced. From cars racing through Matrix-inspired sets in mobisodes for the Toyota Yaris from Saatchi & Saatchi to the recently launched Hunger Strike from Bartle Bogle Hagerty for KFC’s Big Daddy Box Meal in the U.K., agencies are playing off of—and sometimes outright mimicking—the genre. The challenges, however, are many.

Recognizing and acting on the consumer shift to “a video game mentality [is now] a strategic imperative,” says David Lubars, chairman and CCO of BBDO North America. “Its nonlinear nature has changed what people accept as storytelling; it doesn’t have to have a beginning or end, it can be an experience you wander around in.”

When HBO asked BBDO to showcase the network’s storytelling savvy, the agency’s integrated effort centered around a Web site ( where users watch multiple stories unfold simultaneously, then choose which of the interconnected stories to focus on. They can watch once, explore over and over, or get caught up in the treasure hunt for clues on various other media. “It was meant to reward the viewers as much as they wanted to watch it” or as little, explains Greg Hahn, ecd at BBDO.

Game developers know that such narratives create another challenge: this work is time consuming to produce. Rob Gordon, president of the Article 19 Group, developer of casual gaming titles including the popular Carrie the Caregiver, says, “It’s impossible to know if an idea is good until I have built it and played with it. … I have found [storyboarding] to be of limited utility. The interactive prototype becomes the storyboard.”

Ric Williams, director of marketing at game developer BioWare, adds that in games “key moments are planned, made, played and iterated until they are just right. Having been involved in TV commercials, I think agencies tend to get it in the can and it’s done, rather than making sure the creative side has enough leeway to make a great, emotional spot for the brand.”

Another challenge of nonlinear game narratives is that they tend to do, not tell. Users must make decisions (with pre-designed options) every step of the way. In terms of developing an actual branded game, this means designers and programmers are as paramount—if not more so—than writers in the creation of the work.

Bogusky says that Crispin recognizes the challenges they face in incorporating a game mentality into their work, and is doing something about it. While some interactive people in creative departments may know something about game theory, he notes, most “have no training.” Which is why his agency has started to bring in experts to lead workshops on what makes good games successful. (Other agencies, including Taxi, are doing this as well.)

One such expert was Eric Zimmerman, co-founder and chief design officer at Gamelab, who says that agencies might want to look at games as a model for developing integrated campaigns. “Games are really systems. To think about something in a game-like way is to think about it in a systematic way. … A player does this at this moment, and this will change something else later down the line. … It’s more about thinking about media as larger systems of experience. So we talked about the craft of indvidual games and how they worked, and how to translate those design principles into [other] areas.”

Translating nonlinear narratives into traditional ad creative is perhaps even more challenging. Coca-Cola’s “Videogame” from Wieden + Kennedy in Portland, Ore., which won a film gold Lion at Cannes this year, is a good example of work that melds game-like action with the non-interactive parameters of a TV spot. In the commercial, a humorous homage to the notoriously violent Grand Theft Auto, a tough-looking “avatar” driving a muscle car transforms into a nice guy when he takes a sip of Coke. He glides sleekly through a fast-changing urban landscape, each step paired with an action—from extinguishing a fire to tripping a thief—until the spot crescendos with a circus-like parade of people, flying birds and a Coke billboard over which a helicopter flies.

“Videogame” copywriter Sheena Brady says playing off a game gave her “an opportunity to be edgier. There’s more license to get away with stuff in that world.”

But not too much. Balancing the edginess that games promise with the expectations of clients, consumers and the networks meant, says Brady, that “we had to tone down the guy’s driving in the beginning. We couldn’t appear to endanger anyone’s lives.”

Online marketing endeavors, however, especially given the lax world of casual gaming, have somewhat different rules. Witness Little Deviant, the recently launched online game that San Francisco-based Attik created to butch up Toyota’s Scion xD, a brand getting lost among its cute, compact competitors. The game, in which deviants with curved blades for hands must kill “sheeples”—boring, bleating characters painting the world a drab gray—unfolds in increasingly dark and violent chapters. (Chapter One’s text ends with: “Turn that awful bleating into awesome bleeding.”)

But despite the gore, Simon Needham, co-founder and group cd at Attik, says they were conscious of the “fine line you have to draw between coming up with something challenging and something acceptable to the mainstream. You have to try and be clever without upsetting anyone.” (Attik has also created a Web site,, for the Scion xB that incorporates Flash games.)

Rob Reilly, Crispin’s vp and cd, expects that as the industry begins to recognize and reward the confluence of video games and creative, there will be more crossover: “The creative part of the business has been set up where the way you rise is by making a commercial that wins awards. [That’s when] you’ll see more of it.”