I’m a sucker for a good adventure game. A fan of the nostalgic kind, who grew up with LucasFilm Games titles like The Secret of Monkey Island and the rest.
What always fascinated me about these games is the subtle way they crept into my memories like no other game did. Years later I would still easily remember an environment from the game, and I would do so in a much more vivid way than with any other kind of game.
I would even remember scenes and characters better than they were, just like I would have with moments of real life. Sadly, as soon as graphic engines allowed it, adventure games faded away, leaving a hole in our hearts (luckily today we see some notable exceptions, like Thimbleweed Park).
So how did adventure games manage to create such vivid memories? I think it all comes down to immersion.
So how did adventure games manage to create such vivid memories? I think it all comes down to immersion.
Today, we use this term a lot. It’s probably because most digital experiences are pretty quick and shallow. When talking about immersion, a lot of attention is directed towards virtual reality, which is quite a literal take on the subject: VR provides a spatial, inescapable immersion.
Adventure games, though, lack this quality. You play them on a screen. They are blocky and usually cartoonish. And yet, they work. How so?
Maybe emotional immersion, rather than visual, is the key. Here are some takeaways from adventure games.
Play (and explore) at your own pace
Unlike platform games or shoot’em all, that bombard you with stimuli to force you to progress, adventure games don’t push you. If you want to spend a longer time inside an environment, you are free to do it: time almost doesn’t move.
This allows you to shift from a reactive mode to a reflective mode: instead of using the “tunnel vision” that will allow you to shoot an enemy or jump across a pit, you can take in all of the environment. Of course you are focused on finding clues, but you are probably not drowning in cortisol.
We know that long-lasting memories are facilitated by emotions.
And we can better feel emotions when we are in a relaxed state of fun. Just see how bad your memory gets when you are stressed. Allowing users to get in a relaxed, low-focus state can be beneficial to long-term memory.
Visit the same environments again and again
Most traditional videogames will push you through a linear path where you visit a level/environment only once. This of course is not true for open world games, and yet even these games will gently push you from one location to the next.
Adventure games, on the other hand, are built on the idea of going through different areas again and again, sometimes without achieving anything. As time doesn’t really flow, there is no real drawback in getting lost.
This builds familiarity, as places progressively lose their newness and become places of the mind, not unlike your kitchen or your grandma’s house.
The takeaway: constantly surprising the user with something new doesn’t allow for familiarity. The advertising industry is enamored with newness, but we should try to create reassuring, predictable experiences (like walking into your favorite bookstore for the nth time).
Find emotional cues and great writing
Classic adventure games are not realistic. Actually, they are highly stylized. Every place has some remarkable features, carefully designed like they would be in a scenography. Sometimes, you have a fixed point of view, that allows the scene designer to decide where each element will be.
Breaking away from realism allows adventure games to insert more evident emotional cues in scenes. Think about the lit windows of the ships in the first scene of Monkey Island 2. How welcoming and warm and inviting they look against the dark blue of the night.
Emotional cues are actually everywhere in adventure games: every item you pick up has some kind of connotation, either in the way it’s designed or described. And dialogues have this quality too: while they are sometimes too long, they never feel neutral.
The takeaway: we should think like (great) movie directors, and give a distinct emotional intention to every interaction moment and to every piece of copy. In digital terms, this means paying special attention to microcopy and steering away from visual sameness in favor of .
For the last couple of years, eSports have increasingly drawn the attention of marketing execs all over the world. In a remarkable cavalcade, the perception of videogaming events has shifted from being kid’s stuff to one of the most prized media spaces.
Of course, the real value in eSports is not just the people playing, but the people watching. An avid, growing audience that resembles those of traditional sports.
Stealing from the sports’ sponsorship playbook
So far, eSports have been offering the same kind of opportunities that one would expect from a football or basket league: sponsoring a team or a tournament and getting your brand’s name and logo in front of a huge crowd. On top of this, brands have the space to get a bit more creative.
This is not complex and pretty straightforward. Most of all, it’s kind of traditional: marketers know how to do that. It’s not surprising that we saw some big, heritage brands moving swiftly into eSports: you just need to know about it and have money to spend.
This is a great tool to build awareness, but not very useful for differentiation, as all brands play kind of the same role.
How about those who don’t compete and don’t watch?
Numbers, though, should not blind us.
If you look at the Fortnite World Cup – one of the biggest eSports events of all times – you will be amazed to know that 40 million people participated worldwide. Not watched: played. That’s new: common people don’t play in the FIFA World Cup (the real one), they just sit on a sofa watching TV. The participants / athletes ratio in eSports is significantly higher than in traditional sports.
Still, you can’t ignore the fact that Fortnite players across the world are roughly 350 millions, meaning that around 88% of Fortnite players didn’t compete in the World Cup. Did they watch the Tournament? Apparently, 2 millions of them watched the finals. Similarly, the League of Legends World Tournament reached a viewership of 3.8 millions, but the game has around 120 millions players. In addition to this, as eSports become more and more professionalized we might see the players/watchers ratio get even lower as people realized competitions are out of their reach.
This is not to diminish the media value of eSports, which is really self-evident.
It’s just useful to remember that, beyond those who play and those who watch there is a huge community of users who just play. They are not fans of the competitive side of the game, they just enjoy it for other reasons.
Not to forget the billions of people who play games that don’t qualify as eSports, like single-player games, puzzle games, simulators, mobile games and many others. Titles like Final Fantasy, Cyberpunk 2077, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, Ghost of Tsushima or even the wildly popular Flight Simulator have no competitive league.
Let’s compare the number of eSports audiences to those of gamers worldwide.
As we said above, the global audience for eSports is projected at 646 mln people by 2023. On the other hand, It is estimated that gamers worldwide amount to 2.7 billions. Today.
Roughly 75% of gamers are outside the eSports world.
Put otherwise, not all games are esports games, and not all of those who play esports games play them in a competitive mode.
When you look out of the eSports bubble you will find yourself in a much bigger and diverse ocean: gaming culture.
Understanding gaming as a culture
eSports made gaming visible to brands, by taking a passion out of bedrooms and living rooms and bringing it onto the stage of huge physical events (which have completely disappeared during the pandemic). This is a chance to understand what gaming is. It’s not just a competitive event: rather, it’s a culture.
It’s not that complicated if you think about traditional sports. Professional sports are very visible: you have the lights, the cameras, the Messis and the Lebrons. And then you have sport as a part of human experience, practiced by billions in different forms.
Sport could be your kid skateboarding with friends or an 80-years-old practicing tai chi.
The same goes for gaming: while the core audience might be youngish males and the pros might be very visible, the gaming community (around 1/3 of the human population) includes all genders, ages and motivations.
More broadly, it is useful to understand that gamers are moved by different motives, and competition is only one of them. In 1996, professor and game researcher Richard Bartle plotted gamers on a two-axis chart, with two main dimensions: acting vs interacting and players vs world.
As a result, players might be Killers, who look to dominate other players (that would be the vast majority of esports players), Achievers, who want to unlock in-game prizes (that might still apply to some eSports titles), or they might just enjoy spending time inside the game, as Explorers and Socializers do
Any marketer will realize how focusing on competition will only talk to a portion of your potential audience. So, how do you leverage gaming?
Integrating an eSports strategy and a gaming strategy
Of course, eSports and general gaming are not mutually exclusive but they can live side by side within a broader brand strategy.
Just look at what Nike did (and does). In the early days, sport brands used to focus on professional teams and players who endorsed the brand. Nike gradually widened its scope to include and narrate the everyday athlete, her world and her struggles.
Then look at Nike today: the brand is associated both with competitive sports (by sponsoring teams and having star athletes endorse it) and with amateur sports. In this case, Nike is able to tell a kind of story that differentiates the brand and resonates with the user’s personal experience. Some experiments are happening in fashion (think about the Louis Vuitton X League of Legends capsule or the experimental game by Balenciaga) but brands can still take a lot more out of the gaming culture.
Talking to gamers worldwide will be less straightforward: it’s not just about buying media, but rather about creating moments of interaction that gamers from different “tribes” might find interesting and tailored to their passions. Brands will need to invent different actions to reach gaming families, fans of quiet games, or explorers who prefer to get lost in virtual worlds rather than compete. They will need to hone their knowledge of the gaming language, but it will be worth it.
A few days ago, I succumbed to what might be defined as an early-onset middle age crisis and bought me a Japanese knife. A Nakiri knife, to be more precise. A real beauty, with its rugged metal and merciless edge.
Needless to say, I bought it online. I found my perfect match on a rather obscure but specialized Dutch shop. The bottom line: the blade of my dreams will take around one month to arrive to Italy (also because of COVID).
And it struck me: this made me feel good.
The idea of waiting one month for something I want made it feel somehow more precious.
Why was that?
Waiting as a form of good friction
Those among you old enough to have had pen pals back in the days will remember the excitement of receiving a long-awaited letter. Compare it to the indifference that we have for most emails.
This shouldn’t surprise us: friction has been known to add value to experiences and products. One example is the “IKEA effect”: building something yourself – even a basic BILLY shelf – makes it more valuable to you.
I suspect waiting might work the same way. After all, waiting is a form of labor and sacrifice. Ultimately, a form of friction. Waiting for Christmas. Waiting in line for your favorite artist. Waiting for the bread to rise.
Can this apply to delivery, too?
Apparently, this is counterintuitive. Quick delivery is the ultimate battleground for e-shops. The quickest, the better, with Amazon setting impossible standards for everyone. Long waits are so frustrating, aren’t they?
Fast delivery makes sense for functional purchases. If you need loo rolls you are hardly going to enjoy waiting two weeks for them. Same goes for food delivery: you don’t want to eat at midnight.
Not all purchases are strictly functional, though. We say we need a new sweater THIS WEEK but we often don’t. This is especially true for high-value purchases that are expected to serve us for a long time. We are not really in a rush.
Our “frantic life” is sometimes a self-deception.
Amazon and the pitfalls of the Big Now
If you really want something RIGHT NOW, Amazon is your friend. Need a new shower cap? How about getting it today? Your kid just saw a slime toy on TV? Surprise him tomorrow.
This hyper-efficiency has been slowly erasing our capacity for patience. In a way, we are spoiled. What every agency has been telling its clients is that Amazon is “setting expectations” for e-shops across the world. What this means is we came to find intolerable that an e-shop might require three weeks for shipping.
By working on the most frictionless experience possible, Amazon has been focusing on convenience, not value. This is reflected by Amazon’s offer, that seems to be getting cheaper by the day.
Do you really like to tell someone you got their present on Amazon? Sounds kind of cheap, doesn’t it? You won’t be exactly ashamed, but you won’t mention it.
While this works well for the global behemoth of Mr Bezos, not all e-shops can and should be focused on convenience.
If a brand is trying to add value to its products, longer delivery times might create a good kind of friction. And in the meanwhile, they might ease the pressure on our planet.
This is but one of the many ways brand can regain control of their customer experience, rather than being just another thing inside an Amazon box.
Involving the customer in the joy of waiting
Of course, customers won’t accept longer delivery times all of a sudden. Reframing the wait might help.
First of all, waiting can be positioned as a sustainable choice. Brands have been successfully charging a premium for more sustainable practices. Waiting a bit longer could rightfully be framed the same way.
Secondly, the wait can be made into a valuable journey. Think of how the advent calendar manages to keep kids hooked to the idea of Christmas for almost a month. Kids!
A brand with a three-weeks delivery time might setup an email automation to send the user extra info about the product. A kind of post-purchase content marketing.
Rory Sutherland’s “Alchemy” gives exceptional insights on how “decorating” the wait is sometimes more effective than reducing it. I think it might not just ease the pain, but create extra value.
Receiving your prized sweater, whisky bottle or – in my case – overperforming japanese knife after a long wait can be a thrilling experience and turn the product into a beloved possession.
When I first turned on Netflix, I was – like many others – blown away.
The first surprise was its user experience: everything was accessible via streaming and it was loading fast and smoothly. It was just unbelievable.
The second shock was the content: there was so much choice and it was so diverse.
Netflix has been the hero of streaming for many years now. It has embodied the craving of a whole generation for new experiences and constant stimulation. It actually does a great job at that: people will find unusual and interesting staff on Netflix that will be part of a conversation the next day.
The problem is also rooted in the novelty and diversity of the content itself. Apart from famous movies, most of Netflix content is designed to provoke and inspire. Stuff you don’t know and never dreamed about.
Will you watch a documentary about the toys of your childhood or a series about drag queens or another documentary that is just about tacos? Everything is so wildly different that you never know what you will be going to watch: different authors, different directors, different production styles.
Which leads us to the core problem: trust. Since you don’t know, every single content presents a huge step just in front of the entrance.
If you put your trust in the wrong title, you might just waste your next 45 minutes (or even some hours, if you stick to the whole series). So you just skip it and look for something else. Rinse and repeat.
The Netflix brand in itself is not a guarantee: its value proposition is mostly about user experience, not content. Even if you were to only browse content produced by Netflix itself, it wouldn’t mean a thing.
Aaaaaand there comes Disney.
Disney+ and the value of brand trust
Something different is happening on Disney+. The platform could have been defined, until now, the sleeping giant of streaming.
Don’t get me wrong, its launch catalogue was impressive, but it felt more like a Disney Library than a place to find new content. A subscription to Disney+ was a way to secure all the titles you probably already watched but your kids (or you) might want to watch again. New content, though, did not exactly abound through 2020. One apparently worthwhile title – Mulan – was sold at a premium, to the subscribers’ outrage.
Then, during the Investor Day of December 2020, Disney shifted gears, announcing a load of new content, including a bunch of series set in the Star Wars universe, a new Indiana Jones movie (with Harrison Ford!), several reboots of loved Disney titles (Peter Pan, Pinocchio, Chip n Dale, Lion King, etc.), a truckload of Pixar and Marvel titles.
While the quantity alone is enough to keep Netflix up at night, what really matters here is that Disney knows the value of trust, having had parents as its target for so many years.
Disney is a trusted brand, and it knows trust is a facilitator, especially for families, the most rewarding audience. Not only the Disney brand works as a reassurance when browsing the catalogue, but every sub-brand works in the same way.
Spin-offs, reboots, prequels, adaptations. Disney+ gives you something new based on something you know.
When a new Star Wars series comes up, you don’t need much more additional info to decide you want to watch it. It’s pretty automatic. It might be more or less convincing, but it won’t be terrible. You know what Star Wars means.
This makes browsing the Disney+ catalogue a more calming experience. There are so many things you want to watch, but you have enough information about them (their universe, characters, tone of voice, values) to make your choice easily.
And this might give Disney+ a deadly edge over Netflix.
No alarms and no surprises, please: the revenge of the familiar
Maybe it’s the pandemic, which hurt us all and made us crave for reassurance. Or maybe it’s the end of a cycle.
Endless choice, which once felt so exciting, has begun to make us dizzy, and we are now looking for simplicity and direction. Consider how Netflix is squeezing its IPs like Stranger Things and Narcos, or how one of its latest top shows, The Witcher, came from a book and a videogame.
If 2021 will really mark the end of the streaming wars, it might also bring some maturity to their content. Netflix has been, so far, a dazzling lab of crazy experiments and discoveries (and we love it for that). It has failed, though, to create a consistent content brand.
As user experience is quickly leveling across platforms, content brand will be the key to differentiation. And Disney obviously seems to be ahead.
When Balenciaga launched its latest online game for the reveal of the 21 Collection, something felt different. It’s definitely not the first time a brand creates a game as part of its campaign. But this game, it felt real. The visual quality is unprecedented for a branded experience, thanks to the lifelike renderings of Unreal Engine. Human figures are created with high-detail volumetric captures. The interaction might not be the most exciting you could wish for, but boy – look at the environments. The shadows. The reflections. This is a game you could have on your next-gen console or PC.
Finally, the game loads almost instantly in any browser, on any device.
This is not black magic, and your computer has not been upgraded overnight. Brands have just met cloud gaming and this is going to change marketing investments big time.
First of all: what is cloud gaming?
Cloud gaming is a remarkable feat of technology, but it’s quite easy to explain: the game runs on a powerful remote server – not your computer. Using the controls, you send inputs to the server (jump, dodge, run, shoot, whatever), the server performs the action and streams the image back to you. From your point of view (and your computer’s or smartphone’s) the video is no different from any other streamed video. But you can control it.
As long as you have a good connection, you can enjoy the best possible graphic quality, no matter your specs.
Some of you might remember Gaikai, one of the first cloud gaming platforms, launched in 2012. Since then, more players have entered the arena, including some big guys: Google Stadia, Amazon Luna, Facebook Gaming, GEForce Now.
This is good news for cloud gaming, because – as you can imagine – it can only work with the proper resources and infrastructures.
Cloud gaming is also the reason the Balenciaga game felt so novel.
The problem with branded games
Online games have been tempting marketers for a long time. Fashion, in particular, has fallen in love with games: the industry understands that interaction and immersion can create a deeper bond with the brand.
In technical terms, though, little progress has been made.
Look at any branded game today and you will find a lot of mini-games, that can be played in the browser. Some brands just opted for mobile games altogether, because it allows you to better estimate the tech specs of the player.
You will stumble into the occasional memory-heavy browser game that will have you stuck for five minutes in front of a loading screen. That’s increasingly uncommon: while these are often amazing websites, they can’t compare with any commercial game, so they fall in the middle.
So, why don’t brands produce better games?
The problem, of course, lies in distribution, not in production. It’s not like brands don’t have the money to produce a decent game that actual gamers will want to play. But brands know that if they produced a high-end game, almost nobody could play it. First of all, few people will want to download a heavy file just to interact with a brand (especially if they are just scrolling their feed).
Furthermore, device compatibility would be a nightmare: are you playing on a PC or a Mac? On desktop or mobile? What are the minimum specs? Do you need to – God forbid it – tweak the game quality?
It makes sense for brands to stick to simple. Some are looking for creative workarounds, like 8-bit games that makes lo-tech look cool, like Louis Vuitton’s Endless Runner, created with Virgil Abloh.
But branded games are still far from being the center piece of any campaign.
Branded games vs branded movies
The lag (sorry for the pun) in branded games is quite striking if we look at another form of branded entertainment: movies. Brands have long been hiring top talent (directors, actors) in order to create spectacular pieces of content that people actually watch and share.
Castello Cavalcanti (above) by Wes Anderson for Prada, is just one example. Think of “The Secret Life of Flowers”, the work of Baz Luhrmann for H&M. The list could go on: branded short movies have been all the rage in the last years, with directors like Jodorowsky or Spike Jonze, and so many actors. You might find this unsurprising, as advertising has always been flirting with cinema, and commercial directors (like Jonze himself) have often progressed to film.
If brands are looking for attention and engagement, gaming is where it’s at. At best, though, they can hope to be guests with product placement or other
Could cloud gaming finally open the doors of game production to brands?
What cloud gaming means for branded games
Here comes cloud gaming to the rescue.
As I described before, cloud gaming breaks down the wall of distribution.
Now, a game can be streamed just like a video. Thus, producing a game or a short movie are equivalent choices, because they can easily reach the same large audience.
If a game can be played by millions of users, it makes sense to make it very good (that’s how we think about videos). And we collectively know what a good game is. Not your average browser experience, but something that you would buy – if it was for sale (just like you would pay to watch a branded movie if it was a full-feature film).
The difference, though, is that a game might keep you hooked for longer, and even get you to return (which is highly unlikely for a video). The interaction is deeper and the narrative can be more customised. It‘s a brand’s dream.
In terms of investment, a short game might be comparable to a short movie. The Balenciaga game apparently took 6 months to develop:
In other terms, your next commercial might be a game.
Not a complementary asset, but maybe the main campaign asset (just like Balenciaga is doing).
This is huge news for the marketing world, whose narratives might finally make the jump from videos (passive) to games (interactive).
But it’s not just marketing who should be excited about this. Many more players (oh no, another pun) might join in.
Branded games: the future players
If brands are really going to pour millions into production-heavy games, who is going to create them? After all, producing a web game is one thing – even an agency might do it – but this kind of game is going to require some serious skills.
The first suspect is – of course – game studios. Bethesda, Blizzard, Rockstar, Epic might tap into this new stream of business by setting up commercial units that design and develop short games for brands. After all, they have all the necessary resources for that. They are the new Hollywood studios, after all.
If production from scratch turns out to be too costly, these studios might consider to produce a branded chapter of an existing game and open it up for everyone to play. Imagine a stand-alone Assassin’s Creed adventure, set in London and designed just for Burberry. You just visit the campaign site and you play. Imagine the numbers this could make.
When a brand shoots a short movie, the director is usually what makes the news. Game designers might not be that famous, but there are exceptions.
Imagine a Hideo Kojima X Volvo game, developed by some less famous game studio. Kojima’s is the mind behind the Metal Gear Solid saga and, more recently, DeathStranding. His name alone could draw millions of players worldwide.
Reversely, designing brand games might become a breeding ground for future game designers.
If the branded game business grows strong enough, dedicated studios might pop up. There are already studios who sell branded games, but it’s not the kind of games we are talking about. These require scale, skills, money. New players.
No, I don’t think agencies will develop games. They will always be better off outsourcing them, as they do with video production. For agencies, the rise of branded games is actually a danger more than an opportunity: if brands turn to game studios and substitute games to commercials, agencies might see a big revenue stream cut off overnight.
What agencies are positioned to do is be the link between the brand and the game designers. In order to do this, they must acquire some fundamental skills. Speaking the language of games will become a vital competence for every agency, just like it has become for videos.
Finally, how are you going to distribute your game? Cloud gaming makes it easy, but you necessarily must visit the game website. If branded games become a major marketing asset, though, advertising platforms like Facebook might jump in and make the games instantly playable in-feed.
Imagine you are scrolling your Facebook feed and the ad for a Kojima X Volvo game appears. You click on the ad and within 15 seconds the game loads inside Facebook. You start playing for 20 minutes.
This is every marketer’s dream.
Too good to be true?
All this is possible, but not inevitable. The cloud gaming experience must prove pleasant and consistent even for large numbers of concurring players. Brand must be brave enough to put big money into something new and scary. And the early branded games must be good, or players will be disappointed. Balenciaga’s game looks good – and it’s conceptually exciting – but it’s not entertaining.
The tools are there, the skills too. Let’s go and make something memorable.