Breaking The Wheel

An image of a director, because they direct game advertisements

Game Advertisement Review: How To Effectively Critique Your Ads

In the corporate world, as a general rule, marketers and brand managers do not get involved in the creative aspects of advertising. Their job is to determine the strategy behind an ad campaign and then let the professional creatives do their thing. The job of the brand manager is to ensure that the ads are on strategy, but to leave the actual creation to the pros. Of course, as game developers, we are the creative pros. So that guiding principle just doesn’t sit right with me in the context of game development. Besides, I’d guess many or most indie studios probably can’t afford to hire professional creative agencies or trailer makers. So, to make the best use of the post, I’m going to walk through some of the important concepts behind ad creation. I’ll leave the decision as to who will craft the ad to you.


By Reading This Post, You Will Learn

  • The most important question to ask about any ad you review
  • The ADPLAN framework: what it is and how it works
  • How ADPLAN applies to a real-world ad, using the famous Dead Island reveal trailer as an example

Question 1: Is The Game Advertisement On Strategy?

When reviewing any ad, the first question you should always ask is “Is this ad on strategy?” Why? Because, as we’ve learned multiple times over this series, strategy is everything in marketing. And every tactical exercise needs to align to the overarching strategy.

What does “on strategy” mean in the context of an ad? Well does it seem tailored to your target audience? Does it accurately portray your desired market positioning? Will it communicate the form of value you want to give players? Does it ladder-up or down according to your desired video game advertising strategy. In short, is the ad the manifestation of the all the work you did over the prior 9 video game marketing posts?

And if the answer is “No”, then just stop right there and go back to the drawing board. There is zero point in spending time, effort, or money revising an ad that’s off strategy. It’s not even worth discussing the ad. Seriously. Ask the question, and if the answer is “No” adjurn the meeting.

It’s truly a binary outcome:

  • Is this ad on strategy?
    • If yes: Proceed to Questions 2-7
    • If no: Stop talking about the add, review strategy, and back to the drawing board

Questions 2-7: The ADPLAN Framework

If there’s one thing you learn in business school, it’s that business writers and scholars love frameworks and acronyms. But as tempting as it might be to turn your nose up at such things, ADPLAN is a super useful. It comes courtesy of Advertising Strategy authors Brian Sternthal and Derek D. Rucker. It stands for:

  • Attention
  • Distinction
  • Positioning
  • Linkage
  • Amplification
  • Net Equity

Attention: Is The Add Attention-Grabbing?

Quite simply, will this add grab somebody’s attention? You need to consider not just the ad in isolation, but the channels in which you intend to run it. Different media will avail themselves to different forms of attention-grabbing. For web ads, which will pop up in the midst of feeds that users scroll through, you may need something a little more aggressive, with fast cuts and lots of action. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain had great ads in that regard.

However, if you’re cutting a trailer that you want the blogosphere to circulate, something that’s all T&A and explosions might be tuned out as flash and trash. You might need something with a little more lead-in and build up.

Distinction: Is The Add Distinct?

Is this ad distinct or does it look like every other trailer in the genre? Now, obviously, the visuals of your game are a major factor here. Hyper Light Drifter is going to stand out a lot more than a realistic first person shooter. But it’s also a question of pacing, music selection, use of on screen text, voiceovers and other aesthetic decisions.

Distinction is critical because you don’t want gamers to watch your ad – an ad you spent a lot of money and time making – and think it’s for another game. If you make an RPG with swords and stylish pretty-boys, and viewers think it’s an ad for Final Fantasy XV, well that’s not a very good use of your time, is it?

Positioning: Is The Add Consistent With Your Positioning Strategy?

Does the ad adequately and accurately convey your market positioning strategy? Is the frame of reference clear? Are the points of parity obvious? Do the points of differentiation stand out? Are the reasons to believe actually believable? An advertisement is the embodiment of your positioning strategy. So make sure the ad is on point.

Linkage: Is There Clear Linkage Between The Game And The Positioning?

Similarly to the point about distinction, you want to ensure not just that you have clear positioning, but that you clearly linked that positioning to the game itself. If a viewer sees the ad, but forgets the name of your game, the success of the campaign will be greatly undermined. This gets easier over time as a game accrues some cache with fans. The Last of Us, Part II can get away with showing its title at the end of its debut trailer because the brand, its look, and its iconography are so well known.

This is why it can be useful for the first trailer for a brand new game franchise to be a developer walkthrough in which a narrator repeats the name of the game several times and the logo is prominently displayed in a corner throughout.

This point also harks back to the previous post about video game advertising and laddering. Starting with laddering down to support the functional benefits with reasons to believe (like the developer walkthrough). Then, over a series of adds, shift to laddering up to aspirational. This approach can help build linkage.

Alternatively, you can start by laddering-up with a strong aspirational ad and later ladder-down. But the aspiration needs to be clear and super-slick, and needs to hold viewers’ attentions long enough for them to see the title. This is why reveal trailers from the major publishers are so polished.

Amplification: Is Amplification Positive, Negative, or Non-Existent?

This is where advertising veers into neurology and psychology. When you see an ad, your brain mulls it over in your “working” memory. You can think of working memory like RAM in a computer: it’s fast and efficient, but limited and in high demand. Once your working memory shifts to considering some other notion, one of two things will happen to your thoughts about the ad. Either they get stored in “long-term” memory (like your computer’s hard drive)…or they get forgotten entirely. Amplification is the mechanism by which an ad gets stored in long term memory.

Amplification means the concept in your working memory gets associated with some personal experience contained in long-term memory. It’s why you now get nauseas every time you smell tequila after that one really bad night you had with Senior Cuervo. Or why you suddenly feel a pleasant giddiness whenever you hear the song that was playing when you had your first kiss.

In the context of ads, amplification means that the viewer has associated your message with some other aspect in long-term memory and that message is resonating with him/her.

Amplification In Action

For instance, let’s say you have a bitch of a time cleaning dust off your ceiling fan. Then you have an encounter with an ad for a Swiffer with an extending handle. The ad shows a person cleaning her ceiling fan with ease. Your working memory associates this image with the frustrating memory of cleaning your ceiling your own fan and voila! Amplification.

Amplification can also be negative. For example, if an add shows a family eating a Ball Park hot dogs at a baseball game. But you f’ing HATE baseball. In this case amplification is also achieved, but of the negative variety. The brand will be associated with a negative memory and there it shall linger.

Net-Equity: Does The Ad Honor and Reinforce Brand Equity?

Brands are powerful. My favorite example: Coors Light, Miller Lite, and Bud Light are, demonstrably, indistinguishable in blind taste tests. This being the case, traditional economics would lead us to believe that all three should face a massive downward pressure on price and thus have a price just over their marginal unit cost.

This is clearly not the case. Why? Their respective brands. Many beer drinkers think of themselves as Coors Light drinkers, Miller Lite drinkers, or Bud Light drinkers. They believe this so sincerely that they’re convinced they can tell the difference between the three (they can’t). Further, they are willing to pay a relatively significant premium over the marginal cost for the privilege of drinking their shitty, watered down, pilsner of choice. This is why every Coors commercial focuses on the cold refreshing taste, while every Miller Lite commercial focuses on regular guys who just like drinking beer. They’re honoring their equity their brands have built over time.

What happens if the message strays from the brand equity? Well, image if id Software released an ad for Doom that was profoundly emotional. An ad that was trying to sell you on the tragedy of the war with Hell and the sacrifices of the Marines in their quest to save Earth. You brain would immediately go “What the fuck?!” Your mouth would likely follow. Why? That’s not what Doom’s brand equity stands for. Doom is about chainsaws and shotguns and Mick Gordon melting your face.

So, it’s important to understand what your game’s brand stands for in the minds of your fans. This is why the insights from your customer interviews are absolutely essential. And it’s critical that every ad honors your game’s brand equity and reinforces it.


Resources that Informed and Influenced this Post

If you have ad blockers turned on, you may not see the above links.

Running The Dead Island Reveal Trailer through ADPLAN

Here’s how ADPLAN works in the context of a real advertisement: the Dead Island reveal trailer.

Did it grab attention?

It sure did. It was profound and emotional and the Memento-esque approach of telling working from the beginning and end of the story to the middle was arresting.

Was it distinct?

Not necessarily. There was nothing distinct about the trailer that would differentiate Dead Island from other zombie games.

Did it successfully convey the position of the game?

Only partially. It gave you a frame of reference (zombies) and points of parity (lots of zombies, regular joe’s slugging it out with said zombies). However, the point of differentiation was completely off-target. The point of differentiation the ad communicated was gravitas: the trauma of loved ones succumbing to a horrific event. Dead Island‘s actual points of differentiation were its open-world setting, crafting, and multiple protagonists.

Did it create linkage?

I’d argue that this was one of the trailer’s most successful elements. The game’s name is Dead Island and the trailer featured lots of dead people in a tropical resort (presumably on an island). So, viewer brains were primed (I base this on neurological studies, not my own intuition*) to remember the words “dead” and “island”. Further, the attention grabbing nature of the ad meant that it would have viewers’ attention when the logo popped up.

Did it trigger amplification?

Probably, but it might have been the wrong kind of amplification. The trailer shows a family being destroyed by a pack of raging zombies and a zombified little girl getting thrown out of a hotel window to her (second) death. That’s a disturbing sight to witness, even in pre-rendered form. For anyone lacking sociopathic tendencies, the trailer likely created some majorly negative amplification. Especially for parents or spouses.

Now, it’s important to point out that, in the case of creative mediums, negative amplification like this is not universally a bad thing. Some people – myself included – like watching sad or disturbing movies. But, if that’s the case – if that negative amplification is a selling point – you need to deliver the goods. And Dead Island didn’t.

Did it increase net-equity?

The reveal trailer was beautiful. It was heartbreaking. And it was a complete circle jerk. It built a net-equity that the game itself would never honor. Dead Island wasn’t about a family trying to survive and protect each other in desperate, life-threatening circumstances. It was about beating the shit out of zombies with hand tools and baseball bats.

For real, when your trailer looks like that and your collectors edition swag looks like this:

Dead Island collector's edition ad

then somebody in marketing fucked up.

Why Does Any Of That Matter?

You may be saying to yourself “Who cares if the ad didn’t check all the boxes on some stupid academic framework? It served its purpose of getting attention and Dead Island was Techland’s best selling game!”

My favorite line in Destiny (from “The Taken King” expansion, specifically) is from Nathan Fillion’s character Cayde-6: “Everybody loves a bad idea when it works.”

I don’t dispute that the ad grabbed attention or that Dead Island sold a lot of units. But the fact that it helped sell the game is entirely an aspect of execution. Very talented A-players ensured that the ad succeeded through pure skill.

So, what happens if Techland and Deep Silver can only afford to hire B players to cut the trailer? Or C players? In other words, if you’re making a play based purely on artistic execution, you’re taking a chance. You’re gambling that your ability to execute the ad will be so exceptional that it’ll overpower any talk of the final game not meeting the established expectation.

And, be honest, of all of the video game trailers you’ve ever seen, how many were THAT good? Not many. So, if you’re banking purely on execution carrying you to victory, the odds are just not in your favor, Katniss.

Frameworks exist to mitigate the impact of chance. There are no guarantees, in advertising or life, but ADPLAN is you checklist for ensuring any add you positioned to have the best impact on your odds of success.


Key Takeaways

  • Any review of a potential ad should start with the question “Is this ad on-strategy?”
  • If the ad does not honor both your overall marketing strategy and your chosen advertising strategy, you should scrap it
  • Once you have determined that the ad is on strategy, the next step is to run the ADPLAN framework
  • ADPLAN stands for Attention Distinction Positioning Linkage Amplification and Net-Equity
  • ADPLAN does not guarantee success nor does ignoring it ensure failure
  • It does ensure that your ad has the best chance at success by forcing you to think through its six parameters

Return To The Video Game Marketing Table Of Contents

*In his brilliant book, Consciousness and the Brain, Stanislas Dehaene describes experiments where subliminally flashing a word in front of participants would prime their conscious brain to perceive and remember that word when they saw it a second time.
Creative Commons License
“Video Game Advertising Strategy: Ladders, Bridges, And Sniper Rifles” by Justin Fischer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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  1. Pingback: Video Game Advertising Strategy: Ladders, Bridges, And Sniper Rifles

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