Superman may be able to change the course of mighty rivers, but can the advertisement for his latest video game change the way we look at games?
As the rockets rumble and the smoke begins to billow for the impending "Superman Returns" movie launch, a familiar figure in blue, red and yellow is appearing on an increasing number of flat surfaces near you. Superman ads are gracing TV screens, magazine pages and the sides of buses, advertising the movie, toys and even special-edition Computers of Steel.
In gaming magazines and the back of DC Comics editions this month, ads are appearing for "Superman Returns: The Video Game." The game was supposed to be released in sync with the movie but was recently delayed to the fall, too late for Electronic Arts to yank ads that are running now. The ad itself is radically different than any game ad America's largest video game company has run in years, because it's not really about Superman. It's about the people who made Superman's game.
Secret identities are revealed: Amid images of the game, the text champions level designer Zach Wilson, producer Jeff Peters and concept-art director Phil Straub. Wilson's concerned with getting Superman to fly right; Straub provides a talking point for the development team's map of Metropolis.
"We have a company here that is filled with people that are incredibly passionate about what they do and about gaming," EA Vice President of Advertising Shawn Conly told GameFile. "We felt those people weren't having a chance to shine as much as we'd like."
The ad also makes the point of naming the studio behind "Superman" (Tiburon), the studio's location (Orlando, Florida) and the number of people on the development team (140).
Video game ads don't typically spotlight the people who actually make games, partially because game companies don't think a lot of people care about them. "I wouldn't see running this ad in, say, a Sports Illustrated," Conly said. "My gut tells me that the people reading SI aren't going to care as much that 140 people sat down to make a great 'Superman' game. [They want to know], 'What is that game going to do for them and how entertaining is that going to be?' "
But Conly said there is an audience for this. The campaign was borne from the idea that people who read gaming magazines like to spend a lot of time with those magazines. "We wanted to give them enough interesting things to pore over," said Conly. EA and its ad firm even skipped out on using a standard advertising copywriter to sketch out the anecdotes about the game's developers — they hired a journalist who spent two days at Tiburon interviewing "Superman" developers.
The EA approach for "Superman" — reporter-driven developer anecdotes and neat factoids — will also be used in ads for the publisher's next big summer games: "NFL Head Coach" and "Madden '07." All three games are made by Tiburon Studios, which Conly said is just a quirk of scheduling.
Some might find EA an unlikely candidate to champion its creators. It is a company that, with the exception of "Sims" creator Will Wright, has been content to let its brands be spotlighted far more brightly than its game makers. In the past two years, the company has been hit with negative press about stressed working conditions and has been sued for its policies regarding overtime pay, or lack thereof.
The "Superman" ad isn't a response to those criticisms — "not overtly," Conly said. But it does draw inspiration from some EA history, specifically the company's very first advertisements. Back then, the company featured not just text about its creators in its print ads but photos of the cream of its crop. The best-remembered ad was headlined "Can a Computer Make You Cry?" Next to a photo of black-clad designers looking sullenly artistic was a quote from game designer Bill Budge: "I'm not sure there are any software artists yet ... we've got to earn that title." That ad ran in 1983, and Conly said, "In some ways, that was a partial inspiration for where we're taking this right now."
The uplift of game creators, even through advertising — or particularly through advertising — could be a great aid to those toiling away on games with little sense of appreciation. The focus on creators in game advertising could also affect the way people see their games and decide which ones to buy next. Or it could just be a short-lived play to get gamers' eyes to linger on a page — not too different than a cereal company printing a Lucky Charms maze or a Fruit Loops word search, sending shoppers on a hunt for the letters that spell "Toucan Sam."
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