The Super Bowl may be the biggest night in advertising, but, somehow, video game producers aren’t jumping on the bandwagon. Nick D. looks at why.
The Super Bowl is one of the biggest events of the year in the United States, but not just for football fans. It has become synonymous with much more than that most beloved of American pastimes. What I’m talking about is the commercials, the wildly inventive, sometimes hilariously misfiring commercials. Citing several studies, Forbes posted that 50% of the Super Bowl audience watches just for the ads. Even a cursory glance on Youtube reveals the celebrity status that some of these commercials achieve. Many of them worm their way into the bowels of pop culture, affecting people who don’t have the slightest interest in football.
With as influential some of these commercials are, you’d think that the multi-billion dollar video game industry would be a standard fixture of Super Bowl sales pitches. You’d be wrong. There are precious few video game advertisements to be found. With over one-hundred million viewers expected to tune in this Sunday, the Super Bowl is one of, if not, the biggest advertising opportunities of the year. Yet, you are unlikely to see advertisements for upcoming games. Today, I’d like to delve into why that is exactly.
As mentioned above, the Super Bowl presents a unique opportunity for advertisers, especially in the video game industry. Twenty-two percent of the audience are between the ages of 18-35. This is the target demographic the vast majority of video games reach for, especially the biggest sellers such as Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto. But very few of them take the bait.
Perhaps the biggest reason for this is money, as you may have expected. Four million dollars will get you a thirty second commercial during the Super Bowl. Video game budgets vary wildly and although there are game guides out there for certain games, developers are often secretive about exact numbers. Even so, for all but the biggest blockbuster games, the cost of a Super Bowl ad is prohibitive.
For all but the biggest blockbuster games, the cost of a Super Bowl ad is prohibitive.
According to this infographic, the average development costs for a game is 42 million dollars. Of course, being an average, some budgets are significantly higher than that figure and some budgets are significantly lower. An indie developer, for example, could make two or three full games with that money. God of War: Ascension had a budget of “a mid double-digit million amount,” according to lead producer, Whitney Wade. This means that a thirty second advertisement during the Super Bowl cost almost ten percent of the development costs of the game.
However, it isn’t simply a problem of being cost prohibitive. There is also the fact that, despite looking good superficially, the video game industry is not well suited to such a singular investment in advertising. Companies like Jaguar, Budweiser, or Coca Cola have a single product, and a large investment has the opportunity to pay off in the long run, video games don’t work like that.
Companies like Jaguar, Budweiser, or Coca Cola have a single product, and a large investment has the opportunity to pay off in the long run, whereas video games don’t work like that.
A single video game is released, sells and then disappears as the company prepares to release the next one. Even if the game is a part of a long-running and successful series, the exposure the company will receive will be for that game only.
In some cases, the video game itself is less important than the brand. This can be seen with yearly releases, particularly multiplayer endeavours such as Call of Duty or Madden. In these cases, exposure to a game, say Call of Duty: Ghosts is tantamount to exposure to all future Call of Duty games. This is not the case in largely single player games, or ones with longer development cycles because of how widely the content can change between instalments.
If, for a moment, we leave software behind and explore hardware, there is greater impetus for something like a Super Bowl ad. Consoles are usually around for five year cycles with last generation stretching that for a couple extra years. That is long enough that a long-term brand recognition boost may be valuable. Loyalty rarely extends past a single console cycle as can be seen by the changing fortunes of Nintendo, Microsoft, and Sony over the years.
Loyalty rarely extends past a single console cycle as can be seen by the changing fortunes of Nintentdo, Microsoft, and Sony over the years.
Nevertheless, an edge over a tight competitor could lead to all sorts of advantages including better multiplatorm games as your console becomes the lead in development, more exclusive DLC, and better third party partnerships.
Back to software, there is a secondary problem associated with costs – how best to use the money. Four million dollars is a massive investment even for large companies, and there are many places to spend it. The video game industry in particular is an industry that thrives off of constant hype building. A single advertisement is wasted unless followed by a consistent stream of more hype generating activities until release. In many cases, the costs of a Super Bowl ad would be better served by a series of lower key television ads, internet banner ads, and more direct coverage from professional video game sites. While a Super Bowl commercial may be explosive, that doesn’t mean it’s the most effective option.
Then there is the question as to whether Super Bowl advertisements actually help sell product at all. In a recent study, research group, Communicus, revealed that as many as 80% of Super Bowl ads don’t improve sales. The group speculated that a single monumental exposure isn’t sufficient in many cases. This may have been the case for Dante’s Inferno, which according to VGChartz has a total lifetime sales across all platforms, hovering around 2 million units. While VGChartz is not a perfect source, it gives you a rough ball park figure, which shows that a Super Bowl advertisement did not prevent Dante’s Inferno from under-performing.
An article for The Atlantic suggests that Super Bowl commercials may be more effective at introducing new products than they are at increasing the market share on older products. This makes logical sense as long-term products, which are known to the majority of people are unlikely to cause a big stir. You are more likely to wow people with a product that is as unique and exciting as the advertisement itself. This leads to an interesting paradox where the video games that would most benefit from a Super Bowl ad can’t afford it, and those that can, don’t need one. Of course, this doesn’t stop companies like EA from using such a bump to sell a rare new IP. This logic leads me back to my Dante’s Inferno example, however. It may look good on paper, but reality can surprise.
Whether Super Bowl video game advertisements will become more common in the future is uncertain. It’s clear that the video game industry as a whole is growing wildly. However, AAA development costs are at an all-time high and combining high development costs with a massive marketing budget could lead to another situation such as 2013’s Tomb Raider, which missed sales projections despite selling 3.4 million copies.
The growing indie market is unlikely to be able to take advantage of Super Bowl advertisements any time soon, and it’s unclear if AAA developers are even benefited by doing so. As such, while large companies such as EA may occasionally spring for a prestige slot on America’s most celebrated live event, it seems unlikely that this practice will expand greatly in the upcoming years.
With over 100 million people expected to sit down in front of the television in order to watch their favourite gladiators wrestle across the verdant field, you’d think that video game advertisement would be a no-brainer. However, what seems obvious on paper can be anything but in reality. This is one of those situations, and choosing to launch a video game-related commercial during the Super Bowl is very much a risk, one which most companies aren’t willing to take.