New frontiers: what’s next for video game advertising

From epic films to outdoor stunts and partnerships with leading football clubs, brands are becoming increasingly inventive in their approach to advertising video games. We talk to McCann London and 180 Kingsday about what the future holds for the industry

In the 1990s and early 2000s, PlayStation developed a reputation for putting out surprising, inventive and downright weird ads. A woman giving birth to a male gamer, a man left haggard and aged after playing shoot-em-up combat games, and Chris Cunningham’s film Mental Wealth, in which Scottish actress Fiona McLean’s face was digitally manipulated to look not quite human.

At the time, the PlayStation was a novel console and game graphics were pretty rudimentary (remember aerial view Grand Theft Auto?). Instead of using in-game footage, PlayStation commissioned weird and off-kilter films to build hype around the device and its games. When the Xbox launched in 2005, it opted for a similar approach, releasing outlandish ads that were designed to get people talking. Champagne, which showed a woman giving birth to a baby boy who rapidly ages as he hurtles towards a grave, ending with the message: Life is Short, was banned after several complaints to the Independent Television Commission.

These early ads were designed to leave viewers thinking, WTF? – and they were incredibly effective in pushing the idea that these new consoles offered incredible, never-seen-before experiences for gamers.

In the two decades since, gaming has moved on considerably. New platforms such as VR, AR and smartphones have opened up new opportunities for developers, while better graphics and hardware have led to more sophisticated games on traditional consoles. No Man’s Sky, which launched in 2016, offers infinite gameplay within an ever expanding universe, while Detroit – a choose-your-own-adventure game about androids living in the near future – is a complex narrative with hundreds of potential outcomes. Gaming is a huge industry – worth over $100 billion – and individual games now have millions of followers worldwide, who take to blogs, YouTube, social media and platforms like Twitch to talk about and share their in-game antics.