Sixty-odd years ago, the wonderfully named US physicist William Higinbotham created what is widely held to be the first-ever video game, the nattily named Tennis for Two. Quite the hit at the 1958 Brookhaven National Laboratory’s annual exhibition, visitors flocked to bounce a dot over a line on a five-inch-wide cathode ray tube display.
How times have changed. A new report shows that sales of video games now account for more than half of the UK’s total home entertainment market, outstripping combined music and movie revenues for the first time. The success of blockbuster 2018 games such as Red Dead Redemption 2, Fifa 19 and Call of Duty: Black Ops 4, and their relentless pursuit to blur the boundaries between the real and virtual worlds, truly cement them as household names.
Meanwhile, free-to-play online game and bona fide smash hit Fortnite continues its relentless ascent to world domination, with creator Epic Games tripling its value in six months, largely from convincing kids to sneakily purchase in-game outfits and dance moves using their parents’ credit cards.
Over in Dorset, my dad in his sixties merrily blasts his way through online multiplayer battles in the Xbox’s Destiny 2 and, back home, his seven-year-old grandson Frank is taking his tentative first gaming steps and merrily blasting past his frazzled father (me) on the Rainbow Road at 200cc.
In light of this boom, what can brands, fighting for customer attention and action more than ever before, learn from a sprightly 60-year-old industry that’s as dynamic, progressive and engaging now as it has ever been? Here are my starters for 10.
Liberation from the living room
Multiplayer gaming in the past saw people huddled together in the same physical space, usually crammed on a small sofa in a chaotic scene of flailing elbows and tangled controllers.
And yet, as the world accelerates towards a future of absolute digital connectivity, the gaming industry has smartly kept pace, innovating the multiplay experience to retain a sense of social camaraderie, community and shared entertainment, while totally freeing its players from the shackles of the living room.
Nike, with its social media-heavy "Nothing beats a Londoner" campaign, is an advertising equivalent – a prime example of a brand that has shifted its emphasis away from TV spend to mobile first, with the understanding that audiences are now rarely on receive mode in front of the TV but are looking for interactive brand experiences while on the move.
Personalisation = immersion
On top of tech enabling new formats and occasions for gaming, it also provides incredible degrees of personalisation and continues to push the boundaries when it comes to immersive storytelling.
Games such as Destiny 2 ride Moore’s law-sized waves of technological advancement to create evolving gaming worlds without limits and endless customisation that ultimately delivers a level of personal connection with players that any brand would chew its left arm off for.
We know that personalisation is a huge and successful trend for brands and digital media enables advertisers to tap into this. But brands still risk being too "top down" in their communications and could learn a trick or two from the immersion that works so well in gaming.
The growing use of experiential campaigns highlights an increased awareness of this. It was interesting, too, to see Netflix dip its toe into gaming waters with the recent interactive Black Mirror film Bandersnatch, with the show enabling its viewers to choose their own narrative in a style that neatly harks back to gaming’s "choose your own adventure" mechanic in days of yore.
If it ain’t broke, feel free to tweak but don’t replace it
It’s not all about what’s new, of course; gaming also shows the power of enduring brilliant ideas. Nintendo’s Super Mario franchise is perhaps the ultimate example of how a long-term platform can be successful, now spanning and connecting many generations of gamers more than 30 years since Mario first smashed his head through a brick.
Newbies like my son Frank can fall in love with that charismatic plumber on the new Switch system, while nostalgia heads like me can happily get their old-school Mario fix and relive their misspent noughties with the recent release of the cartridge-less Classic Mini Snes.
We only have to look at the continued success of Comparethemarket.com and Aleksandr Orlov – soon to reach a milestone of 10 years on screens – to find a comparable story in advertising and the power of enduring character-led communication.
The sensation that is esports is on the rise and there’s a similar demand online, via the likes of YouTube and Twitch, for videos of top-name gamers demonstrating the best ways to beat the latest gaming challenges.
There’s something for brands to understand here in terms of audiences deriving as much entertainment from watching others as participating themselves. This is something appreciated by Skittles, with its 2018 Super Bowl activity – a Facebook Live stunt featuring a single person watching its commercial and explaining what happened.
I suspect that these starting points for brands will become increasingly relevant as gaming continues to lead the way in entertainment, rather than following in the wake of the film and music industries. Gaming has been liberated from the shadowy living room and is now legitimately part of the mainstream.
The upcoming Super Mario movie, produced by Nintendo and those pesky Minion-creating folks at Illumination Entertainment, and Harry Potter’s next move into the big-budget gaming world, provide more evidence of this.
Nice one, William.
Tom Bedwell is managing director at Above & Beyond