As you’ve probably noticed, this week has seen the high-profile UK release of two of this year’s biggest games – Grand Theft Auto IV and Wii Fit, the video gaming equivalent of Hollywood summer blockbusters.
The run up to their release has seen both Nintendo and Rockstar (with a little help from Microsoft) spend a fortune on television advertising. I saw the commercials for both products in the same ad break a week or so ago, and I found the differences between them fascinating.
The advert for GTA IV, with its funky soundtrack and editing, is one of the best video game trailers I’ve ever seen, while the pale, rather dainty Nintendo offering is arguably one of the worst.
The GTA IV commercial introduces new protagonist Niko, who trudges into the camera grim-facedly as a series of vignettes from the game play behind him. The advert’s masterstroke is its subtlety; its trendy, swaggering nature almost fools you into thinking it isn’t selling you anything, while in fact it establishes, in just thirty seconds and without the distraction of a voice-over, some of the game’s new mechanics and set-pieces. It demonstrates the use of mobile phones, the shoot-outs, the next-gen re-imagining of Liberty City, and at its conclusion, the more detailed and realistic theft of cars. The music – a key factor in all GTA games – is retro, arrogant and cool, the aural equivalent of both Niko’s character and the series as a whole.
Wii Fit’s UK commercial seems almost quaint by comparison. After the usual Wii ‘water droplet’ ident, we’re presented with the product (an unprepossessing looking flat plastic thing), and then told of its benefits by a soothing TV Doctor-style voice. ‘This is the Wii board. It can help you and your family… keep fit,’ it says, prosaically.
A male model (who, it should be pointed out, isn’t even remotely fat) is then shown standing on the board and is told by the console that he’s overweight.
It’s an absurdly simple, almost 1950s mode of advertising, but I must reluctantly admit that it works – my local game retail outlet was in meltdown last Saturday as several dozen people all clamoured to get their hands on Nintendo’s latest wonder-gadget.
For all the commercials’ cosmetic dissimilarities, the GTA and Wii Fit campaigns do have something in common. Like all advertising, they sell a ‘dream’, or at least an idea. GTA IV is all about the freedom its digital world provides – the freedom to explore, to steal and kill.
The Wii Fit, meanwhile, sells the idea of the video game as a lifestyle solution. If, three years ago, a focus group had been asked whether they thought a video game could improve your memory or help you to lose weight, the answer would have probably been a rather bemused ‘no.’ Before Wii Fit, the idea of a fat-burning video game was an idea as outlandishly utopian as slimming beer or a carpet that reverses ageing.
But like it or not, Nintendo have pulled off an impressive marketing trick – they’ve convinced an entire untapped audience to buy their product, though it remains to be seen whether the nation’s waistlines will improve as a result.
Don’t get me wrong – I don’t dislike Wii Fit as a concept at all; indeed, I’ll probably end up buying it myself eventually (and God knows I need the exercise). What startles me is Nintendo’s marketing approach – it almost doesn’t feel like a video game commercial at all. Its mood is strangely serene and austere, like an advert for an expensive kettle or a foot spa.
The adverts for these two games, released within mere days of each other, show just how broad and diverse the video game demographic has become; GTA IV’s offering is macho, truculent and aimed squarely at the hardcore gamer, while Wii Fit’s zen-like approach is gentle and unapologetically softcore.
As you’ve probably gathered, I hated Wii Fit’s style of advertising and loved the GTA IV’s, but my mother would certainly think the reverse – she’d hate GTA’s wanton violence, but think that standing on one foot in front of the television was a pretty good notion.
Proof, if any were needed, of video gaming’s increasingly diverse audience, one that will continue to grow and evolve long after our fitness boards have been resigned to the cupboard.
Ryan will be back next Thursday with another column; read his last one here