How Gaming Marketing Grew Up – Part 1: The Early Days

27th April 2017

How did gaming advertisers widen their audience appeal through evolving storytelling?

In this blog series, we dig into the world of marketing and discuss brands, news, trends and examples that have made digital headlines. In this two-part Agency Aces, Kyle looks at how creative storytelling influenced advertising, shifted attitudes, and appealed to increasingly wider audiences in the gaming industry.

For more information on how social listening plays a part in the world of gaming, check out our report on social listening for the gaming industry

The nostalgic titles

Tetris, Pac-Man, Super Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog… these games are embedded into many a childhood memory. For many, none more so than a side-scroller that involved a portly plumber eating mushrooms, saving kidnapped princesses and smashing turtles in the process – the one and only Super Mario.

These days, whilst you can still get up to similarly questionable actions in HD graphics, we are encouraged to become emotionally attached to our digital avatar - not just because of the updated game mechanics (and perhaps unchecked mental issues), but because of just how engaging these digital worlds have become.

So, when did this change? How did story-telling evolve and influence great narrative in TV games?

From 60-year-olds to 6-year-olds, gamers wanted something more than an arcade cabinet coin-guzzler to bash buttons on; they want a story to unfold. An interactive novel, of sorts. And this had to be reflected in the advertising and marketing surrounding the title.

Bringing a story to life remains one of the most power tools to get an audience to engage with your brand. Advertisers have known this for decades; so, when did great story telling become the source of inspiration for great games and in turn, effective campaigns?

Story-telling = effective gaming campaigns

Well, first, let’s jump back into the ‘totally bodacious, dude’ 1980&90s. Video gaming was still in its relative infancy, and so apparently, was its audience – take for example, this… thing:

Fortunately, things started to get better. Brands began to understand their audience and widening demographic. And there’s no better game series to start with than…

It’s-a-me, a brand name

Super Mario Bros. – 1990

With a game like Mario, the story is completely secondary to the gameplay. One of the first of its kind, gamers were blown away by the running, jumping figure on a mission to save a Princess. And by the time this commercial aired, Mario was a household name.

Despite an unconventional sequel in Super Mario 2, Super Mario 3 was (and still is) heralded as one of the greatest platformers of gaming history and proved incredibly popular when it launched. Although fiercely battling Sonic for top spot, Mario was a highly bankable icon, with his own breakfast cereal, television cartoon and, by 1993, a bizarre live-action movie starring Bob Hoskins and Dennis Hopper.

Simply uttering the word ‘Mario’ would invoke happiness in the hearts of young gamers (and fear in the bank accounts of their parents)… and that’s just what this commercial did. Over and over.

Less of a commercial and more of a boast, but still a step forward in advertisers understanding the power of the brand image.

‘Lara’s Back’ - A game for the boys?

Tomb Raider – 1997


The boys are also here and there... or not anymore, as it would appear.

Sex sells, and few have been as sexualized in the video game industry as Lara Croft. And back in the 90’s, she was the digital dream of many a teenage boy, so that’s exactly what this commercial capitalizes on.

Whilst not outright exploiting Lara’s physique and appeal, the advertisers miss the mark by inferring that this is a game that only ‘boys’ will play - in a case of clearly not understanding the full audience and relying on stereotypes. Whilst this ad reliably appeals to its core demographic, it definitively alienates others - potentially also causing negative sentiment around the title. Female empowerment be damned… even when Lara is more of an Indiana Jones parallel than Nicki Minaj.

Fortunately in more recent times, Tomb Raider has seen something of a reimagining and has become a realistic adventurer within a story-driven epic.

‘Double Life’ – I’ve lived

PlayStation - 1999

Gritty, raw, real, you’d be forgiven if you thought this was a trailer for the newest Guy Ritchie film. This commercial jumped two feet into muddy waters and came out looking like an Oscar winner. Before this ad aired, few would dare to portray gaming as an underworld of guilty pleasures and escapism, but it's exactly what it needed - recognition and validation.

This campaign will however remain timeless because it unlocked an insight that is still true today about playing TV games; it allows people to live a double life in a fantasy world that they control. By widening the demographic hugely, bringing in every sex, age and profession, the advertisers showed that they were in touch with its audience and, most importantly, empowered them through PlayStation.

Over a sweeping choral score and spoken in the timbre of a stirring Kipling poem, there is a notable sense of frisson being created in the undercurrent of this advert. No longer were games just a childhood memory but instead offered a lifetime of unadulterated passion. Gaming finally grew up…


So, with this ad subverting expectations and challenging conceptions of gaming audiences, there was one question left; what now?

Follow our next Agency Aces as we discover how gaming brands have used audience insights to build storytelling campaigns and further challenged what could be achieved with the industry.

At Pulsar, we are dedicated to revealing the insights hiding in the very DNA of human behavior. Get in touch with us and we’ll show you how you can use it to improve your campaigns.