In the past, video games were marketed mainly with print ads and television commercials, but today’s publishers can also exploit social media, YouTube, and podcasts to reach a massive audience.
For many gamers though, actually seeing a title in action before buying is hugely important: rather than simply taking the seller’s word for a game’s quality, customers have the power to see more of what they’re paying for than an ad can show.
Still, nobody can argue with the strength of a well-made trailer. While print ads still run, bigger games also use expensive, slick trailers in the same way that movies do, selling their product as a must-have experience rather than a piece of entertainment.
From classic 16-bit titles to recent releases, some video games have been accompanied by unforgettable trailers …
Anyone old enough to remember the early ’90s is bound to recall Mortal Monday. This was the huge promotional campaign created to mark the console release of the iconic Mortal Kombat (across SNES, Sega Genesis / Mega Drive, and others).
The trailer put together to sell the game is still impressive today, mainly because of its simplicity. Considering the series became so famous (or infamous) because of its bloody brutality, the ad makes no reference to this, though snippets of bloodless fighting are shown. Footage of the game is kept brief, edited together in quick succession.
The real meat of the trailer is in the live-action sequences, which present dozens upon dozens of youths swarming through the streets of an anonymous city. Throughout, the phrase ‘prepare yourself’ flashes across the screen again and again.
This plays on the huge following and notoriety Mortal Kombat had already generated, and sells the game as a massive cultural event. Combined with the print ads in magazines, this trailer helped to make Mortal Kombat’s release one of the biggest ever.
Gears of War 2
The trailer for Gears of War 2 is really pretty special.
Using ‘How It Ends’, a powerfully epic song by DeVotchKa, the ad captures a more sombre, emotional tone than the game itself managed for the most part. Considering the games themselves are hardcore, blood-soaked shooters, it’s impressive that no action or violence is used in the trailer at all.
Instead, this relies on building an atmosphere of impending doom, using stunning visuals, evocative music, and a gradual journey to battle to sell the feel of the experience rather than the explosive action itself.
Without doubt, the emotional trailer for Halo: Reach is a masterpiece.
To start with, using a live-action sequence was a bold move, and it works beautifully. As we watch Kat running through a battlefield, surrounded by fighting and destruction, a solemn score undercuts the action, setting the tone for the rest of the ad.
The trailer comes in two versions: the shorter is just over one minute, while the longer runs to almost two and a half. The action is slick, stylish, and gripping – and while Bungie and its advertising teams could have simply shown footage of the game, they instead chose to grab buyers by kindling a more emotional reaction.
Anyone clueless about Halo also has no idea it’s for a video game until the end, a move surely meant to grab more casual customers as well as those well-versed in the series’ lore.
GTA: Vice City
By the time Vice City came along, Grand Theft Auto III had embedded itself into the hearts and minds of gamers around the world. With its follow-up, Rockstar chose to transfer the action from a cold modern-day setting to a sun-scorched ’80s city – a genius move if ever there was one.
The second trailer released for Vice City shows the game off with a mixture of gameplay footage and cut-scenes, revealing the new location, the Hawaiian shirts, the colourful nightclubs, the beaches, and the many vehicles (planes, bikes) players can commandeer.
Accompanied by A Flock of Seagull’s “And I Ran”, a quintessential ’80s track, this trailer is cool and stylish enough to make anyone with even a passing interest in games want to dive into Tommy
Vercetti’s world without delay.
Batman: Arkham City
As with other games on this list, Batman: Arkham City was the sequel to a massive game with an established audience. While this trailer shows plenty of gameplay footage, it also relies on setting a tone and building an atmosphere – and, being Batman, the overall feeling is pretty damn dark.
The main aim of the trailer is to show how players will be able to take the Dark Knight out into the open, away from the confines of Arkham Asylum. So, we see Batman on rooftops, gliding over streets, and generally being a badass in neon-soaked environments. The song playing alongside the visuals – The Heavy’s ‘Short Change Hero’ – is suitably moody, with apt lyrics.
The trailer also shows us what fans wanted to see: more Harley Quinn; Catwoman; Two-Face; a Gotham City oozing menace; and Batman himself, with a refined Detective Mode and combat moves. Having the trailer close with the Joker’s creepy “you of all people should know, there’s plenty wrong with me” line is a genius way to finish, too.
What are your favourite video game ads of all time? Let us know!