Believe it or not, MMOs get off easy when it comes to notorious marketing campaigns. Anything on the following list, good or bad, is a pale shadow of what we've seen in the larger video game industry. Still, there have been plenty of attempts to promote MMOs in ways that make us either applaud or laugh at the studio (and sometimes both at once, which takes coordination).
After doing some staff polling and internal polling, here are 10 memorable marketing campaigns from the era of MMORPGs. Maybe they're all winners in that they got noticed by at least one person, even if they're the most foolish notions in history. Here we go!
I'm going to start with TERA's incredibly misguided ad campaign because I know it's baffled so many players. The idea was to highlight the game's action combat with a bit of lighthearted buffoonery, but the end result was just off-the-rails stupid.
Do players really identify with a loud-mouthed jerk who's picking on geek pastimes and other MMOs? Was screaming at us really the best way to win our hearts? Or was the traditional MMO demographic being ignored entirely to try to pull in frat bros and WWE fans? Whatever the case, this ad campaign single-handedly propelled TERA to the levels of success and virtual invisibility that it enjoys today.
2. Global Agenda: Tired of Elves
I'm not above mockery in ad campaigns when it's actually humorous. Global Agenda wasn't the first MMO to latch on to the "no Elves" concept as a way to differentiate itself from the fantasy pack, but it certainly milked it for all it was worth. And you know what? It was funny. And it fed into my life-long hatred of Elves, so my bias on this one is clear.
The scene: An MMO player is in the middle of a difficult raid, but his stomach rumbles uncontrollably. His fingers lose rhythm as he thinks of melted cheese and crispy pepperoni, and his group wipes. Tears fall from his face as he moans pitifully, "How do food get mouth? How do food get mouth?"
Fortunately, a distant part of his primitive mind recalls that there's a solution. He hesitantly types out "/pizza" and sighs with relief as food gets mouth indeed.
4. World of Warcraft: Mr. T
If you were to tell me back in 2000 that this MMO fad would eventually produce something so popular that it would have Mr. T, William Shatner, and Ozzy Osburne shilling for it on national television, I would have done a spit take. I've always wanted to do a spit take. I've just never had the opportunity.
5. RIFT: Weather forecasts
You thought I was going to go for the "You're not in Azeroth anymore" campaign, didn't you? Well, I do not bow to your assumptions of predictability, son! Instead, I want to give a hearty salute to the RIFTWatch commercials that took the clever conceit of weather forecasts and used them to promote the game. The kicker? The actors and actresses they used are real meteorologists.
We all know how virtually every MMO uses some scantily clad girlie for its poster child, which is why I initially had a lot of praise for Star Trek Online making a phaser-shooting guy its up-front mascot. I mean, we were worried when PC Gamer made... this... its big cover story picture for the game way back when. But Captain Casper Van Dien allayed those fears. This game wouldn't bow to crass marketing ploys, oh no.
And then Cryptic said, "Screw this! Give us gratuitous zero-gee cleavage!" Thus was born Trippy the Space Elf, a Vulcan model who is perpetually falling down, perhaps because her bosom is completely illogical. Trippy is just about everywhere and has been roundly mocked by the STO community while the devs self-consciously defend her being the "face" of the game. If nothing else, it gave us this excellent parody over at Escher Girls.
I'm entirely convinced that there will be entire marketing textbooks dedicated to analyzing the gonzo progression of ads for online Civilization clone Evony (if there isn't already). What started as benign ads with knights urging you to play slowly morphed into a Playboy party full of lingerie models and suggestive quotes that misled thousands of weaker souls into downloading this game with the assumption that it was going to be a nonstop orgy.
By the end of this lunacy, Evony was outright posting pictures of bras with the heads cropped out and images ripped from the covers of porno films because something here was apparently working for the game. Never before has the phrase "misleading advertising" been so appropriate.
8. SWTOR: Times Square flash mob
Despite your feelings on the game, you have to admit that this flash mob is just a brilliant piece of advertising. I don't know what I love more: the incredibly detailed costumes, the decision to pose all dramatically instead of staging a hackneyed fight, the fog that comes up, the dad who just yanks his kids right out of the path of a dark lord, or the crazy civilians who jump into the fray at the end. Probably all of the above.
For every MMO you know about, you have to assume that there's about 100 Asian MMOs that will forever go unnoticed in your lifetime. So it's OK if you've never heard of Nexon's Cyphers, but I thought I'd call this cool advertising ploy to your attention. The studio transformed a subway car into a frozen abyss with cool floor perspective art and "frozen" handles. I guess this sort of thing is more common overseas, as even ArcheAge had some fun in a subway with its promotion.
10. Ultima Online: 1998 commercial
All right, I'll admit that I don't know how "memorable" this particular commercial was, but I just couldn't finish this list without sharing it. Here we have a 14-year-old spot for Ultima Online, produced in an era when just about nobody knew what MMOs even were. It's captivating for the historical value and wide-eyed wonder of the concept alone.
Justin "Syp" Olivetti enjoys counting up to ten, a feat that he considers the apex of his career. If you'd like to learn how to count as well, check out The Perfect Ten. You can contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or through his gaming blog, Bio Break.