There’s a large billboard conveniently placed about 30 feet from the garage to my apartment. Over the course of a year, it’s been gracious enough to inform me of many, many horrible movies and the occasional tie-in promotion. Aside from a passing glance at the art design, I tend to ignore what’s being advertised. I suppose seeing things day in and day out desensitizes a person after a while.
Recently, though, I’ve been paying extra attention to that little marketing obelisk. Friday morning, I found that the month-old ad for Shrek had given way to a promo for Mafia Wars of all things. “Buy a coffee, get a virtual unlock”, it beckons, as my gaze is challenged by an icy glare emanating from a very self-assured moll. The whole affair is quite Spartan: flat black background, large white text, a large drink cup front and center, with the Zynga logo poking meekly out from the corner. You might almost mistake it for the next installment of the GTA franchise.
In fact, that’s likely what most of the world will walk away thinking, if they can even guess that the billboard promoting a game. But consider, for a moment, the segment of the population that knows better. Consider the Facebook user that has aspirations of being a Godfather figure, the MMoRPG fiend that passes the time between raids on a gangland murder, or the players that are aware of the game but haven't quite allowed themselves to get wrapped up in it. To them, the ad might be a siren call; a kind of sideways wink at their little subculture or the radiant admission that "game" and "Facebook" are not mutually exclusive concepts.
If I’m a bit hyperbolic, it’s because I’m used to seeing megablockbusters aligned with such marketing paradigms. 7-11 promos are usually the realm of the Iron Mans or Avatars of the world. In the odd case that a game does get the tie-in treatment, it’s something with a fiscal pedigree approaching a gold-plated Rolls Royce: the Halos and God of Wars, to name a few. Watching a Facebook game get such favorable adspace is really causing me to take a good look at where these games are going. It’s one thing to spray flash banners across the net or on forums, but to place the game in an area where average joes buy coffee, gas and slim-jims?
It’s almost like Zynga assumes that (gasp) regular people would enjoy the thing.
And that’s just absurd. Facebook games aren’t whole narrative experiences. They’re not running the Quake engine, or using volumetric lighting to enhance the gameworld. They certainly don’t have a unified UI or Gamer-Peen counter, and I’m not really sure I can even talk to the people I’m smearing into loser paté. The mere idea that a tap-tap-tap interface could become a mainstream consumer affair is completely antithetical to the very serious and very established rules of gaming. Real games demand sacrifice. Their cost of admission is social standing, hygiene, and valuable time. They're not simple baubles that can be picked up at a whim. Just what kind of audience does Zynga think they’re attracting?
Seriously! The only thing more absurd than this would be Apple featuring Farmtown in one of its global keynotes.