A long time ago, in the decade that was the nineties, the Internet was all-new and PC gaming was slowly but surely gathering an enthusiastic audience not so keen on consoles with their plumbers and kart racing. In those days PC gamers like myself discovered games from magazines and trade shows, it was the only way to get a rough idea of what a game was about or even looked like.
There was no Youtube or Twitch so screenshot art and the odd trailer had to really sell a game. With the Internet still very much in its infancy, there was also no game marketing on websites, heck there were hardly any decent gaming websites around to promote games on until the late nineties. Marketing was strictly by magazine and apart from editorial previews and reviews publishers had to rely on effective (or not so effective) adverts.
In this series, I am going to dig out some particularly good and bad examples of old ads. This journey of rediscovery has meant rooting around in my personal PC gaming magazine archive from over twenty years ago and dusting off the cobwebs on the box I have stored in the attic over 20 years ago. It has brought back some fond memories of the early days of PC gaming.
Looking through numerous publications from 1993-1995 was an eyeopener. Before diving into these I was under the impression mags were littered with game ads but that turned out not to be the case. They were packed with ads but most of them were for retailers trying to punt games by post. Yes, that was a thing you know.
The other point that really stood out is brand recognition was super important. If a game’s IP or a developer was already successful then the advertising was a little more creative and thankfully less wordy.
The years I have selected were 1993-1995, a time when PC gaming was starting to take off thanks to the success of games such as Wolfenstein 3D and Doom. It was also when I was very proud owner of 486 SX25 which was eventually updated to a 486 DX2 66 which I did all by myself and was my first foray into the world of PC building. It was an exciting time packed with some great games, and some terrible ones too. Some things never change no matter what year it is.
Back in the good old days, shareware and demos were the only way to get hands-on with pre-release games. Getting hold of shareware involved popping down to your local PC store or logging into a BBS with your pink US Robotics modem. In the case of my local store, they had the walls lined with small descriptions of each shareware game with a promotional image and some text. You picked what you wanted and paid a few quid for a portion of the game. If you wanted to play the rest of it you had to cough up some cash. PC magazines also came with 3.5 inch floppies with playable demos and some were quite decent. For example, a 1995 issue of PC Gamer came with a playable demo of Harpoon and XCOM on two floppies. Great stuff.
With little opportunity to try the majority of games, the ads had to sell the games and here are few of my favourites from the early years. Some of these were more effective than others.
Wolfenstein 3D was a breakthrough for gaming. Running around a proper 3D maze that looked great for the time while trying to take out Nazis. It was s a sure-fire winner. Then came DOOM, an even better shooter with improved graphics and some great level design. Of course, DOOM was to spur other developers into action with some not so great results.
The ad below was a great example of over exaggeration. The tagline in the ad was amusing because Corridor 7 was released using the Wolfenstein 3D engine in 1994 and Doom had already been released with superior, well superior everything. Perhaps they thought the ad was catchy enough to entice some poor suckers in.
Play Corridor 7 – Click image above to start (Hit ESC to stop)
DOOM was such as success that all they had to do to market the game was the image below. There was no PR speak, it was just what you wanted to see, evil, mysterious and edgy. It was developed by id and it was DOOM. Everyone who had a PC wanted to play it.
Play DOOM – Click the image above to start (Hit ESC to stop)
Gametek had slightly more success with an ad for Quarantine which was also released in 1994. This game piqued interest from gamers due to its subject matter and running over pedestrians in a yellow cab. It was a shooter/driving game with guns. You play as Drake Edgewater, a 21st century cab driver who has to pick up punters to get money which is used to upgrade his taxi and ultimately help him escape the walled city of KEMO where a virus is turning the population into crazed killers. The ad below made the game sound quite sinister.