It’s been 50 years since the first commercially successful video game was released. In 1972, Atari launched the Pong arcade machine, a simplistic two-dimensional sports game based on table tennis. 

A lot has changed since then. Video games now boast almost photorealistic graphics, riveting storylines to rival Hollywood and complex, credible characters. They’re designed to make you feel things, to tell a compelling story, and to keep you engaged and wanting to come back for more. Sound familiar, marketers?

Today, video games are even forming the foundation for the metaverse and tomorrow’s web3.0 brand experiences. They’re our best guess at what customer and marketing experiences in the coming years will look like.

“Video games are designed to make you feel things, to tell a compelling story, and to keep you engaged and wanting to come back for more. Sound familiar, marketers?”

Brand marketing and video games have quite a lot in common. Like video games, brands are now expected to offer more interactive, engaging experiences across multiple platforms and touchpoints. It’s all about winning eyes on your product (or service). And with an abundance of choice available, gamer/customer loyalty can never be taken for granted. 

Video games must be doing something right. The industry is now bigger than the US movie and sports sectors combined. What we’re getting at is video games do a lot right when it comes to creating experiences people want – and will pay – to spend time doing. 

So there’s naturally a lot we can learn, as marketing professionals, from some of the most popular, modern games around – starting with these six:

1. The value of empathy (The Last of Us)

*Warning – Some very minor TLOU1 spoilers ahead* 

Developer Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us (TLOU) is an emotional rollercoaster. The game is set in a gritty, often brutal post-apocalyptic North America, where a parasitic fungal infection has caused most of humanity to mutate into animalistic creatures that attack humans on sight. 

The player mostly controls Joel, a world-weary smuggler whose daughter, Sarah, was killed at the outset of the pandemic. Her death is emotionally hard-hitting for you too, as the player, because you control Sarah in the opening segments of the game up until her death. 

For the rest of the game, your mission is to escort Ellie – a 14-year-old girl who is immune to the fungal infection – to the headquarters of a militia group in the hopes of finding a cure for the fungal disease. If it sounds like a B-movie plot, you’re not far wrong. And there’s enough running, shooting and melee head-bashing to satisfy even the most blood-thirsty action fans. 

But it’s during the game’s downtime where it really comes into its own. The relationship between Joel and Ellie is the heart of The Last of Us, developing bit by bit through conversations, jokes and shared experiences. As players, we become more emotionally invested in their journey after each and every interaction.

Naughty Dog upped the ante even further in The Last of Us 2, with the developer using breath-takingly realistic facial animations that work in unison with character’s body language and breathing to recreate human emotions as closely as possible. 

“It brings a depth to the characters that we’ve never seen before,” said Keith Paciello, the studio animator who masterminded and oversaw the tech powering the characters’ animations.

Marketing lessons from The Last of Us

These sometimes-subtle and natural animations are what helps to build empathy as a player. You see on a deeper level what’s going on in Joel and Ellie’s minds, even if they’re words don’t reflect it alone. The closing scene in TLOU (we won’t spoil that one) is perhaps the best testament. 

“It brings a depth to the characters that we’ve never seen before.”

– Keith Paciello on TLOU2’s animation mechanics

It’s something we’re particularly fond of when we create digital humans – making facial expressions and body language that enhance user experiences with greater emotional range and depth. 

You can probably even vouch for it yourself; Keith, the lead animator on TLOU2 helped to build the next-gen animation technology used in UneeQ’s digital human platform!

In short, marketers can learn a lot from Naughty Dog’s emphasis on empathy. We know that emotional connection is twice as valuable to brands as customer satisfaction. That’s why nearly a third of advertisements are based on creating emotional content.

Ask any gamer who played The Last of Us or its highly regarded sequel – or try it yourself – and you’ll soon know the power of empathy through well crafted personalities, storytelling and high-quality animation.

2. Focus on what matters to the customer (Pro Evolution Soccer)

From the late 1990s to the mid-2000s, Pro Evolution Soccer (or PES for short) was the best soccer game around.

The Konami classic had wrestled the crown from FIFA, which had dominated the early ’90s. PES became the gold standard, offering sophisticated gameplay, with intricate passing, superior ball physics and a focus on realism rather than improbable goal-fests. It was simply a better gaming experience.

FIFA had all the official licenses, but it didn’t matter. PES played so well, people didn’t care that they were scoring goals using players with not-so-subtly changed (but legally safe) names. Fans of the beautiful game will remember legendary players like Ronalidinho, Roberto Carlos and Scholes; but only true PES fans will recall Naldorinho, Roberto Larcos and Skoles.

One-third of Americans say they’ll consider switching brands immediately following a single instance of poor service.”

Unfortunately for PES, those were the glory years. The game started to rest on its laurels, only making minor tweaks to its formula every year, while FIFA developer EA went back to the drawing board and revolutionized its gameplay. It focused on new ball mechanics, innovative goalkeeper reactions and dynamic, free-flowing matches. 

By 2007, FIFA was outselling PES – 6.4 million copies to 5.5 million respectively. But it wasn’t until 2009, when FIFA introduced its hugely popular Ultimate Teams mode, that the gulf really began to widen. And by 2015, FIFA was selling 18 million units a year, compared to just 1.2 million for PES. Oof. 

Last year, Konami scrapped PES entirely, releasing the free-to-play eFootball series instead. The game launched in 2021 to less-than-favorable reviews. So the disruptor became the disrupted – and in both cases, players simply followed the best experience.

CX lessons from Pro Evo

You don’t have to look far to see similar stories in the wider business world. One-third of Americans say they’ll consider switching brands immediately following a single instance of poor service. The rest? Well a further 60% they say they’ll consider making the switch after two or three bad experiences.

Blockbuster, Kodak, and Borders are all examples of companies that were slow to adapt and eventually went bust because of competition from more CX-focused firms like Amazon and Netflix.

However, a deeper lesson from the FIFA gaming franchise suggests that customer experiences can be improved to recover lost ground to competitors – if poor CX is taken seriously and acted upon.

Like the team behind PES (and the more recent FIFA games), brands must be open to new ways of optimizing customer experiences. Breaking new ground can be daunting, but embracing change is easier when you focus on great CX. Because the majority of customers can overlook small details if the experience is spot on. Just ask Ryan Greggs next time you visit the Trad Bricks Stadium

3. But don’t overpromise and underdeliver (E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial) 

So sports games can show us that CX innovation is massively important. But there can be a fine line between powerful marketing and false advertising. Overhyping a product or service can seriously backfire if it doesn’t deliver on expectations – expectations that you’ve stoked.

There’s perhaps no better example of this in the gaming world than E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial a game so infamously bad, 728,000 copies were secretly dumped by the publishers in a New Mexico landfill.

The story goes like this. By 1982, Atari had built on the legacy of Pong to become the dominant home games console. But the company was about to make some very poor decisions that would contribute to the video game crash of 1983. 

A study from Stanford University found that even underplaying the abilities of chatbots could lead to better actual experiences.”

ET was one of those very poor decisions. Keen to cash in on the popularity of the film, which had been released that summer, Atari got to work on making a game tie-in that would be released at Christmas.

Hype for the game was huge, both internally and externally. Atari had acquired a license to produce the game (for a reported $20 million) and brought a talented developer on-board to make it. The film’s director, Steven Spielberg, also had input on the gameplay. Everything was in place for video game success.  

There was only one problem. The developer, Howard Scott Warshaw, was given just five weeks to make the game, a process that would commonly take at least five months. 

Against the odds, he did it. But there was no time to test the game on audiences before it was shipped to retailers for Christmas.

Sales were initially promising because of the hype. However, copies quickly started returning to shops. The graphics were mediocre, the gameplay was clunky and disorienting, and many people felt it was broken.

“I think the game got caught up in the hype, and I blame Atari marketing and sales entirely for this,” said Jerry Jessop, an engineering technician who worked at Atari at the time

Marketing lessons from ET: Extra Terrestrial

Was ET an initial commercial success? Yes. But when your product ends up with its own documentary where people pull thousands of copies from a landfill, it’s safe to say it wasn’t a case of fantastic marketing, either.

The game overpromised, got gamers excited and ultimately couldn’t deliver on its promises – a mistake marketers will only make once.

A common form of overpromising in marketing is overplaying how simple something can be to use. In the world of chatbots, a study from Stanford University found that even underplaying the abilities of the chatbot could lead to better actual experiences. Overpromising the sophistication of the AI left people frustrated when they found they had to contribute more to the process than they first thought.

Of course, there are great reasons to shout from the mountaintops about how great your product or service is. And by all means, always look to innovate and try new things. But in doing so, set the right expectations in your marketing, and be careful of overpromising. Or, like Atari, it could be game over all too quickly.

4. Remember what makes us human (The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt) 

Brands need only look at CD Projekt Red’s hugely popular open-world role-playing game (RPG) The Witcher 3 to see how important life is to an immersive experience. 

82% of people want more human interactions with brands, even as technology and automation advances.

The 2015 game is still the gold standard in character development. Every interaction, every quest and every character is as unique as possible, making it truly engrossing.

Talking to gaming website Polygon, Philip Weber, senior quest developer at the company, explained the depths the studio went to to bring life into the world – even down to setting daily routines for random characters you may never meet.

“You can see a hunter having breakfast with his wife. Afterwards, he takes his dog out to the forests and stalks deer. Sometimes he’ll be attacked by a wolf and has to fight for his life. If he makes it, he comes home in the evening for a nice dinner and goes to bed.

“We implemented this for thousands of NPCs (non-player characters), and even though players might not follow them around, just the fact that they are there in the background will make the world seem more alive.”

Marketing lessons from The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

It’s a great game to take lessons from considering 82% of people want more human interactions with brands, even as technology and automation advances.

People seek more human experiences. But brands will continue to focus on automation when it’s most valuable. Balancing these two things will be incredibly important as we push further into this digital-first age.

But The Witcher 3 shows that automation doesn’t have to be lifeless. It can have purpose, scale, personality – life. Things that we, as people, connect with and empathize with. It’s our why here at UneeQ; it’s why we create digital humans for brands.

So, marketers: make things as human and purposeful as possible. If you launch a virtual ambassador or new brand mascot, give them a backstory, a family and a reason to exist. In doing so, you provide a richer, more fulfilling connection to your customers.

5. Give customers room to explore (Elden Ring)

OK, we’re not going to get through this blog without talking about the biggest game of 2022 – and a firm favorite in the UneeQ Slack discussions. Elden Ring.

Let’s not forget that games used to be linear. Go from point A to point B, defeat bad guys along the way, rescue the princess, credits roll. Game over. We’re thinking of early Super Mario adventures, but even acclaimed studio FromSoftware’s earlier games used to be like that. 

Dark Souls and Bloodborne in particular are some of the greatest gaming experiences ever crafted. And yet it’s 2022’s Elden Ring that shows how great those experiences can be when people are given more freedom to make their own choices.

Customer experience lessons from Elden Ring

We’re tempted to wax lyrical about how rewarding it can be to discover the world of Elden Ring on your own, at your own pace. We could tell stories of the incredible things that have happened to us. But it kind of undermines our point; you need to discover some of these things for yourself. Which is a great lesson in managing the modern customer journey.

That’s because, once upon a time, your customers would typically follow a linear route to purchase. Customers discovering you in a digital world is far more complex. Advertisements, for instance, come in hundreds of formats and channels. Many people – a growing number, no less – even pay not to watch or hear your ads altogether.

Like customers, gamers expect the freedom to take things at their own pace and explore their options.”

The path to purchase is similarly convoluted today. Consumers may see an ad on TV, but then browse for products on their phone. They could reach out to ask questions on social media first and do their google research, before eventually ordering online and picking up in-store. Even in this example, we’ve lost track of the amount of touchpoints the hypothetical customer has had.

Marketers, you know this. But for your customers, without a seamless, integrated omnichannel experience, the customer journey becomes fragmented, frustrating and needlessly difficult. Returning to some of our earlier points, they’ll likely feel different things along this journey too.

OK, think of it this way: what’s the best ad you ever released? How did that ad make your customer feel – excited, like they’ve just met a friend, warm and fuzzy, emotional and teary-eyed? Were they feeling the same way when they visited your website? Did it elicit the same emotional response, or was the customer faced with self-serve content, a chatbot or (worse) an online form to fill out?

Open-world games have become the norm in RPGs. Like customers, gamers expect the freedom to take things at their own pace, explore their options and, crucially, enjoy a unique experience by choosing their own path to the end goal. It’s no doubt tough for RPG developers to keep the emotional engagement high when users can choose their own adventure. But games like Elden Ring manage it by making every inch of their world – every touchpoint in the journey – matter.

So give your customers the same service: try to make each touchpoint worthwhile

6. Get to know the metaverse and the power of brand community (Fortnite)

Let us end by talking about a great piece of advice brought up on our recent webinar

Asked what technologies brands can look at today to better understand the metaverse, Matt Marcus, Chief Experience Officer at Publicis North America, had some great advice. “Xbox, PS5, PC or the like.”

Matt went on to talk about how a game like Fortnite “is a metaverse. It has an incredible creative environment where you can build all kinds of things – as does Roblox.”

He’s right! Just look at how musician Travis Scott attracted some 28 million viewers to his virtual concert held exclusively in the Fortnite game world. Roblox too has more than 43 million users EVERY DAY

Marketing lessons from Fortnite

There’s no doubt a lot of value in having a fantastic brand community – from improved website traffic, brand recognition, engagement, sales and loyalty. A massive 96% of companies see the value of customer communities in marketing, according to research by Oracle.

That’s why every marketer wants a genuinely engaged community. It’s incredibly difficult to do. 

But video games like Fortnite, Roblox and Minecraft are showing how it’s done through their digital, personalized, exciting worlds. And it shows what the metaverse can (and, let’s face it, will) become for leading brands.

So get to know the metaverse; it’s the near future of marketing. And can we suggest a great place to start is our free webinar on future-proofing your brand for the metaverse. It features expertise from some incredible brands, and is now available on demand!

What do all these have in common?

So, we’ve talked about some of the marketing lessons that can be learned from video games. And they all have one thing in common: making connections. 

Showing empathy (lesson #1) and striving to improve the customer experience (#2) establishes rapport, while always delivering on your promises (#3) builds trust. Remembering what makes us human (#4) and providing “open world” experiences (#5) leaves a lasting, emotional impression.

Making these connections isn’t always easy, however. It’s a quintessentially human experience. And that should be fostered – particularly as four in every five consumers now feel brands are losing the human touch in their CX and marketing.

With technology now playing such a huge role in the marketing and customer experience, how can brands make interactions feel more human – right now and in tomorrow’s metaverse experiences (#6)?

Digital humans are made to help – NPCs of the metaverse

Digital humans are designed to engage customers in natural, friendly conversations that replicate the way people really talk.

Chatbots and virtual assistants do that too, you might say, but their interactions are limited to just text or voice. Whereas digital humans can write, speak, listen and use face and body language. In video game terms, it’s the difference between ‘80s text adventure games like Starcross and modern, emotionally impactful franchises like Fallout or The Elder Scrolls.

Digital humans can be the NPCs of your business, bringing life and soul to a digital environment that would otherwise be empty and lacking meaningful interactions.

Much of how humans build rapport is through the latter two means of communication (face and body language). We’ve already seen how games such as The Last of Us create emotional connections between players and characters through realistic facial animations and mannerisms. 

Digital humans offer similar benefits; each one can be designed with your brand’s unique personality, values and even a sense of humor. And all these things are far better conveyed through face-to-face communication

We’re not going to pretend digital humans can do everything (otherwise we’d be breaking lesson #3!). They’re not there to replace your existing staff. Nothing can. But your human employees also can’t be everywhere at once like an AI can.

A digital human can be implemented across multiple channels, delivering a smooth, 24-hour, seven-days-a-week omnichannel experience that allows customers to interact with your brand on their own terms – with no gaps in service. And if a problem is too complex or challenging for a digital human to handle? They can pass the issue along to a human colleague who can take over, and who now has the bandwidth to offer a better service.

In other words, they can be the NPCs of your business, bringing life and soul to a digital environment that would otherwise be empty and lacking meaningful interactions.

There’s so much that brand marketers can learn by exploring what makes video games so widely popular – and we’d love to hear any lessons you have to add to the list. But in short, let’s stop offering our customers Pong and start wowing them in 2022.