This week on Zero Punctuation, Yahtzee reviews the history of Acclaim Entertainment.
Let's all laugh at an industry that never learns anything, tee, hee, hee.
Zero Punctuation's Occasional Guide to
Retarded Special Moments in Gaming History
So far, the Zero Punctuation Occasional Guide to R-word Moments in G-word H-word has covered publishers with bad ideas, developers with bad hairdos, exclusivity deals, graphical quantum leaps, and moral panics. But how could I have overlooked the one aspect of the games industry that is the most prodigious seam of R-word-ation of them all: marketing?
Maybe it's because the industry is still relatively young, but the shittiness of misguided video game marketing is a particularly rich shade of creamy brown. Whether it be John Romero proudly informing the magazine-reading public that he was going to make them all into institutional rape victims, or Sony parading a dead goat around at the God of War III launch party (no, really, they did that), a misguided video game PR stunt can never just put its foot in it; it has to put both feet in it and rub it in its eyes and call everyone else a pussy for not being as into it. But there was one company whose feet were rarely out of it in the last few years before their bankruptcy in the mid-2000's and whose story is worth preserving; partly because it's hilarious, partly so that if any other publishers start showing the same symptoms, we can save time and take them behind the woodshed now.
The Acclaim Game Hall of Shame
Acclaim Entertainment was founded in 1987 by some former Activision lads and deliberately chose its name to be above "Activision" on an alphabetized list, which was a tactic Activision itself used when splitting from Atari; with this in mind, I checked, and no, nobody registered "Aardvark Entertainment", which feels like a missed opportunity. Acclaim did good work for a while, particularly with the home console ports of Mortal Kombat and games like Turok: Dinosaur Hunter, but things started going downhill in the late 90's, partly because a lot of their games were rushed-out licensed garbage, partly because they were attracting lawsuits from former partners the way Piers Morgan's face attracts scrotums. It might be quicker to list all the entities that weren't suing Acclaim at one point or another; even the Olsen twins were getting in on some wholesome, apple-cheeked, all-American kicks to the bollocks.
But this is just why Acclaim went bankrupt; it doesn't explain why, towards the end, Acclaim was a joke in the eyes of gamers and gaming media, with a name that had become as tragically ironic as when I, in my mid-twenties, called myself "Mr. Regular Sex", because "acclaim" was what they weren't getting. See, towards the end, Acclaim topped itself again and again with mystifyingly bad ideas for PR stunts; one PR backfire is understandable in the heady, excitable times of a game release, but the same guys doing it over and over again and learning fuck-all takes a special kind of obliviousness.
It started in 2002 when, in the run-up to the release of horror-themed action-adventure Shadow Man 2, Acclaim announced that they would pay the funeral costs of anyone willing to put a Shadow Man 2 advert on the headstone of a deceased relative, prompting public outcry and the Church of England basically telling them to piss off. Yes, Church of "Tea and Crumpets with the Vicar" England! Takes a lot to upset those lads; they don't even hate gays that much. Now, in my research, the name "Steve Perry" came up a lot; apparently, he was the executive coming up with these ideas, but I find it hard to believe that one person could be entirely to blame. Sure, I can see one executive descending from a cocaine-induced trance to announce, "Hey, I know what demographic we should target: the recently bereaved!"; what I have trouble picturing is the roomful of colleagues that then replied, "Yes, we agree! What a good idea; let's action it!" without subsequently making hasty, sarcastic eye-rolls at whoever was keeping the minutes.
Later the same year, Acclaim promoted the resoundingly mediocre Turok: Evolution by offering a sack of cash to anyone who was willing to christen their newborn baby "Turok", apparently shifting their demographic focus to the other end of the scale. Now, one might reasonably say at this point, "Surely, it wasn't a serious offer to let new parents cash in on their future bullying victims! Surely, these were just shock tactics to grab headlines, the way a graffiti artist just wants attention and doesn't literally want to fuck the police! I mean, to be serious, there aren't enough hours in the day." Well, Acclaim would always insist these were genuine offers when pressed, and therefore, they must've been by the Universal Law of No Take-Backsies, but they also claim that the baby name idea was taken from a marketing expert named Simeon Cantrell who, it turned out, didn't exist; who wrote a book whose ISBN number, in truth, belonged to a book of children's knock-knock jokes.
All of which indicates that at least one person at Acclaim was treating this as a big, ironic gag that would send them laughing all the way to the bank, but Acclaim was still losing money, so it was more like a forced chuckle all the way to the dole office. Besides, if the intent was to shock, it failed; the tone of the media coverage was more mocking than mind-blown, and some of their other stunts - the bus shelter advert that oozed blood, painting Virtua Tennis logos onto the wings of pigeons - were hardly noticed, all of which is probably why Acclaim felt the need to push their luck even further with their misguided PR stunt for Burnout 2, in which, continuing the "free cash for self-abuse" pattern, they offered to pay the speeding fines of any driver caught by cameras on the day the game came out. Yes, having targeted the newly-born and the recently-dead, Acclaim were making the logical step of reaching out to the soon-to-be-dead.
Obviously, this offer was pulled when it was pointed out they were all but inciting a motorized version of The Purge, but to my mind, Acclaim's most egregious PR stunt was the PR stunt that was also a game: namely, BMX XXX. A roomful of executives passed around the nitrous oxide and reached the conclusion that the next logical step for the popular Dave Mirra Freestyle BMX series was to have a version of the game where everyone had their tits and bums hanging out; it was a staggeringly cheap and awful concept and, upon getting wind of it, Dave Mirra paused briefly between one-handers to firmly request that his name be taken off. Acclaim then went, "Well, he said that, but maybe if we kept him in the game anyway, he'd realize that we just want to include him in our good-natured knockabout fun fest and come around to our mission to delight the tit- and bum-loving children of the world." And you know what? Dave Mirra's heart grew three sizes that day. (...) Nah, I'm just kidding; he sued their bollocks off.
The Lessons Nobody Learned
Acclaim's terrible ideas collectively feel like a test of the old adage that there's "no such thing as bad publicity"; they were certainly getting the headlines and exposure they wanted, but I think the lesson to be learned by the marketers of video games today as they rent out entire car parks worth of space at E3 and manufacture Ghost Recon-branded contraceptives is that it only works if the product is good.
Maybe a bad PR stunt could ultimately push a good game into the exposure it deserves, but Acclaim weren't making good games; they were making rushed-out, innovation-less plop, and their headline-grabbing shenanigans that would've made them seem like endearing, cheeky pranksters in the name of a quality product were simply turning a bunch of rushed-out, innovation-less plop peddlers into insane rushed-out, innovation-less plop peddlers. You can put all the marketing in the world behind a great big turd, but it won't make it not a turd, no matter how many people you pay to tattoo the logo just above their arseholes.
- For sale at any price: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- Then again there's not much the playground bullies can do with "Turok" besides "Poo-Cock" and that smacks of trying too hard
- Have lingering eye contact with the police
- Sony's dead goat controversy occurred during a God of War II party, not III.