Some of you old timers might remember the first print advertisement for Total Annihilation. I think that ad scored a first for Cavedog. Or a close second... maybe third. Definitely no more than sixteenth overall. I'm positive.
Y'see, print ads for games almost always followed a time-honored format. Crack open any game magazine from before 1997 and you will see that the advertisements are remarkably homogeneous. They all looked something like this:
This dates back to the time when game art was relatively crude, so some sort of swanky art or a big juicy photograph would be used to build an image for a game. The game itself usually couldn't do that. A character with only twelve pixels just doesn't have a lot of presence.
The thing is, game ads still looked like that decades later, even after in-game art started to look reasonably slick. It's a common design even today. I don't blame ad agencies for doing this. I'm sure they can crap out nineteen of these in a single afternoon and still have time for some blow and a round of golf. And to be fair, it's a pretty common approach to any print ad. It works for selling lotion and cars... Why not games?
That is exactly the sort of ad the marketing firm working for GT Interactive showed us when they came by in early 1997. We hated it immediately. We knew the game would have only one or two print ads before it launched and we wanted them to have maximum impact. Chris and I were adamant that we sell the game with the game. We insisted that the ad feature a full two-page screenshot.
I don't recall seeing this before. It's not like we thought it up. It was just a matter of time before giant screenshots became commonplace, but Total Annihilation was certainly one of the first games to do it. There was some resistance from the agency. The concern was that (gasp!) the pixels would be visible since a computer game couldn't match the print resolution of a magazine. That sounded fine to us. It would absolutely show gamers what they were getting.
We did have one advantage. GT Interactive owned the fold-out ad space inside the cover of all the major PC gaming magazines for a couple years running. This prime real estate was mostly used for big versions of the standard formula above, but we would get that spot for one or two display ads before the game hit store shelves. Chris, Ron and I wrote the basic copy which the ad folks polished up a bit. I did a rough layout then went to work creating a big, big screenshot. Here is the original image:
Okay. This was the original image, but Blogger crunched it down quite a bit.
A few months later, Total Annihilation would later have a built-in screen shot key command. We could take snapshots like this with no problem - but we didn't have that feature at this point. I had to take a series of smaller shots and drop them onto the original .PCX file we imported into our map editor. I took a second shot with the mesh view enabled and did a small mask reveal in Photoshop to communicate the 3D-ness of the terrain.
It had the desired result. Between this ad and our first preview coverage in PC Gamer, we went to E3 in 1997 with lots of good buzz around Total Annihilation. Several competing RTS games had print ads almost identical to this (including the landscape mesh) within a year. Giant full page screenshots are pretty commonplace now, but you still see plenty of that Game Ad 101 ethic between the pages of magazines to this day.