Thursday, October 05, 2006

TA-ncient History #5: The First Ad

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.

CK

23 comments:

Jeremy said...

That exact ad is the entire reason I became interested in Total Annihilation! When I saw the amphibious tanks rising out of the water, it instantly conveyed the idea to me that you would be able to fight on a variety of fronts (land, sea, and air). The ability to craft your assault force to your exact preference was something I'd been craving in an RTS game every since I got my hands on Command & Conquer and I knew TA was going to be the first game to deliver that idea.

Glad you guys stuck to your guns and got the ad printed the way you did. If not, I would have missed out on what has become my favorite game of all time.

corncobman said...

I remember that Mad Dog McCree ad. Those ads to me never worked as well as seeing the in game screenshots.

It would have been funny to drop the lead balloon in the corner and confuse everyone.

Justin said...

Not to try to pimp the site or anything, but we'd appreciate it if you uploaded the full resolution images to www.fileuniverse.com. Your series here has been quite interesting so far, can't wait for the next installment!

Clayton Kauzlaric said...

Yeah. I was just thinking I'd ask you guys about that. I just tried uploading it and was told the image was too large. It's a (slightly) compressed JPG, but it's still 1.3 megs.

Justin said...

Heh, should have guessed it would have been larger than the limit allows prior to posting. I'll increase it for the time being, tralala...

Clayton Kauzlaric said...

It's there - Enjoy. If I get anything else too hefty for Blogger, I'll let you know.

Clayton Kauzlaric said...

I also uploaded a better image of the finished ad too. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

I remember that ad! I saw it in PC Gamer, and it's what began a long saga with a great game!

Bidigam said...

Heh, I always wondered what were those labs I never saw ingame.

It is so interesting to see how things evolved in TA. It is easy now, from our point of view almost a decade after, to say that things should have being done this way and that way, but when we see how big was the jump you guys made, we see how revolutionary was Cavedog's acheivement.

Guttenaffe said...

That game ad outline does nothing but summon the image of the USA release of "Mega Man"'s box art...

Talk about having nothing to do with the game (I know it was a rushed image from an artist that had almost NO IDEA about the game)

Anonymous said...

Hey Clayton, nice stuff you got here. Just wondering if you know how many incomplete/unreleased addon units there were before cavedog died and if you still have any of that uncompleted content with you? (maybe give them away for the community to finish off? =p)

Clayton Kauzlaric said...

There were some odds and ends that never saw the light of day, though to be honest we were pretty much scraping the bottom of the barrel near the end, there.

I don't have any functioning unit files, but I may have some screenshots floating around. I'll see what I can dig up.

Guttenaffe said...

If you post them I'm sure we can recreate them :D

I remember an interview with Chris where he said at one point we had better tools than you guys... I can't say if that was true, but Jason (UC5) and Brad (Para) confirmed it (I think they were talking about mapping, they were crazy like that.) before BY died, may peace be unto it.

Ahhh... TA is the root cause of my push into amateur game design. I'm glad you remember Dark Reign2 Clayton. Most people never heard of it!! To bad it’s pretty graphics didn't make up what it lacked in gameplay.

Peter said...

I am a huge fan of TA - still playing it today - but it was only a stroke of fate that got me the game.

My local internet cafe sold off two games that were starting to show their age at the time - TA and Tomb Raider. I went to school and asked one of my friends (the rich one who could afford PC Gamer) which was a better game. He told me Tomb Raider so I headed into the cafe after school to buy it. They had sold it so in desperation for a game I bought TA. It has been my absolute best game purchase and well worth the £10gbp I paid for it!

I was really really sad to hear that there would never be a proper TA 2 and seeing these ads makes me wonder how I managed to miss it in the first place!

-
Peter

zwzsg said...

On that picture, the light laser tower shot and flare, the one barreled flash tank lightning (?!), the peewee E.M.G., and other stuff are glowing. But in the TA we know, shots don't glow, only explosion do.

Was the add picture photoshopped, or was there some special effect that got removed before release?

Clayton Kauzlaric said...

Good eye. They don't, and never did.

Our only visual enhancement was that hint of a glow around the laser and lightning discharge. There was concern in management circles at HE that these would look too jagged and pixelly in a static shot, so the glow was strongly suggested.

We figured a small enhancement was okay. We weren't quite done implementing that stuff, and hoped we would have an effect like that in the final game. That never happened (both time and framerate were against us), but the glow was only done with the expectation that it would be in the game.

So much for our integrity, eh? On the other hand, I'm shocked at the incredible amount of retouching you see in a lot of screenshots to this day. Compared to some examples, this was a pretty modest alteration. It's more a sign of our wishful thinking than any desire to bamboozle unsupsecting players.

Matty - Matmanvvs18 said...

Were there any other feature that were in the game but never used that the modding community hasnt descovered yet? Any tags in FBI files that we dont know about or werent used?

Clayton Kauzlaric said...

Not to my knowledge, matty. We worked around the clock just to get the bare minimum done before we shipped the game -- We kicked TA out the door without even having AI's in multiplayer, so it's not like there was a hidden wealth of unfinished features.

Matty - Matmanvvs18 said...

Well People have found some interesting things that werent used originally, Like the 'Mind gun' thing.

Clayton Kauzlaric said...

True, but that doesn't fall under the "hasn't found yet" category. I think the 3rd party community was pretty thorough. No stone was left unturned as far as I can tell.

godprobe said...

Great to reminisce. Like many here, that ad (and the later PC Gamer preview... and the innovative animated "screenshots"... and the Unit Viewer) are the reasons I bought TA. But mostly that first initial ad.

In fact, I spoofed that same ad before GPG's Dungeon Siege came out. Pity I can't find my spoof on the net anywhere right now... and it's probably on one of my dead hard drives.

Anyway... I always ask this question whenever I pop up in the TA community so I'll ask it again for kicks... does *anyone* know what happened to Magar?...

-weezer YenSid, now "godprobe"

Peter said...

As the guy who took over Annihilated after Magar disappeared, I can say this with some certainty: *nobody* has any idea what happened to him.

Really great blog, Clayton- brings back the memories. It's incredible how well that ad holds up. Even today, the terrain looks gorgeous, and the units look great. I've always wondered why more RTS games didn't take a page out of the TA design book and go with rendered bitmap terrain with an overlying 3D mesh. It allowed for a level of detail that even today's games are only approaching, while allowing most of the real gameplay benefits of 3D (I don't consider a movable camera a real benefit in an RTS, since inevitably you end up playing the game from a top-down view anyway).

DigiiManDan said...

I truley hope you grasp how this game effected the standard of RTS games. Every RTS I've played lacks what you provided in TA. You have fed the world "RTS Heroin" and now we can't find a fix good enough to compare.