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How Final Fantasy 7 Revolutionized Videogame Marketing and Helped Sony Tackle Nintendo

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How <i>Final Fantasy 7</i> Revolutionized Videogame Marketing and Helped Sony Tackle Nintendo

In late July 1997, Sony Computer Entertainment America buzzed with excitement. SCEA was in possession of Final Fantasy 7’s gold master discs, media containing finalized code. Over the next few weeks, they would undergo mass production—pressed to millions of CD-ROMs, packaged inside jewel cases, and shipped to stores in time for the game’s summer launch across Europe and North America.

Before all that, the gold master had to be tested. David Bamberger, then senior product manager, watched one of his SCEA colleagues place Final Fantasy 7’s first disc into a PlayStation console and press the power button.

Nothing happened.

Conversation died. “Everyone just took a collective breath and let the tech guys go off into the wilderness and think about what would stop this thing from loading,” Bamberger remembered.

Bamberger stayed calm. Years of prep and planning, countless conversations with the marketing gurus at TBWA\Chiat\Day, packaging and posters and commercials and magazines branded with the game’s release date—everything he had worked for hinged on this moment.

“How do you get a game to sell through a million units at the time we were trying to do it?” he asked me. “A lot of that is, you build your case slowly over time, like a drumbeat.”

First Beats

Serendipity led David Bamberger to the games industry. He studied marketing in college and landed an internship with Goodby, Berlin & Silverstein (GBS), an ad agency in San Francisco best known for its Got Milk? campaign in 1993. As it happened, GBS’s history aligned with one of Bamberger’s passions. After the agency’s founding in 1983, it launched the We See Farther campaign for its first client, Electronic Arts, an initiative that promoted EA’s designers as artists.

“When I started doing the internship, I started realizing that in the ad biz, you work on the products that are given to you; you don’t get to choose them,” Bamberger explained. “If you’re not really in love with the product you’re [assigned to], it’s not as much fun.”

Bamberger joined EA in 1988. He tackled projects like Interplay’s The Bard’s Tale, published by EA, with alacrity. Roleplaying games were some of his favorites, and he relished the opportunity to sharpen his branding skills on titles he enjoyed.

By the time Bamberger made his way to SCEA in 1995, Sony had already launched PlayStation in Japan. Part of his job as senior product manager was to find a foothold for the console ahead of its North American launch that September. He had his work cut out for him. Kids and parents flocked to Super Nintendo for family-friendly games like Super Mario World, while teens gravitated to Sega Genesis thanks to its roster of sports games and Sonic the Hedgehog’s too-cool-for-school attitude.

Sega and Nintendo had been embroiled in a “console war” since the early 1990s when Genesis eroded the NES’s market share. Nintendo was still the Goliath in the struggle, but Sega had gained ground. Rather than sling stones at Goliath, SCEA set its sights on David.

“When you look at marketing from the 16-bit period, it has a certain silliness to it. ‘SEGA!’” Bamberger barked, mimicking the classic Sega Scream marketing coined by his former mentors at GBS. “Or you have pictures of people looking very close at the camera, their eyes are big and really silly. The overall strategy was to go out and replace Sega so that the people left standing would be Nintendo and Sony.”

Bamberger and the marketers at SCEA entered into a partnership with marketing firm TBWA\Chiat\Day and researched the competition. They decided that the average Sega player was around 13 years old. Their response, illustrated by the slogan You Are Not Ready, challenged all age demographics.

“That was an interesting slogan because that basically denied you the technology,” Bamberger explained. “It told you, ‘Whatever you’re playing, you’re not ready for this.’ We knew people really respected Sony’s technology, so we used that as a way to say, ‘Hey, you’re not ready for this. This is a little too advanced.’”

Bamberger and SCEA spent PlayStation’s first year working closely with TBWA to continue building the PlayStation brand through bold advertisements. One commercial showed an actor dressed as Crash Bandicoot standing outside Nintendo of America’s Seattle office yelling taunts through a bullhorn.

By the fall of 1996, Sony had fleshed out PlayStation’s catalog with a variety of action, sports and platformer titles. Only one genre needed padding.

“Then here comes the second year, and Squaresoft—now Square Enix—shows up,” Bamberger remembered. “I knew the [RPG] category, and you look at Final Fantasy 7, and it was just like, ‘Oh my god.’”

Tent Pole

Bamberger had been playing RPGs since the days of text-only adventures, but Final Fantasy 7 was different. The development team at Squaresoft in Japan, helmed by series creator Hironobu Sakaguchi and director Yoshinori Kitase, had created computer-generated cutscenes on par with Hollywood blockbusters. Although in-game characters and environments were built from polygons comparatively lower in resolution, the stylish transitions between CG video and polygonal gameplay were artistic and striking.

Final Fantasy 7 had started as a 2D RPG, in the same vein as the first six titles published on Nintendo hardware. When Nintendo announced that its Nintendo 64 console would run cartridges, Square president Masafumi Miyamoto hesitated. CD-ROMs cost pennies on the dollar to manufacture compared to cartridges, and could hold exponentially more data, empowering artists and programmers to create more elaborate games. To a businessman, the decision was obvious.

Miyamoto entered into a multi-game publishing agreement with Sony. Per the terms of the deal, Square would publish Final Fantasy 7 in Japan while Sony would release it in Europe and the United States. Miyamoto and several other key figures at Square broke the news to Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi behind closed doors. Accounts of the meeting differ. Final Fantasy creator Sakaguchi said that Yamauchi, who welcomed Square’s executives with beer and food, wished them the best. Yoshihiro Maruyama, vice president of Square’s U.S. office, heard that Yamauchi was indifferent to losing Final Fantasy 7the RPG, owing to the company’s long-standing philosophy that it engineered hardware primarily for its games like Super Mario and Zelda. If other publishers wanted to get on board, great. If not, fine. Nintendo didn’t need them.

Sony, however, was far from indifferent. The studio was so confident in Final Fantasy 7’s cinematic design that they allocated $40 million toward marketing, shared across SCEA, Sony Computer Entertainment Europe (SCEE), and Sony Interactive Entertainment (SIE) Japan. Half of the budget went to SCEA.

“This was the one that we felt would help define what our hardware is. This content clearly represented that,” Bamberger saidFinal Fantasy 7. “The risk was the genre. No one had a crystal ball as to whether or not people wanted to ride around on chocobos, or get into a really intense combat system.”

PlayStation  hosted RPGs before Final Fantasy 7, including Suikoden, Vandal Hearts, King’s Field and Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain. However, those games appealed to a niche base. While RPG stories and characters were complex, their mechanics demanded hours to comprehend—a major commitment for older players busy with families and jobs, or who saw videogames as nerdy and juvenile.

Sony’s marketing teams wisely concentrated on the game’s most obvious strength. “If we said too much, if we used too many words to describe it, it would have been too complex or confusing,” explained Kyoko Higo, assistant marketing associate at Square USA. “Final Fantasy 7 just was not a game that called for that kind of explanation. It was really trying to get you into the world as quickly as possible. Probably the best way we could do that was to really show off the cinematic quality of the game.”

Bamberger wrote marketing documents and circulated them within SCEA, describing the gameFinal Fantasy 7 as a tent-pole release. “In the movie industry, you have tent-pole films, those that will make or break a studio for a given year,” he said. “This was our tent-pole, and we started treating it that way.”

“At the time, there wasn’t a lot of that kind of thinking,” Ansell explained. “Now you sit in any marketing meeting for any publisher in the AAA space, and you can play buzzword bingo: ‘We’re going to market this like a tent-pole film release.’ You hear that every day, but at the time it was very novel.”

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Key Art

Final Fantasy 7 launched in Japan in January 1997, almost one year before it was slated for Europe and North America. The game’s head start in the east gave SCEA and SCEE a surfeit of materials on which to base their own campaigns. “I don’t know what they did in Europe,” Bamberger said. “There was also this idea that Japan was its own distinct market. So, really, it was hard to divine what these different audiences would want.”

“You always want to tailor the marketing’s messaging, tone, and visuals to your specific audience,” added Ansell. “That generally lent to different assets being created, different tones and styles being produced for European players versus in North America.”

RPGs were even more niche in Europe. No Final Fantasy had been released there; consumers were more inclined toward action games and sports titles. “A lot of importance was placed on making sure it was a flawless execution for European audiences to catch people up on what Final Fantasy meant to so many players in so many parts of the world,” Ansell said, “and what it could to players who hadn’t really experienced it yet.”

SCEE’s quest was made easier by the fact that no Final Fantasy sequel bore a direct connection to previous chapters in the series. That freed the studio to focus on what the series did best: assembling memorable casts of characters and, in Final Fantasy 7’s case, dazzling viewers with stunning visuals.

Squaresoft employed varied rendering techniques. Environments used in full-motion video (FMV) cutscenes were rendered as 3D models, while in-game backgrounds were made from static images, like photographs, so that the development team could show each scene from a specific camera angle. Both types of renders enhanced the game’s cinematic presentation and lent themselves to marketing materials.

“There were some beautiful renders of Midgar, with all the incredible exhaust ports and smoke stacks in that circular pattern,” Ansell remembered, speaking about the game’s city mired in political corruption and environmental disasters.

SCEE’s graphic design team grabbed stills of Midgar’s towering smoke stacks from one of the game’s FMV cutscenes and transposed the faces of protagonist Cloud Strife, his cohort Barret Wallace, and love interest Aerith Gainsborough overtop them. The resultant image became what Ansell termed “key art,” a piece of marketing imagery that could be spun off into all sorts of shapes and sizes—posters, cardboard standees, printouts—for retail stores across SCEE’s France, Germany and Italy territories.

“It was such a good way of combining the environment, and the story it told by itself, with the characters into something like a film poster,” Ansell said. “That was the one piece that when we nailed that, I knew we had the perfect piece of key art.”

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Butterflies and Blindfolds

Back at SCEA, Bamberger and his team partnered with TWBA/Chiat/Day to map out a three-month campaign that would begin in August 1997. Focusing on Final Fantasy 7’s movie-quality cutscenes was their best bet, yet it didn’t guarantee that their most elusive demographic would bite.

“The RPG player? We already had them,” Bamberger stated. “They would look at this game and of course they’d want to play it. Our balancing act was, how do you celebrate what this is for the RPG fan, and at the same time attract the mass market to come in and check it out?”

SCEA and TWBA landed on a multi-pronged approach. They would hit the gaming industry first. Magazines like Electronic Gaming Monthly and Game Informer would generate excitement by previewing the game and touting its success in Japan to their readers, turning magazines into a sort of vanguard that spread excitement to mainstream outlets.

“That’s where the idea of ‘don’t drop the baby’ came from,” he said, explaining his mantra. “It’s about making sure the gaming press understood that Sony understood what they had, and what it meant in the long view. Our PR team did a really good job.”

Sure enough, SCEA’s and TWBA’s efforts boiled over into popular culture: magazines such as Rolling Stone, iconography plastered onto merchandise, TV commercials, comic book ads, even soft drinks.

“It’s not one print ad, it’s four,” he said. “It’s not one TV ad, it’s three. It’s a promotion with Pepsi. We did a massive promotion with Pepsi where there was a 15-second ad that was at the end of football games that talked about the special packaging that featured game characters that were big hits for the holiday season. One of them was Final Fantasy.”

Featuring Final Fantasy 7 played to the idea of the “console war.” Passionate console owners looked for any reason to trumpet their platform, and TWBA tuned up the band. “It’s fantastic from an awareness point of view if someone can’t mention PlayStation or Xbox without also mentioning the title you’re promoting as an example,” said Ansell.

Bamberger’s film metaphor was the through line that connected every prong of the marketing campaign. Not every point started out as sharp as it needed to be. Early proof-of-concept commercials hit on graphics by showing a photo-realistic butterfly landing on the TV screen. “That’s memorable and interesting, but it didn’t emanate from the game itself. It’s not celebrating what the game is; it’s not allowing you to see the game,” he said.

TBWA’s designers went back to the drawing board and came back with concepts for four commercials that parodied epic movies. “When they did the scratch track, they hired Don LaFontaine, the voiceover guy for Hollywood movies at that time: ‘In a world…’ You know, that deep voice,” Bamberger recalled, laughing.

They said it couldn’t be done in a major motion picture, LaFontaine intoned in one commercial amid action-packed shots of the game’s cinematics. They were right.

TWBA’s commercials ran during popular mainstream shows like Saturday Night Live and The Simpsons. “Credit to TBWA\Chiat\Day, they were able to dialogue with us a lot to find a voice and angle,” Bamberger recalled. “They made a campaign out of it, which is very difficult to do. You can make an ad that’s very interesting, but how do you make the second one? Do you know what you’re saying in the first ad that you can make a second one and a third one that are just as entertaining?”

Final Fantasy 7’s packaging exemplified SCEA’s goal of not overwhelming casual players with RPG-heavy jargon. Working with Bamberger, TBWA modeled the cover’s design after promotional materials for Lawrence of Arabia, one of his favorite films. The background was saturated in white. Atop it they layered a monochrome image of a tower. In the foreground, Cloud looks toward the tower, facing away from the player, one hand gripping the sword at his back.

To Bamberger, the composite gave off a sense of the character heading off on a grand adventure. “I felt that the prestige feel of [the packaging] would help show people that it was high quality. I wanted it to look like a specialized design that had a sense of quality to it,” he said.

Carrying over Final Fantasy 7’s prestige to magazine adverts proved more difficult. At first, TBWA presented a flurry of concepts with a humorous bent. It was all wrong. Connecting a VCR to his television, Bamberger recorded segments from Final Fantasy 5 and 6, then moved on to 7, illustrating the dramatic leap forward in technology. The coup de grâce was the death of Aerith, a scene more impactful than any in videogames to date.

“I sensed that they felt the emotion of the scene,” Bambergerexplained, “and I said, ‘Look, this is important to players who love these games. When we show these games in magazines, we want to treat them like artwork. We don’t want anything on the art itself.’”

Bamberger picked out images and let TBWA’s designers do their thing. They came back with perfection. Each spread showed a CG render from the game’s cutscenes; each was letterboxed, like a still from a film; and each spoke to one aspect of the game. One ad showed Cloud diving through a tunnel. Another featured Sephiroth, Final Fantasy 7’s villain, clutching a robotic statue.

The most infamous magazine ad depicted a massive canon set against a sunset. Within the letterboxes, marketing copy advised readers to get the guys who make cartridge games a cigarette and a blindfold. At the bottom, marketing text tallied up the total cost of cartridges needed to transfer Final Fantasy 7’s sprawling, three-disc-long adventure to cartridges.

The advert’s aggressive tone was a shot across Nintendo’s bow. “That’s directly related to how we decided what the brand voice was, how we would engage with this audience, and then separate ourselves and reposition the competition,” Bamberger said. “By the time we got to Final Fantasy, we understood our voice. We were comfortable to say ‘yes’ to headlines like that.”

“Japanese companies are typically very conservative,” added Square USA’s Kyoko Higo. “One could say, ‘Wow, that was really bold for Squaresoft to approve,’ but I really think we were trying, as one big unit between Sony and Square, to make a pretty bold statement. It was just a part of that campaign.”

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Grass Roots

Every week, Higo and the rest of the staff at Square’s US branch received a goody bag of sorts: a Zip disk from Square’s headquarters. “They had to be FedExed. There were no servers in terms of transferring over and sharing assets,” she said.

The Zip disk contained marketing copy from SCEA and the home office, samples of merchandise, correspondence between senior members of one branch or another, and scans of the latest issue of Japan’s Weekly Famitsu gaming magazine, the centerpiece of which was another in a multi-part article on Final Fantasy 7.

At times, Square USA, then a tiny startup based in Costa Mesa, California, found those weekly deliveries overwhelming. At the same time, they were motivating. “We were not just a spokesperson on behalf of headquarters and the dev team,” explained Higo. “We wanted to plant ourselves here in the US and see what the business development opportunities were going to be for Square’s future. I think we were primarily responsible for bringing something, a Japanese entity that was already running successfully in Japan, and open doors here in the states.”

Flush with cash, Squaresoft had opened branches in every region where its games would be sold in order to more efficiently coordinate sales efforts. Higo, who had pivoted her career from the legal department at Honda USA to Square, joined the company early on out of a desire to challenge herself. She was one of three marketing associates, and everyone wore several hats.

By day they coordinated marketing strategies with Sony studios, helped publisher BradyGames put together its strategy guide for Final Fantasy 7, and took shifts at kiosks at Sony’s booth at the 1997 E3 trade show. By night they gathered around a circular table with the office’s QA manager and reviewed the day’s bug reports, translating them from English to Japanese and sending them to Japan.

Her biggest task was dropped into her lap on the day she started. “I was basically told, ‘We have the domain name, but we don’t have a website built yet.’ And if you went to squaresoft.com at that time, it was the ‘under Construction’ icon, that animated gif,” she explained.

Even though most consumers learned about videogames from their friends or magazines, many were turning to the internet for information. Higo, who at the time knew little about HTML beyond how to spell it, found a small startup company that offered Web design services. Once a week, she commuted to their office to deliver key art used to tailor Square’s website to Final Fantasy 7.

However, another component of the website proved just as effective at marketing Squaresoft’s games as flashy images. “One smart thing that we did early on when we launched the website is we had one simple box that said, ‘If you’re interested, please leave your email’,” she said. “Whether we had concrete plans to issue newsletters or not, we added that function.”

The invitation for users to submit their email addresses, embedded in HTML code almost as an afterthought, paid dividends—but not right away. In advance of Final Fantasy 9’s launch, Higo pulled up the database of email addresses, something she did sporadically, and was floored to discover that they had accumulated over one million. Excited, she and her colleagues targeted those that came from the Bay Area and invited their owners to attend a fan event at the Metreon theater in San Francisco (then owned by Sony) to celebrate Final Fantasy 9’s arrival.

“Basically we were just starting to use our database effectively,” Higo said. “If it weren’t for the fact that we added that function from the very beginning, we may have not had that many. We may have had a good amount, but I think it was a smart idea that we did that from the get-go. We were pretty proud knowing that so many people had interest in what we were doing.”

Higo took more immediate gratification from Square’s website. “I ended up buying myself an HTML for Dummies book so I could learn it,” she recalled. “For a while I was actually the person behind updating some of those items. I did that. I was pretty proud that I went through HTML for Dummies and started writing updates. That was a big task.”

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Fanfare

Shortly after TWBA’s marketing campaign took flight in August 1997, David Bamberger saw Cloud Strife and his band of adventurers everywhere he turned. On posters that filled display windows at Toys R Us, on Pepsi commercials, in magazines. Only one deterrent put a bump in the road to what otherwise looked to be a smooth launch: the game’s failure to load.

Fortunately, what could have been a catastrophe amounted to a hiccup. Over that weekend, one SCEA employee deduced that the problem stemmed from videos unable to load. He sent his theory to the dev team and, in a flash, they fixed the glitch and shipped over a fresh batch of gold masters.

Sony recouped its astronomical marketing budget and then some when Final Fantasy 7 released to thunderous critical acclaim in North America that summer, and later that fall in Europe. “At the time we could track things like TV viewership on the ads. Obviously we had some in-house and external agencies tracking that,” said SCEE’s Chris Ansell. “We made sure to really focus on the logo and the core compositions. It was a grand slam, sort of hat trick for us when it came to reviewing the spend versus the actual result.”

The small team at Squaresoft USA congratulated one another on a job well done. “A lot of people probably wouldn’t have thought you’d get that experience playing a videogame, but if you sum it up, you do get those moments where you’re just in awe,” said Kyoko Higo of Square’s and Sony’s shared approach to treating Final Fantasy 7 like an epic motion picture. “You’re not just playing a game anymore. I think that kind of mystique or appeal is something that the Final Fantasy 7 campaign did really well.”

Not everyone was ecstatic over Final Fantasy 7’s reception. ”[RPG players are] depressed gamers who like to sit alone in their dark rooms and play slow games,” groused Hiroshi Yamauchi in 1999. Nintendo’s president went on to label the genre as “silly and boring.”

Sony shrugged off Yamauchi’s bitterness. Final Fantasy 7 had sold one million units in North America by mid-December, and millions of units in other territories. All summed up, the game has sold over 11 million copies.

In Final Fantasy 7, Squaresoft and Sony created more than a landmark videogame. They proved that roleplaying games could have widespread appeal, and that, while sales may fall short of more accessible titles like war-themed shooters and annual Madden refreshes, marketing could make or break their success.

Final Fantasy 7 created this hockey game for the retailers to understand,” explained Bamberger. “It’s like Dr. Pepper. It’s not Coca-Cola, and you’re not going to sell as much, but you’re going to sell a guaranteed amount because there’s an installed base of users that you know will come in and buy this product. I think Final Fantasy 7 created this install base of RPG players.”


Author’s note: Special thanks to David Bamberger, Kyoko Higo, and Chris Ansell for answering my questions. Resources helpful in writing this article include Polygon’s Final Fantasy 7 oral history, IGN’s ‘Wildest Statements Made By Industry Veterans’ article, and Daniel Sloan’s Playing to Wiin: Nintendo and the Videogame Industry’s Greatest Comeback.

David L. Craddock is a freelance writer and author who writes fiction, nonfiction and grocery lists. He is the author of Stay Awhile and Listen and Break Out: How the Apple II Launched the PC Gaming Revolution. You can find him online @davidlcraddock and at davidlcraddock.com, where he writes in first-person for a change of pace.

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