Look, it should come as no surprise that World of Warcraft is king of the hill, head of the list, cream of the crop, at the top of the heap when it comes to MMOs. Whatever Blizzard did, it did it at exactly the right time with the right team and the right IP; it was a perfect storm of something. And it did other game developers a favor in that it's now possible for an MMO to do respectable business, even if the numbers don't quite approach WoW's 12 million concurrent subscribers.
Naturally, though, there are studios that aren't content with having their own subscribers. They want WoW's, too. And that's a pretty tall order. To that end, they reference WoW in their ad campaigns. But what good does name-dropping the world's most popular MMO in your ad campaign even do? Let's take a look.
FURY, or "A Cautionary Tale"
Notice how the kid using the Game Boy in this commercial is fat and goofy-looking, but the kid using the Game Gear looks all cool and smug? I remember seeing that commercial as a kid and thinking to myself, "But I have a Game Boy ... Are they making fun of me, too?"
Well, yeah, they are. And advertisers have been doing that kind of thing since time immemorial. People who use popular things are always subject to scorn in advertisements; look at the "I'm a Mac/I'm a PC" commercials. There's just one problem with that: Every person who views your commercial is a potential customer. And for every person who buys a Game Gear based on desperately not wanting to be a fat, goofy dude who plays Game Boy, there's someone who likes the Game Boy quite a bit and doesn't appreciate an ad telling him he must be a fat, goofy dude.
Which brings us to FURY, the extreme hardcore PvP game for hardcore extreme PvPers only (no non-hardcores allowed). Do you like WoW? If so, FURY has some bad news for you. You are a big manbaby and your girlfriend is sleeping with the pizza delivery guy.
Yes, this actually happened. The ad, I mean. I'm sure your girlfriend is a paragon of fidelity.
Honestly, Auran, the studio behind FURY, might have been on to something with the game's concept -- there's probably room for a good PvP-based MMO in this market, and some WoW players would probably jump ship to play it, if it was good.
Except FURY wasn't. At all. It received devastatingly poor reviews from nearly every gaming site and publication, and the FURY staff was hit with mass layoffs. So the ad campaign accomplished approximately one thing of note: It pissed off the people who made up most of the game's target market.
Nothing can really save a truly bad game, but good ads can certainly keep people from noticing it's a truly bad game for a while. With a less combative ad campaign, Auran might have burned a few less bridges and staved off the inevitable for a bit longer. Not that it's probably much consolation.
"We're not in Azeroth anymore"
If I sound glib here, then perhaps I'm being a little glib. But let me put it to you this way. Most of you have probably seen Family Guy before. Every time Peter says something like, "This is worse than the time Optimus Prime and I went to the Sizzler!" you laugh, but you're not really sure why you laugh, because it's not even really a joke. It's a throwaway pop culture reference that makes you think, "I sure do remember the Transformers! And the Sizzler, too!" All it does is make the part of your brain that remembers things flare up.
So when Rift's commercial mentions Azeroth, what is it really doing? If the intention was to point out how Rift differs from WoW, well, I have no idea how it does. If the intention was to show that Rift is better than WoW, well, it didn't give me any details on that either. If the intention was to let me know that the game does not, in fact, take place in Azeroth, well, neither does Call of Duty, but no one needs to tell me that.
Not only that, but if you start comparing your game to WoW, people start to have expectations: heavy support, regular content updates, that "Blizzard polish." It's a lot to live up to, especially if you don't have any intention of doing so.
I haven't played Rift yet (I'll leave that to Massively), but if its ad campaign was the only weighing factor toward my purchasing it, I would chalk it up as a Family Guy and move on.
So does it work?
Yeah, if you let it. What these kinds of ad campaigns are aiming for is your sense of self. They want you to think, "Is the thing I'm playing/buying/doing the best of its kind?" This is the reason why people buy new smartphones every six months.
If moving to a different game will make you happier, then by all means, do so. But don't do it because you don't want to be the Game Boy kid, and don't laugh at something that isn't a joke.