Have you ever watched a wrestling promo? It’s the part during a wrestling show where one of the towering, oiled up dudes wraps a meaty fist around a microphone and shouts angrily at his opponents. He will go on a tirade about how he is going to inflict all sorts of terrible harm. Any nation with laws would charge this man with harassment or assault. Of course, in the contrived, aggression turned up to 11, world of sports entertainment, this is all business as usual. It’s all part of the show.
In fact, cutting a good promo is better than part of the show. It is the show. Without a promo, the wrestling matches have no context. Watching a wrestler sell a punch seemingly intended for an air mass a foot and a half away from their chin would stretch anyones credulity. Watching that same wrestler stumble around dazed from the phantom punch, and then, a split second later, engage in some cirque du soleil style pairs tumbling, would snap it. A strong promo is the performers attempt to suspend your disbelief, before presenting a stage show that is wholly unbelievable. Most wrestlers now seem content to entertain during a promo, believability being a depleted commodity.
So what does this have to do with games? You might wonder if I am so drained of ideas that I have decided to make a hard left and start writing about wrestling full time. Maybe, and no. I haven’t watched wrestling with any regularity for at least 15 years, so I am far from an authority on the topic. I do have a point, but there is a bit of set up to get through. Now back to the wrestling.
The wrestling promo has another purpose. As professional wrestling, or, to use the less disingenuous term, Sports Entertainment grew, so did the rosters of performers. The WWE is currently running live and pre-taped shows several times a week. Sure wrestling is “fake”, but it is also very physically demanding and there is always the possibility of injuries that take performers out of the show. These wrestling events have a lot of less experienced talent ready to play the fall guy in a match or two giving the headliners a chance to recuperate. Almost to a one, they are terrible wrestlers. This is why the promo is important.
So any of the newer performers will be either awful or dull. It’s a simple lack of ring time. If they were competitive athletes, only the ones that developed some actual wrestling skill would rise up the ranks. Of course they are not athletes, they are performers. Developing an entertaining persona through a combination of memorable matches and quotable promos is how a wrestler “gets over”. Getting over is winning. The outcome of the match, who pinned who, is part of the show, but ultimately unimportant. If a performer can get the crowd to cheer or boo, or increasingly, laugh, they win. It doesn’t matter who holds the title belt, it matters who gets the biggest crowd reaction.
So, again, what does this have to do with games? Okay, imagine this. There is a new wrestler that just came up through the ranks. He has polished his craft in relative obscurity for a few years, performing in small circuits and independent events. He’s in pretty good shape, 6’2”, 220lbs, no prominent tattoos, close cropped hair. As wrestlers go, generic as hell. Add that to the fact that he’s pretty new and as we’ve established, awful in the ring. And there are 3 other guys who look and wrestle just like him. How is this guy going to get over? If they were actually in a physical competition, maybe he could play that angle. But they aren’t in a physical competition. They are performers. He has to cut a promo and attempt to be the coolest, vilest, funniest, most frightening, most outlandish bad ass that ever walked the earth. For those three and half minutes, he has to believe it.
There are a scant few examples of a developer who is able to properly promote their work, let alone themselves. We have the deluded view of the industry that game developers are mild mannered computer science majors, and quiet artsy types. It simply isn’t true. No one actively seeks out a creative medium to hide with their head down. Worse yet, if a developer exhibits some sense of performance in their public facing persona, like Peter Molyneux or Cliff Bleszinski, they get called to the carpet for not measuring up to some preconceived stereotype. Games are entertainment products, not corporate finance software. Ritualistic business etiquette is not how games get over. It’s not how game developers get over.
I’ve always been a reluctant salesman. I don’t feel I have it in me to convince another person of something I don’t believe. But I did act. It’s been a long time since I did any acting, or any sort of public performance, but I still remember how it feels to draw an audience in. I remember what it feels like to believe the reality of a scene with enough conviction to sell it.
It’s sort of funny that, until recently I didn’t really equate sales to performing. I’m not sure why, since they are so obviously one in the same. Wrestlers don’t have that disconnect. Cutting a promo is salesmanship. It’s marketing. It is all those words that have become associated with swindlers and dishonest men. Maybe that’s the problem. The words we use. Perhaps I should stick with the word performance. Cutting a promo is performance. If you want to get over with a performance, you have to fully believe it. At least for three and a half minutes.
Strange how a group of people with fake names, fake vendettas, competing in fake combat only really succeeded by being extremely honest. I think, from now on, I’ll take my marketing advice from wrestlers.