August is one of those months devoid of meaningful holidays, unless of course, you're into celebrating National Lighthouse Day (Aug. 7), Left-Handers' Day (Aug. 13), or Presidential Joke Day (isn't that every day?).
Or apparently, unless you're a truck-stick mashing fan of Electronic Arts' Madden series. I was as surprised as Matt Leinhart on draft day to see the e-mail pop into my inbox declaring Tues. Aug. 22, the national release date of Madden '07, to be a national "Maddenoliday."
Um, not to go all Tony Kornheiser on you here, but waitaminute — aren't these things supposed to go through some kind of proper channel, some approval process? Guess not. Electronics boutiques in malls across the country threw open their doors at a minute past midnight on Tuesday, and, while the clerks probably had enough time on their hands to simulate the required number of seasons to finally get the Cleveland Browns to the Super Bowl, the point is, they were open for business. Essentially, EA has capitalized on our nation's football mania, turning an annual rite of product release into a major Cultural Event.
This is common in Hollywood, where studio execs manage to create at least two or three of these buzz-bombs each year, many of which (Pirates of the Caribbean 2 and Superman Returns, I'm lookin' at you) fall drastically short of advertised expectations. Games are a different story. Excepting new console releases, the only other title to merit serious Cultural Event status in recent years was Halo 2, the game that stuffed online multiplayer lightning into a bottle we could finally wrap our hands around.
Now, it's not like anyone's seriously expecting the release of Mass Effect or Crysis to rival the buzz surrounding, say, Casino Royale. But it got me wondering: How come more games don't generate capital-B mainstream Buzz?
Part of the equation comes down to cash. Between the amount EA drops on its massive Madden marketing campaign and the licensing fees paid to ESPN, the NFL Player's Union and Mr. "Tough-Actin' Tinactin" himself, more than one expert has speculated that the Cali-based developer is actually losing money on its pigskin cash cow. Even if that's true, I doubt the suits at EA are crying on their controllers: They've achieved the kind of cultural penetration upon which you can't put a price tag. It's especially impressive given that the game itself has become the Adam Sandler of the video-game world: Solid, reliable, but never offering quite enough to totally knock your socks off.
It also doesn't hurt that Madden has a far broader appeal than gamedom's typical cartoon/fantastical sci-fi fare. It's a sports game aimed at simulating Sunday-afternoon reality of the most popular sport in the U.S., not a game in which monkeys roll around in balls picking up bananas or aliens threaten the earth. In terms of marketing buzz, that matters — a lot.
Still, we're living (and playing) in a world where fans can use the internet to modify the script of Snakes on a Plane and a clever band like OK Go can leverage YouTube traffic into a massive buzz their corporate masters could scarcely conceive. Game developers have to be at least that creative.
Hey, I hear September could use an extra holiday or two — St. Final Fantasy Day, anyone?
Aaron R. Conklin thinks this games-as-holidays thing has some real potential. Send your Happy Tekkenistmas cards to him c/o the City Paper.