On the eve of Destiny launching worldwide to much fanfare and, arguably, the longest and most expensive advertising campaign in gaming to date, I’ve begun to wonder if it actually has an adverse affect. I’ve seen most of the TV commercials, the website banners, the email newsletters from game stores, have played the alpha and beta demos, and even have it on pre-order through the persistence of GAME (though I haven’t paid anything, they gave me the £5 deposit to do it); yet I’m not interested in playing it. Welcome to Planet Hype.
Reviews for Destiny haven’t landed yet because Bungie think that the low population of servers for pre-release review copies would upset the balance and playability of the game, resulting in less than the intended experience. I can’t fault them with that logic, they want the return on investment that Activision have put in – a reported $500 million so far – and that’s the number we’ll start with. $500 million. Take a second to savour it and digest the amount of money that actually is. All of it for developing and marketing one game.
Reputedly, Grand Theft Auto V cost in the region of $250 million to make and sell, and that game scored well with critics and fans despite having a relatively low key marketing footprint. How many of the adverts do you remember? There were no demos, very few screenshots, and not even that much in the way of E3/TGS/GamesCom coverage. But then it’s one of the best known franchises that most people have heard of, I guess you don’t need to sell it to your audience. I know in the Codec Moments team every one of us had it pre-ordered and were playing from day one, and we scored it full marks – before the GTA Online part even kicked off. It wasn’t devoid of promotion, there were tie-ins with major retailers to entice that one remaining gamer on the planet that didn’t know it was being released, it just didn’t get rammed down your throat. Was it hyped though? Most definitely, and we all did most of the work for Rockstar.
It works for established franchises because you’ve already got a fan base, so you can either hold back on your marketing budgets and let word of mouth and expectation do their jobs, or you can blow your wad on stunts to grab the attention of the gaming world. Take Mass Effect 3 for example (and forgetting the bad publicity with the ending furore); launching several copies into space with GPS trackers so that when they come back to earth you can head out on a scavenger hunt is a pretty neat idea. You also can’t argue that it doesn’t promote getting gamers out of the house.
On the flip side, if you’re looking at a promotional strategy for the God of War franchise, you’d surely think about recreating the game with topless waitresses and a slaughtered goat, wouldn’t you? Aside from being one of the worst ideas ever, it was a Sony PR team who thought this kind of event for God of War II would go down a storm with the media, not factoring in the UK mainstream press reaction. Did it harm sales? Not at all, it still shifted over 4 million units. Again though, we’re talking about a sequel to a successful game, though in this case you’re looking at one that needed a promotional push due to clashing with the release of an upgrade in the form of the PlayStation 3.
Activision is no stranger to splurging on marketing, the Call Of Duty series has got bigger and bolder each year and the ads and promo campaigns have joined it. Remember Robert Downey Jr. in the Guy Ritchie directed ad for Black Ops 2? What about tying in Ghosts with the release of the last Eminem album? Smart move pulling together with the record label knowing that you target demographic is very likely to buy both, especially if the music is used during the levels. It’s no coincidence at all that the Call Of Duty franchise has such a massive following and manages huge sales year after year. Now, if only they weren’t annualising the games and taking all originality out of them.
Where didn’t hype work though? Mercenaries 2 is a prime example. EA did all sorts to get the public interested in the open world destruction-fest, including offering free petrol in London – causing the roads to gridlock in the process. I’m a fan of the games, anything that offers you airstrikes as a basic option gets my attention, but it didn’t work in the sales department and the series has been canned. And what about the uDraw Tablet, the peripheral that led to the bankruptcy of THQ? Loads of TV and print media adverts, as well as investment in several games to support it, couldn’t convince the public it was a worthy device… despite it actually being a good idea. Soon enough there were 1.4 million units left unsold and could only be sold off at ridiculously low prices, and you can buy one here if you’re desperate and have a spare £10.
There’s a backlash at the moment against using exclusive DLC as your marketing tool. It’s cheap and easy and seems solely there to promote pre-orders with specific outlets. It’s not really working because rule of thumb is wait 4 weeks and you’ll get hold of the DLC when it goes on sale on the respective online stores. I feel especially bad for people who bought the DedSec editions of WATCH_DOGS, their exclusive missions appeared in the season pass about 3 months later as part of the bundle. A kick in the teeth if you’d picked up the season pass with your big, shiny collectors edition. Alien Isolation is suffering from disenchantment at the moment around one month before release with the offer of the original Alien film DLC if you purchase in specific places, but it’s multiple DLC types depending where you go, and some are charging significantly more for it. For me these are hype examples that don’t really work, and I find myself looking for the cheapest purchase instead of which extra content I want.
And lastly, industry accolades… These are really interesting ones because they’re touted as soon as any major press event is over and used to sell you the game based on limited exposure and an already hyped up atmosphere. Most times they’re spot on, Bioshock Infinite springs to mind, but how much can they be trusted? There have always been rumours of good reviews being paid for, and positive promotion being given in exchange for sponsorship/favours/cash, and you hope this is in the minority – though given how easy it is for a professional site to go out of business I can understand why some of them take the opportunity (though we don’t condone or agree with it here at Codec Moments). Then, almost breaking news, we’ve got the speculation and accusation that Fez only won it’s indie awards because the panel that voted for it were already investors and stood to make money out of its commercial success. It’s not clear what the situation is, but it’s not good, and if true will be seriously bad news for faith in indie game hype.
I feel we’ve lost some of the good practices that actually make people buy games. One of these is demos, and I mean proper demos and not ones masquerading as alphas and betas (I am directing that one at you Destiny). I bought loads of games from demo disks – MTV Snowboarding on PSOne is one I’ll never forget because it’s something I’d never have considered picking up. Weirdly, the introduction of faster broadband speeds and online stores that give us instant access to content seems to have shifted us away from getting that kind of service. Have publishers forgotten that allowing us to play a finished(!) game might actually sell us it more? Well, clearly not Ubisoft with their multiplayer share option that’s on PS4 for Far Cry 4. And what about word of mouth? My latest purchase is Minecraft which I don’t remember ever seeing an advert or marketing push for, and I have taken the plunge based on the gaming community feedback, and even a work colleagues kids recommendation. I am now addicted to digging down to the bedrock.
So should you believe the hype? It depends where it’s coming from and how much you trust the source. If you’re interested in the game then yes, go wholeheartedly with it and enjoy it while it lasts. If you’re non-plussed, ignore it and focus on something else you want instead. This is definitely how the whole Destiny situation is going, we’re seeing what feels like a 50:50 response to the level and intensity of the campaign, and the hype is coming from the areas that stand to make the most money out of it. That said I hope Bungie make their money back because there’s some good work there, and we can’t lose a developer of that calibre, but next time maybe calm the publisher down a bit, eh? For me it’s not worked, and I’m not bought in. I’m finding the over saturation of advance footage of gameplay, as well as constant barrage of “It’s the best thing ever!” (usually from non-gaming specialised newspaper and magazine sources), a real detraction from what the publisher and developer are trying to achieve.