Videogamesland is wholesale owned by marketing departments – outside of the indie oasis, anyway – so I guess we have them to thank for a few messes of 2016. Marketing, as MVC called out, is ‘the bedrock of any video game or console launch.’ So how did so many triple-A studios fuck it up so bad last year?
It ain’t a new trend. Look, I’ve worked in marketing for years, that shit hasn’t gone unnoticed, by me or any other gamer. You can’t slip that under the radar the way you hide a rent boy from your wife. For years now, we’ve had to put up with shitty day one patches or woefully under-developed games – and all because the marketing departments build their campaigns around what often seems like an arbitrary release date. Look at the state ReCore shipped in if you dare, with its wildly long (and thankfully patched) load times. Remember that golden November in 2011, when Skyrim’s buggy world launched? I mean, I get it – that 11/11/11 date was a memorable marketing goldmine – but what a way to risk killing the magic before the adventure had even began. And let’s not even get onto maddening release schedules, when all studios chuck all their top games on the shelves at the end of the year (or, in the case of Konami’s Silent Hell, all in the same month).
Titan-fail and Battle-scorn
But last year was the absolute fucking pits for video games. Off the top of my head, I can think of at least four major games that were shat on by marketing – all in very different ways. You could probably name a few more.
I’ve already ranted spoke about the Titanfall 2 troubles. A damn fine shooter suicidally wedged in between the launches of Battlefield 1 and Call of Duty, Titanfall 2 was so badly advertised that even some gamers didn’t even know when it was due to drop. Not that all marketing is bad (free DLC and no season pass was a win for gamers and scored TF2 good press, but microtransactions are the pay-off for that PR victory). Despite that, Titanfall 2 was lost in an over-saturated shooter shuffle, where ads for EA’s rival FPS was on every page on the fucking internet.
Note to EA marketing bods: Still didn’t stop COD winning the battle for sales, by the way.
How about Battleborn? …Does anyone still remember Battleborn? Gearbox’s hero-based FPS MOBA, I still maintain, is a pretty decent game – complex and constantly evolving, although the game does a shite job of explaining any of it to rookies and the less said about the ‘story’ the better. But it wasn’t gameplay alone that sealed its ignoble fate. The tweeting was on the wall long before launch.
I see what they were trying to do there. The Gearbox social media execs were probably high-fiving themselves all day long after that. It’s classic social media stuff, a real uninspired 101 textbook play, to cause a bit of controversy, gain a bit of coverage with a retweet or 694.
Problem is, you’ve got to pick your battles. Your game needs to be shit-hot if you’re picking fights with Blizzard. #FuckUp And in the end, Overwatch helped destroy Battleborn, aided by BB’s own studio. Look, moment you hear Blizzard are releasing a game around the same time, you move your release date – because you ain’t gonna beat Blizzard, who spend years refining their games. You show people why your game is different and fresh, instead of disingenuously comparing your hero-based MOBA to a hero-based FPS.
Blizzard played a perfect/dick-move card, opening up the Overwatch beta on the same weekend Battleborn came out. Now that’s how you market your game to an audience likely to be torn between two superficially similar games.
Space: The Tedious Frontier
Hello Games’ No Man’s Sky was another marketing casualty last year (and rightly so, it deserves all the disappointment you can muster). It was classic exercise in over-promising, under-delivering – thanks mostly to congenital liar, Sean Murray, laboratory-bred spawn of Peter Molyneux and Nick Leeson. Unruly excitement blurs the line between what the game is and what it is in his mind. Lies spiral beyond control, but he’s addicted to the limelight. Everyone’s talking about him and his vast, utopian space game. Guaranteed sales hit. One lie leads to another lie leads to a game that had plenty of pre-release hype and… Well, it had pre-release hype.
Probably the biggest marketing disaster (and yet the biggest sales triumph) was Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare. Right off the bat, with its reveal trailer, we’re at 3,443,443 down-votes on YouTube, against 567,539 thumbs up. Ok, bile’s always going to garner more attention, but even so, for a series that once ruled the world it’s a hell of a fall from grace.
From the moment that trailer hit the internet, the game’s ad-men and ad-wo-men were in damage limitation mode, quietly changing the box art to de-emphasise the sci-fi and ramp up the soldiering. Because at that point no-one had noticed IW was set in the future again, right. Because lying by omission about your product is always the way to deal with fan negativity, and shows you’re completely confident in your work. And by work, I mean another selection of lazy three lane multiplayer maps.
Even when they held the silver bullet that could have ended the stand-off between studio and gamers, they completely failed to capitalise on their marketing win. That silver bullet, the remastered Call of Duty: Modern Warfare.
They could’ve generated goodwill and headlines just by unshackling the game from the top-end editions of Infinite Warfare. Held their hands up and said, ‘We got this one wrong, but because we like you all so damn much, here’s a gift…’
You had one job…
Now, I don’t think studios should always ‘give the fans what they want’. Sure, as a rule you want to keep the ones buying your game happy (Marketing 101, if you will) – and that something would’ve been a nostalgic WWII shooter (or Battlefield 1, which is pretty much the same thing set 35 years prior). But if we clung to that mentality, shit like the iPod would never have been made. We’d have never played Minecraft. There would be no Kinect or Nintendo Switch… Ahem.
Did Infinite Warfare deserve the hate? Sure. Did its marketing campaign completely and arrogantly fail to engage a wider base than it did? Sure. It might’ve sold more copies than you’ve had hot nightclub cubicle sex with another furry (just), but the game’s still one of the poor-performing instalments. The real problem with the series, as I’ve argued here, is that Call of Duty doesn’t even know what it is or who it’s for any more. And when the marketing department doesn’t hold the answers to basic target market questions, you know you’re proper fucked.
Still, while marketing almost killed video games in 2016 – ok, not really, that was a marketing-type lie of a headline; marketing damaged or failed to help a handful of games – it could save them in 2017. COD’s failure to read an audience’s pulse, and the ensuing cock-up in marketing the game (they can only work with what they’ve got, after all), could pay off for gamers, as the series either experiments in new directions or goes back to boots-on-the-ground basics with a soft-ish reboot-ish thing-ish.
But don’t expect that shit to change permanently. If it ain’t EA or Activision, it’ll be some other bumbling buffoon with too many millions of dollars to spend prising many more millions of dollars from our wallets, purses and piggy banks. Good games will get over-looked and die. Bad games will pick up more sales than they deserve. Expect more ‘firing Hideo Kojima’-like PR disasters. We’ll still get games shipped in sorry states, with super-free day one patches, because they’re rushed for release date. ‘Course, that’s always going to happen when the cost of development is matched by marketing.
Here’s some more video game thoughts. Might as well read ‘em while you’re here. You’ll walk away a better person.