Branding and Games: When Marketing Deceives

Whether we like it or not, marketing is the driving force behind not only games, but also movies, music, entertainment in general. Even though producers, designers, talk about the craft and art into making a game, a lot of decisions, like the main character, come from marketing. Life is Strange had a hard time finding a publisher because the game had a female protagonist, for example.

Its main motivation is to bring awareness to a product, service, or a person, after all, it doesn’t matter if you created the most revolutionary game ever, if nobody knows about it. And unfortunately, sometimes campaigns are built around lies, and information that are way out of proportion or greatly enhanced, with a famous example being the infamous Watch Dogs Reveal.

Being announced as the first next-gen title, it had jaw-dropping graphics, unlike anything we’ve seen before on console. A vivid and heavily populated world, infinite gameplay possibilities, touted as a revolution in open-world games. And it really looked like a dream, you playing an action game in one of the biggest cities in the world, serving as a playground so you could hack everything.

And as we all know now, the final result was far from what it was demoed, unimpressive graphics, a Chicago that felt lifeless, and very limited hacking. Now we see the damage it has caused the brand, affecting its sequel, Watch Dogs 2, sales. With low pre-order numbers, its first week of sales being 80% smaller in the UK, and a general perception that it doesn’t matter how great it is, with rave reviews, consumers still feel betrayed and are waiting before any purchase decision. Something that can harm the future of the franchise, all because of a poorly planned strategy, that may have its brand damaged permanently.

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No Man’s Sky was this year example of how an unexperienced studio can destroy its reputation with overblown remarks. Revealed at the VGX Awards in 2013, it became known as the future of games, with beautiful, unexplored worlds that would be procedurally generated. No planet would be like the other, with species to discover, minerals to retrieve, trade, traveling through uncharted galaxies in your ship, it would be ground-breaking, or so we thought.

And what happened? A Molyneux level of exaggerations. Worlds that had nothing to do with what was displayed in various events, that after visiting a few you felt like you’ve seen everything. Repeated textures, that would only change color from planet to planet, empty spaces without the lush vegetation and fauna that was promised. An uninspired game, that felt bland, with a boring soundtrack and trips that would take hours in real life, filled with bugs that affected the experience.

The damage was huge to the game, its brand, and the studio as well. With a huge backlash, gamers around the world feeling deceived, terrible reviews, and a level of hate towards a title like we rarely see. Hello Games has been radio-silent about its problems, with a “hack” (we’re not sure yet) showing a message of Sean Murray claiming it was a mistake. And the consequence of it all is that this franchise is as good as dead, and a studio and a creator that may never have a chance to release another title.

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Mass Effect 3 was one of the most expected titles of 2012, the finale of this amazing trilogy, the last moments of your journey with Shepard. All your choices would directly influence the ending of great story, that captivated gamers around the world. And despite being a great title, that had everything to be an unforgettable experience, ended up infuriating players.

Endings that didn’t feel different, with a simple change of color depending on your last choice, with them being very similar, no matter how you played the first 2 games. An uproar of disappointed fans erupted around the internet, reaching such massive proportions, that Bioware later released a free DLC expanding the endings. But the damage was done, and a series that had to be amongst the greats, until this day has a stain, that has created a careful approach to what gamers are expecting of Mass Effect Andromeda.

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Last but not least, Dead Island, a game who had such an emotional and impactful trailer, that everybody felt that it would change the face of zombie-themed experiences. For a moment, it felt that it would bring games to a whole new level. A narrative that would treat the zombie apocalypse with a much more complex, sophisticated style, showing how it altered society, how it destroyed families.

As it turns out, Dead Island really was just another shallow game, without any of the impact expected, lackluster characters, a thin story, and a brand that never reached the level of respect and success expected. All due to a deceiving trailer that didn’t reflect the final product in any way whatsoever.

Marketing is a wonderful tool, it can introduce us to things we would never know otherwise, bands, movies, games, books, but we have to be very careful about it, so we won’t fall into the trap of a well-designed lie. And companies too, given that consumers are becoming more conscious every day, with pre-order sales decreasing every year, franchises having a hard time continuing after they felt misled. Showing signs that they won’t accept everything that’s thrown at them, no matter how beautiful or incredible it looks.

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Not Enough Bantering

Minor spoilers follow

Games have evolved tremendously since I was a child when it comes to storytelling. And the more complex they became, the more we wanted to know about these characters and worlds. With the evolution of the 3D technology and voice acting, with actors becoming prominent due to some roles, character interaction has reached levels never seen before, increasing immersion, with one aspect that is crucial to it, ordinary bantering.

Even though we have titles with books, texts, audio logs, working as a way to develop our knowledge on a game’s lore, few things are as efficient and powerful as a straightfoward conversation. The Last of Us being  a very successful example, with a very charismatic cast, that becomes even more engaging due to these simple moments, that make the story a lot more compelling.

Like when Ellie is learning to whistle, or tells “amazing” jokes, or when Joel finds comic books for her, and she quotes them, or when she see arcades or albums in a music store for the first time. It may sound silly, but they allow the player to be part of this world, and to better understand it. Enhancing what its characters are going through, and how Ellie, that didn’t have contact with the outer world, reacts to these new experiences and places, bringing a lighter tone to a world torn apart by violence and death.

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And Naughty Dog took that to Uncharted 4, using it to reveal more about Nathan’s relationship with the other characters, more than in other titles of the franchise. Exposing more about their past, stories with Sully, Sam, as an outstanding style of telling stories, without the need of cut scenes or missions that wouldn’t work as part of the main plot.

Similar to TLOU, Bioshock Infinite used this to build Booker and Elizabeth’s relationship. As Ellie, Elizabeth didn’t have a lot of contact with her world, living in a tower, and using bantering we managed to see it through her eyes, having access to a perspective that we wouldn’t otherwise. With many moments becoming unforgettable, as when she reacts to the sound of music, being a quiet and beautiful moment in an action-packed game.

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In games that have a smaller playtime, it can be even more important for a campaign. In RPG’s such as the Mass Effect series, it shows us more about the races, the politics, the galaxy, but in a much minor fashion than Enslaved, for example. A true hidden gem, Enslaved, used it to display the mutation of a contentious relationship, at first, and explained what caused the destruction of mankind in an impressive manner.

As games improve their storytelling, new ways of creating better and more compelling characters are required. And a very competent and simpler way is through bantering, that doesn’t require much from game creators, working as a bridge between the player and their favorite titles. That through thoughtful dialogue can assist us into getting a better grasp of character motivations, their stories and most important, who they are, making them a lot more believable and human.

 

The Smart Marketing of Mass Effect Andromeda

Usually when AAA titles are announced nowadays, a flood of trailers, clips, an infinite amount of gameplays and usually a significant part of plot is revealed. With the return of a huge franchise of the last generation, we expected a similar MO when it came to the promotion, but EA has been using a different approach to Mass Effect Andromeda’s marketing strategy.

The sequel to the revered trilogy, Mass Effect Andromeda is expected to be released in Spring 2017, working as well as a quasi-reboot to the franchise. Despite being announced a few years ago, we still don’t really know a lot about the project, with Bioware controlling information in a very interesting way.

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Some images have been shown, but in a very limited way, with most images revealing very few about the plot of the game or about the new characters. Showing planets, races that were part of the original trilogy, and a little about the main cast. The trailers followed suit, with those of E3 showing very few about the world, and the first gameplay being short, debuting the new jetpack that expects to be part of the gameplay overhaul.

The basic plot has already been announced, you take control of either Scott or Sara Ryder, a brother/sister duo, who are part of a military family. Your father is Alec Ryder, and you assume his role as the Pathfinder, an initiative that was established during Mass Effect 2. In that role, you’ll be responsible for discovering and exploring new planets in the Andromeda galaxy, with the return of the Mako as well as the loyalty missions.

In the last 2 N7 days (11/07) 2 trailers were released, last year’s was very simple and cryptic. This year’s was very different, with a whole lot more information, a take of the new ship, the revamped Mako, a little throwback to the original trilogy. What caught my eye was that even though the enemies were part of it, their faces weren’t shown, with the main villain only from behind, creating a nice feeling of mystery that we rarely see.

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To create awareness they used a more hands-on approach, announcing a multiplayer beta, that in spite of being seen as a side feature, seems to be receiving a great deal of attention, being part of the single player, with a 4-player campaign mode. All 3 titles became backwards compatible on the Xbox One, with all being added to the vault of EA Access, allowing new players to test the games that originated the franchise, and old players to reminisce on it.

A contest was revealed that allowed fans to voice smaller characters, being open to anybody, without any need to be a professional, making players a part of it. The Andromeda Initiative is a program focusing on bringing a lot of material about the title to their fans, working as Battlefield Insider does, but from what it looks like, expecting to bring even more information about the history behind this universe, the vehicles, races, amongst other things.

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This more low-key way of handling marketing feels like the best one, given that it has years since we’ve known about it, but no sign of a negative reaction has sparkled, as what happened to Watch Dogs. More news about its features, characters, are coming out as Game Informer’s story unveils, but no release date has been confirmed, showing a bigger concern of EA with this franchise, a strategy that can really pay off to the company.

What’s Behind Bethesda’s Decision To Withhold Review Copies

Last week an announcement from Bethesda sparked controversy, the decision to stop sending review copies to media outlets, youtubers, influencers as a whole. From the standpoint of journalists, it came as another stone thrown at websites that have been losing relevance in the industry, as youtube emerges as the main source of news for consumers. For youtubers it can affect their views, given that they will lose the leverage of posting material ahead of release. But what does Bethesda gain from that strategy?

Any company will impede anybody from saying something negative about their product, if given the choice, and it definitely feels like an example of this situation. Even though reviews have lost importance throughout the years, they still are the most reliable source for consumers to make an informed purchase. With those stories bringing more traffic than any other, and here’s another reason why these sites gave such a poor reception to this news, as they won’t post reviews early, with the number of reviews-in-progress increasing as a result of that.

But behind every decision from a major company, there’s a lot of study and research. And the release of Doom probably was their test prior to adopting this practice. No review copies were sent to the media, with many expecting a troubled title, especially because a lot of games in the same situation proved to be quite underwhelming. Assassin’s Creed Unity being one of the recent examples, plagued by bugs, becoming famous for the absurd amount, that almost permanently damaged the brand.

And it came as a surprise that Doom had a great reception, receiving great reviews, and being regarded by many as a game of the year contender. From what we can see, the test was very successful, proving that media coverage on release doesn’t necessarily equates as a rise of sales, actually going the other way. Without these first impressions, that may as well be negative, every company will be able to spare their projects from any unwanted effects on the first week of sales, the strongest and most important, and especially on pre-orders.

Nowadays they represent a huge source of revenue for publishers, with the pre-order culture being a vital part of the industry. And negative media can really hurt the sales of a title, with reservations being cancelled due to the revelation of a title being filled with bugs, glitches, or that doesn’t live to the up to the hype created by the marketing campaign.

Bethesda is in a privileged position, that only a small number of companies is, like Rockstar for example, of having a lot of goodwill with gamers. With huge multi-million selling franchises, that generate interest for years, with the Skyrim remaster being regarded as a big release in a Fall season filled with long-awaited games.

For many it isn’t a consumer-friendly decision, and they are the most important part of this equation. They can stop pre-ordering games from the company, wait and see in order to make a more informed choice. If Bethesda realizes that this experiment was poorly received and affected their sales, they will go back to normal.

But if this strategy ends up being fruitful to them, a lot of companies will likely follow suit, controlling the information on the first weeks of a project. Diminishing the influence of the media on a release like never before, and that’s the dream for any company, no matter if it is a consumer-friendly, after all, they are not doing charity, they are after profit, and there’s nothing wrong with that. The only person that can revert this decision is the consumer, that can vote with his strongest weapon, his wallet.