Earlier this month, I wrote an article exploring episodically released games, asking in short whether they truly added something to the industry, or if they were nothing more than a cheap marketing trick cooked up by video game publishers. This got me thinking about all the ways we’ve seen games marketed in the past, from viral videos, to product placement in films and everything in between.
Obviously, when it comes to AAA developers like Ubisoft or Capcom, every title released is pretty much guaranteed a large audience, but this doesn’t mean they can afford to scrimp and save when it comes to marketing – both online and off. This is because the publicity surrounding a game’s release is just as important as some aspects of its production; it will affect how gamers imagine the game to be, and provides a proverbial yardstick against which the actual gameplay will be measured. It’s not enough to just release a few jaw-dropping cinematics; people need to see (at least) extensive gameplay from trusted industry individuals and a wealth of behind the scenes footage to give them a window into the title.
These videos, websites and pages don’t just spread awareness, they generate buzz.
But enough about bog-standard campaigns, this article celebrates those who really chose to ‘think outside the box’ (a clichéd yet necessary phrasing). It applauds the developers who didn’t just show us a bit of footage at E3, but instead hooked gamers in with dynamic and interactive campaigns. These videos, websites and pages don’t just spread awareness, they generate buzz. They stick in our minds because, quite simply, they’re fun and interesting, and more importantly they make us want to share them with fellow gamers.
Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain – Hospital Trailer
Back in April last year, a seemingly unknown development team, ‘Moby Dick Studios’, popped up out of the blue with an eerie gameplay trailer that felt uncannily familiar…
The trailer followed a semi-conscious, bearded hospital patient around as he tries to escape a well-equipped, highly trained military task force that we assumed had been sent to kill him. The protagonist, who’s face is cleverly hidden for most of the video, bears a remarkable resemblance to our old friend Snake, the hero of the Metal Gear series, albeit with a missing arm, and sporting a hospital bandage instead of a bandana. As the minutes roll by, the veiled allusions to the franchise continued as the action turned more surreal – a common trope of Kojima’s – and we even see what looks to be a young Psycho Mantis, an iconic boss from the first game, complete with gas-mask and leather get-up.[yt_video id=”yw_JUwFYxh0″][/yt_video]
Kojima said that releasing the trailer under pseudonym helped to gauge an appropriate fan reaction, not one that had been jaded by the Metal Gear rose-tinted glasses. What it did brilliantly, though, was generating speculation. The developers gave our watering mouths just enough to start to believe it was Metal Gear, but not enough to feel comfortable in the knowledge that gaming’s biggest franchise was coming back.
Kojima’s also been up to his usual tricks at the recent Game Awards, where he was spotted wearing a T-shirt with “twenty second and sixth” written on it in Swedish, creating mass speculation that this could be the long-awaited MGSV release date.
Dante’s Inferno – 9 Months of Hell
By the standards of this article, this campaign is pretty old – fair enough – but it definitely deserves a place on our list because of its sheer ingenuity and blatant ‘what-the-hell?!’ factor.
A select group of industry journalists, bloggers and writers etc. were invited to indulge in a new sin.
Developer EA games caused a lot of hype (and controversy) for their biblical hack ‘n’ slash Dante’s Inferno with their wacky ‘9 months of Hell’ campaign that took the industry by storm. Each month, a select group of industry journalists, bloggers and writers etc. were basically invited to indulge in a new sin, which drew attention to the game’s central premise: the journey through the 9 rings of Hell. The different techniques went from bizarre to polemical, to downright annoying.
‘Wrath’ was perhaps the most notable month, which saw a mysterious box delivered to the group of industry names who were involved in the campaign. Once opened, the box endlessly played the classic ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ by musical maestro Rick Astley. Also included in the box was a pair of goggles and a pretty meaty hammer, so I’m sure you can guess what the solution was…[yt_video id=”yIXRQ0zqD5M”][/yt_video]
Other, more controversial months invited people to give into lust with ‘Booth Babes’ at gaming conferences, and even gathered together fake religious protests. While these were met with a lot of criticism by writers both within and outside the industry, it ultimately worked well for EA because as we all know, when it comes to the Internet, there’s no such thing as bad publicity.
Assassin’s Creed Unity – Create Your Own Assassin Trailer
The annual release of the TV ad for the latest AC offering is kind of like the first day of advent; it’s moderately exciting, and it whets our appetites for Christmas. But in the end, it’s just another day we all have to go to work, college or university – although we eat a chocolate for breakfast. This year, however, Ubisoft did things a little differently.
Each individual assassin was actually created by fans of the series.
In an attempt to draw emphasis to two central aspects of the new release, Ubisoft released a trailer that combined both ‘Unity’ and customisability. As you will see in the video below, the ad features hundreds of different assassins as they unite to right the wrongs of revolutionary Paris. Each individual assassin was actually created by fans of the series, who were asked to build their ideal character using a system similar to that which features in the full game. Audiences were then guided to a site where they could find their individual creations and some hidden content.[yt_video id=”3-2rOtF8kuI”][/yt_video]
Ubisoft took the age old formula of a stunning cinematic TV ad and made it a process that fans weren’t only a part of, but actively contributed to.
Watch Dogs – Real Life Phone Hack
Watch Dogs developer Ubisoft cashed in on the increasingly popular hidden camera pranks that now litter every social media site in order to market their blockbuster release this summer, and the events, as you will see, were pretty hilarious![yt_video id=”1hpU_Neg1KA”][/yt_video]
The trick gave ‘real life’ customers the power of Aiden Pearce’s smartphone, putting the network of the CTOS at their fingertips. Beginning simply by acting as a remote light switch, the possibilities offered by the phone eventually lead to a seemingly local blackout and staged car crash. The campaign was inherently funny, and, like most hidden camera pranks, provided some comic reactions by placing individuals under pressure. Obviously, there’s still a debate as to what extent the customers were aware of the prank, but even so, it’s still cool to see the Watch Dogs hacks being acted out in real life.
Developer Ubisoft also continually works with action adventurer and YouTube personality Devin, who recreates sequences from their biggest releases in real life. His adaptation of Far Cry 4 using a Go Pro is definitely worth checking out.[yt_video id=”Sf5QbUkkrs0″][/yt_video]
Silent Hills’ – P.T. Reveal
Prior to their PlayStation Experience event this year, Sony released three short trailers teasing what seemed like a survival horror title, complete with shattering ice and blood dripping axes (sounds familiar, right?). As the Internet rightly guessed, the announcement turned out be the perma-death horror game, Until Dawn, a previously abandoned PS3 project. However, it was Mr. Kojima and his take on the genre that really made waves, and rightfully earned him a place at the top of this list.
P.T., the ingeniously devised demo, had players wandering around alternate versions of the same apartment, having to perform specific tasks to trigger the next loop. With each loop, things got creepier and creepier, with one notorious ‘level’ featuring a terrifying monster woman – dubbed ‘Lisa’ by the Internet – who stalks you. Fans were rewarded upon completion with the reveal of the player character, star of The Walking Dead, Norman Reedus, and the two directors, Kojima himself and acclaimed film director Guillermo Del Toro.
Needless to say the demo quickly blew up, with fans uploading videos of themselves playing it to sites like YouTube and Instagram in droves. They even cracked the puzzle (which to this day has no official solution) in a matter of hours, smashing director Kojima’s predictions.
The reason P.T. made it to the top of this list is because, to my knowledge, it’s never really been done before.
The reason P.T. made it to the top of this list is because, to my knowledge, it’s never really been done before; it takes the normal cinematic trailer, which is often highly removed from the actual gameplay experience, and makes it interactive. The harrowing experience of playing through the demo becomes something we share with others, and swapping stories of how we might have solved a specific puzzle becomes almost akin to swapping ghost stories when we were children with friends at a sleep over.
So there we have it, some of the best marketing ideas the industry has to offer. These campaigns didn’t just rely on fancy trailers and ‘leaked’ gameplay footage, they challenged audiences to get involved, and in some cases, even let fans have a direct input in their production. They’re all here because through a mixture of innovation and interactivity, they made these games some of the most talked about titles in the past five years.