Marketing Campaigns Are Doomsday Machines

By Dennis Scimeca
Saturday, June 18, 2011 at 10:00 am
Duke Nukem Press Shot.jpg
This was cool until the game came out
Sometimes the marketing campaign for a video game speaks truth, and other times it's complete bullshit. In either case, once marketing campaigns begin they're near impossible to stop, even if they aren't describing the product accurately.

Does there come a point when video game developers, publishers or PR firms realize that the game they're selling no longer bears any resemblance to the game they'll actually be delivering to the public, and asking $60 a pop for?

Duke Nukem Forever is the brightest, recent example of this horribly hilarious phenomenon, but it was preceded by two other first person shooters which enticed us to waste our money this year: Homefront and Brink. Together they form a Trifecta of Terrible. Behold the power of the marketing machine, and tremble.

At least the cover art was neat

At some point, someone at Kaos Studios or THQ must have looked at the marketing narrative constructed for Homefront about a "gripping, cinematic first person shooter," and said "We have a problem here." Consider the idiocy of American Resistance fighters, stacked up outside the door of a warehouse filled with North Korean soldiers, cautioning each other against making too much noise lest the soldiers inside be alerted to their presence.

Not five minutes beforehand, the Resistance had set the parking lot on fire with napalm and shot down a helicopter gunship with a rocket-firing, six wheeled combat drone that first smashed through the hulks of all the burning cars. I'm sure kicking in a metal warehouse door would have alerted the North Korean soldiers inside to the presence of the Resistance, where the explosions and sounds of three platoons' worth of their guards being slaughtered outside had failed to do so.

Homefront was marketed almost exclusively on the drama of its campaign. The pedigree of the game's author, also the scribe of the movies Red Dawn and Apocalypse Now, was offered as assurance of how good Homefront's story would be. Yet the plot boiled down to delivering three fuel tankers which enabled the American military to retake the San Francisco Bay Bridge from the North Koreans.

By the same token, someone at Splash Damage or Bethesda Softworks must have looked at the marketing narrative constructed for Brink about "blurring the lines between online and offline gaming," in other words between campaign and multiplayer FPS gaming, and said "We have a problem here." Brink had no story whatsoever, just a bunch of before-and-after vignettes for each match that didn't piece together into a coherent plot. It had no characters. There is no campaign in Brink. There are just a bunch of multiplayer maps loosely tied together by theme.

This would have been forgivable if the multiplayer had worked properly. There were no lobbies to squad up in before entering a match. One had to jump into a friend's game first and join up that way, assuming one could get into a match without any lag. Brink's netcode was so borked that it took Splash Damage two patches to make the online game playable on the Xbox 360, and I still have horrible lag sometimes when trying to play with friends.

Marketing plans are designed for attaining maximum market penetration on release day. Any delay past the intended date risks losing audience awareness of the title, and achieving lesser market penetration and thus fewer profits. A publisher can either sink more marketing dollars into the title to cover the loss of awareness during the delay period, or release the game as-is to make as much money back on their investment as possible.

This is how gamers wind up paying AAA game prices for B-list titles or to become Beta-testers, or in worst-case scenarios like Duke Nukem Forever, paying sixty bucks for games that probably should never have been released in the first place, but whose marketing juggernauts refused to allow for that state of affairs.

A game with a booth like -this- has to be good, right?

I wonder if or at what point Jim Redner of TheRednerGroup, now the former PR representation for 2K Games, realized that Duke Nukem Forever was one of those games that just should have been shelved?  Was it before or after the Destructoid review by Jim Sterling, which was quickly followed-up by the Ars Technica review by Ben Kuchera, both of which were the metaphorical equivalent of drawing and quartering the DNF development team, and then sticking their heads on pikes outside the castle walls?

The PAX Prime 2010 Duke Nukem Forever reveal was the biggest headline to come out of the show. The Duke Nukem Forever booths at PAX East 2011 and E3 last week were palatial representations of the Duke's glory, replete with fake chandeliers and booth babes. The game trailers were celebratory and fun. The Duke was back! Hail to the King, baby! And the marketing seems to have done its job. Plenty of gamers are declaring their intention to buy DNF anyway, just to see for themselves what the complaints are about. I can't wait to see the sales figures.

I imagine Jim Redner watching the negative reviews roll in, cursing as he contemplated the repercussions on his PR firm for something he had absolutely nothing to do with, namely the quality of Duke Nukem Forever. Unless he never wants to work in public relations ever again, Redner will never tell us whether or not 2K Games rode his ass over the Xbox 360 version of DNF being one of the few titles in recent memory to sink to a negative Metascore within two days of its release. But something inspired the rage tweets that got Redner fired by 2K Games, and a pissed-off client is a pretty sure bet.

God damn those kids with their screenshots and quick reflexes

It's a shame that Redner dug his own grave with those rage-tweets he deleted too late. All he had to do was ride out the bad reviews for another week or so, and then Jim Redner could have told war stories of passing through one of the roughest PR crucibles in a long while. Hell, he could have claimed responsibility for the PR Doomsday Device to end all PR Doomsday Devices. "I actually convinced people to buy Duke Nukem Forever!"

Redner's next gig could have been helping Representative Anthony Weiner earn back the good graces of the public after admitting to sexting pictures of his namesake and resigning from office.

Of all the lessons that the video game industry has learned from the film industry, the power of crafting good marketing for bad product is one of the most harmful for the consumer. Yet we seem to fall for the same tricks over and over again, and so publishers keep employing men and women who know how to work their magic on us.

Just remember that sometimes the hype around a video game might pay off, but it might not be such a bad idea to wait until you've read that first review or three before deciding whether or not a new game is worth your attention. Otherwise, you're just feeding the doomsday machine.

First Person is a weekly column by Boston, MA-based freelancer Dennis Scimeca. He also occasionally blogs at Punching Snakes and regularly blows up the twitters @DennisScimeca.

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