The hype machine

March 4, 2010, Author: Brian Gourlay

There is a lot of money to be had in gaming donchya know? While there are occasions when critically acclaimed games from smaller studios get the commercial success they deserve, nothing will ship copies like a finely tuned morally bankrupt marketing department. Hype is an integral part of a game’s success and publishers are continuously dreaming up more innovative ways to convince us their game is worth shelling out for. The only reason that every generic movie tie-in, copy and paste sports sim or uninspiring FPS is able to get past the design stage is because advertising departments are getting frighteningly good at convincing people that their lives would be a slightly gloomier place without their product sitting proudly in their bedroom. It’s pretty obvious that the larger companies are stretching the boundaries of acceptable marketing more and more, but just what does it take to get the hype machine rolling, and how far are they willing to go?

Bad publicity is still publicity
Keith Vaz, Kevin McCullough, Jack Thompson, The Daily Mail; despite being ill informed imbeciles the gaming industry owes these guys (and many more) a great big hug for the way they’ve selflessly promoted the market. “Xbox 360 gains sentience and cripples decorated war hero”, “Sonic the Hedgehog promotes bestiality” and “Gary Glitter: I was normal before I got a Wii” are all (in some universes) genuine headlines that have attempted to degrade the reputation of games as a viable platform for artistic expression. Of course the only thing these lobbyists have all succeeded in is doing the exact opposite, with the games in question receiving a popularity boost in a similar manner to the way that Vernon Kay is now regarded as being actually newsworthy.

Rockstar Games have undoubtedly benefited the most from these unintentional plugs, and it’s fair to say that they know exactly which mass media buttons to press. The GTA series can certainly walk tall based solely on its technical merits, but that can’t be said for the Manhunt series which I imagine would have fallen under the radar completely if not for the hysterical reaction to its gruesome content. Manhunt’s appeal was that it was breaking the boundaries of acceptable levels of violence in such a way that gamers across the globe were buying the game out of  sheer curiosity rather than based on the game itself. That’s not to say that its necessary to go looking for trouble however, since the global media will regularly manage to  find something to have a good old fashioned “It wasn’t this way in my day” campaign, regardless of minor details like factual accuracy.

Not so interesting now is it?!

Not so interesting now is it?!

While Mass Effect was already doing pretty well for itself with rave reviews from all sides, it received a welcome publicity shot in the arm through the frankly hilarious over-reaction from Fox News and Kevin McCullogh which was utterly convinced that Bioware’s space epic was in fact an unrelenting interspecies gangbang with an error ridden article with concluded with a sentence that will (and deservedly should) stick with him for the rest of his days:

“With it’s “over the net” capabilities virtual orgasmic rape is just the push of a button away.”

This showed that he not only completely misunderstands the nature of technology at large but a distinct lack of evidence that he had ever actually played the game. Even though the realisation that he had based an entire opinionated article on a completely fictional concept forced a prompt public apology, the media furore had already ahcieved the desired effect from Bioware’s perspective. Though thousands of extraterrestrial nipple hunting teens would have been disappointed at the sight of a mere blue side-boob I have no doubt that Mass Effect would have shipped a considerable number of copies based solely on the promise of being able to… well maybe you should take this one, Kev:

“hump in every form, format, multiple, gender-oriented possibility they can think of…”


There are occasions where bad publicity can have a plain and simple damaging effect on your game however, which Electronics Arts found out using a marketing ploy that only they would have the balls to even briefly entertain, never mind pick up and run with. Considering the biblical nature of Dante’s Inferno (as well as including an achievement for killing non-baptised babies, how the hell did that make it in!?) you would expect religious protestors to descend upon the game’s development studio with great haste. Well not quickly enough according to EA, as it came to light that a group of protestors kicking up a fuzz at E3 about the game’s religious context were in fact hired actors, with EA themselves picking up the bill. With a false website and reading material to back up this “unique” viral marketing campaign, EA must have thought that they had covered all of the bases. Until the next day that is when the entire thing was unveiled as a farce, and we all went back to vocally regarding EA as a shower of unscrupulous suits who live in volcano lairs and set our hard earned cash on fire to light their gargantuan cigars. Bastards.

Get yourself meme’d
The internet is a phenomenally power marketing tool and it’s very rare to jump into any gaming website without your screen being filled with the latest God of War 3 or Wii Fit propaganda, which is more often than not implemented with the subtlety of an Activision rep throwing a Call of Duty branded brick at your head. It’s not just the shady contracts between publishers and reviewing sites that gets people talking though, with a game that is worthy of being subjected to the meme treatment essentially doing all of the work itself, for better or worse.

If you can include any kind of glitch, hammy acting or moment of awkwardness in your pre-release footage you can bet that it will have been recreated, re-imagined and redistributed within hours of it entering the public domain. The E3 presentation of Genji 2 for the PS3 reached hilarious levels of stupidity and as a result the phrase “Giant Enemy Crab” is jokingly referenced across the industry, from Viva Piñata to World of Warcraft. While the producer of the game excitedly revealed that the game would be full of genuine historical battles from ancient Japan, footage of the infamous Giant Enemy Crab filled the screen behind him, leading to a few confused attendees frantically checking their history books, while the rest of them simply soiled themselves laughing. The situation was compounded as innovative new features such “real time weapon changes” were unleashed on the unsuspecting audience. Despite the obviously embarrassing consequences, the farcical press conference put Genji on the map in an unprecedented fashion, although I don’t think many publishers would go employ that particular marketing plan too readily.

Be a tease
Sometimes when it comes to building up the interest in a game, less is more. A well placed teaser trailer for your upcoming game can get the masses salivating at the mouth before you’ve even written a single line of code, particularly if you’ve already established your brand. Take the Mass Effect Teaser trailer as an example. It consists of two core elements, the first of which is a brief recollection of the many glorious achievements you as Shepard had heroically performed in the first game, followed by the useful tidbit of information that he’s dead…

I’m sorry what? Commander Shepard, who I spent slightly north of fifty hours levelling up has died within a few months of me turning my back? Why is that Geth wearing his armour?! I have too many questions, someone take my money so I can find answers! PLEASE!! Ok, that reaction was certainly on the more vocal end of the spectrum but it got people talking in a way that never really died down until Mass Effect 2 hit the shelves, with hype hitting fanatical levels as each character in Shepard’s suicidal space opera was gradually drip fed to us.

Where do I pick up my cheque?

Where do I pick up my cheque?

Not that drip feeding information has a detrimental effect on the hype surrounding a game, with many publishers rightly making the decision to release as many trailers that tell us absolutely nothing for as long as they can. In the same way that gory scenes in horror movies are most effective when left to our imagination, the number of people attempting to hopelessly dissect a game trailer increases as the level of tangible information that the trailer provides begins to drop. The recent trailer for the next title in the Ghost Recon series, Future Soldier, encapsulates this pretty well with the fifty second video telling us that it’s set in the future and some people will be invisible. Do we know who we’re fighting? Where this conflict takes place? Why the US Military have gone all Predator on us all of a sudden? Hell no! Does that stop the gaming community shouting their support or distain at the tiny morsel of information they’ve just been fed? Of course it doesn’t!

There’s no doubt that I’m only scratching the surface and some of the larger franchises have probably already implemented new advertising techniques that us simple gamers would never even consider. Where does the pre-release hype machine go from here though? Subliminal messaging perhaps? For all we know, every minute that we play the latest FIFA or Call of Duty could result in thousands of unnoticeable commands being hardwired into our minds.

Fortunately my mind is protected from any such ~ BUY ARMY OF TWO ~ attacks and as a result I’m impervious ~ FOOTBALL MANAGER IS YOUR FRIEND, GO TO IT ~ to any such suggestions…