By Zach Yanowitz
The US video game industry generated $43.4 billion in revenue in 2018, a truly absurd number (US film revenue in 2018 was $11.9 billion, by comparison). I really like video games, and I play a lot of them, so as we come to the end of Q4 it got me thinking about the best games I’ve been playing in 2019 — and the ingenious ways in which they were marketed to consumers.
RED DEAD REDEMPTION 2
Arguably my favorite game of all time, this open-world Western (and prequel to 2010’s Red Dead Redemption) from the makers of Grand Theft Auto puts players into the role of Arthur Morgan, an outlaw in 1899. Although the main storyline itself is as emotionally taut and narratively compelling as any game I’ve ever played — I was literally in tears at the end — RDR2 truly shines with its exploration possibilities. From bounty hunting through waist-deep snow in Ambarino to meticulously grooming Arthur’s beard in the high society of Saint Denis, the detail that went into the game’s worldbuilding is simply gobsmacking. The gameplay forces you to slow down and appreciate the living, breathing land around you — RDR2 truly deserves a place in the all-time Western canon alongside the best Clint Eastwood movies.
Marketing for the game — the release of which was postponed a number of times — included a mix between traditional billboard and newspaper advertising and a strategic release of game details via teaser trailers, which were naturally dissected by longtime fans of the franchise and studio, Rockstar Games. A strong hashtag campaign and multimedia push on the studio’s Twitter account over a number of years led to several viral memes across platforms. The game made $725 million in its first weekend, so you’d have to guess that they did a pretty good job.
THE WITCHER 3: THE WILD HUNT
Although this game was originally released in 2015, I somehow didn’t get around to playing it until this year despite constant recommendations from friends. I’m so glad I finally booted it up because this open-world fantasy game based on a series of Polish novels is astoundingly complex and rich. The first 10 or so hours of the game were the slowest as I became used to the sometimes-clunky controls, massive scope, and confusing storyline (presumably due to the fact that I never played earlier titles in the franchise), but once I got a handle on things it immersed me in a way I haven’t experienced in a fantasy game since Skyrim. Exciting and varied combat, detailed characters, multiple pathways and endings, seemingly-endless side quests, and fantastic DLC all combine to make Witcher 3 one of the best games I’ve played. It doesn’t hurt that Geralt of Rivia is one of the coolest video game protagonists ever. Can’t wait for the upcoming Netflix series!
The Witcher 3 had a built-in audience due to fans of the book series as well as previous games, but the studio still made marketing a priority. Their main strategy was something that seems obvious but is ignored by many game creators: speaking directly to fans. They came up with fun catch phrases like “Skyrim in a Game of Thrones sauce" to lure in players who might not be familiar with the setting and made sure to personally address any concerns brought up by potential customers. Adding a human element to the process created a strong connection with gamers, who have turned this convoluted Polish fantasy masterpiece into one of the biggest cult favorite games of all time.
I got in on the battle royale craze with Fortnite, but that game got a little too wacky and full of dancing middle schoolers for me. Although I’m historically terrible at FPS games, Apex Legends — from the studio that made Titanfall 2, one of the only shooter games I’ve ever enjoyed — is much more up my alley. Dropped into a map with two teammates (with 60 players per round), you must scavenge for weapons and supplies as the world shrinks around you, forcing you into combat with other teams. Each playable character has a special power, from a grappling hook to aerial bombardments to a spy drone. The combination of powers gives each round a different feel, and the speed of the matches makes the combat both high-stakes and rewarding. Best of all, the game is completely free to download and play! Also you’ll encounter big weird alien cow things walking around everywhere, so that’s cool.
The marketing of Apex Legends took a fascinatingly modern new approach: influencers. By working in tandem with popular Twitch streamers in the leadup to launch, Electronic Arts built anticipation for the upcoming game based purely on the reputation of famous industry personalities (as well as the established audience who already enjoyed Titanfall 2 and wanted more from the studio). This is of course a strategy that works best with online games as opposed to single player titles, but the results speak for themselves with a game that has remained popular and vibrant months after the original release.
The first Spider-Man video game I can remember playing was the 2002 one based on the Tobey Maguire movie series — the graphics and gameplay were absolutely terrible but I still got a visceral thrill from swinging through the skyscrapers of NYC. This ambitious vision was finally realized with the most recent iteration in the series, one that actually captures the kinetic joy of slinging webs and fighting crime from the skies. In this newest game, Manhattan has been realized on a street-by-street level and although the storyline and combat are both amazing, the best part of playing Spider-Man is simply moving through the world with grace and speed. Although the controls are a little complex, they quickly become second-nature as you take on the role of Peter Parker fighting trademark villains (Vulture, Doctor Octopus, etc), stopping muggings, and wooing Mary-Jane Watson. This title won a number of 2018 Game Of The Year awards for a reason!
Spider-Man opted for a traditional marketing approach of billboard, print, and television ads — although a 90-second commercial shown during the opening game of the NFL season was one of the most expensive ads that Sony has ever run. Most interesting is the way that Sony used the game’s unique selfie camera mode as a way to go viral on social media. This quirk allowed players to create their own fun and unique content, and sharing it across platforms was a way to organically spread awareness — I know I definitely posted selfie screenshots on my own Twitter account while I was playing!
METAL GEAR SOLID V: THE PHANTOM PAIN
I’ve been playing the Metal Gear Solid series since 2001, but it wasn’t until a few weeks ago that I finally picked up the most recent game in the series, which was released in 2015. I couldn’t possibly explain the unbelievably complex storyline of these iconic stealth titles in a single paragraph, but it basically follows a supersoldier (Venom Snake, in this game) as he sneaks around in cardboard boxes, meddles in complicated geopolitics, and fights enemies with supernatural powers. The Phantom Pain is the first open-world game in the series, which gives Snake the opportunity to approach his missions in whichever way you deem fit: You can carefully watch enemy movements and complete your missions without arousing any suspicion, or you can go in guns blazing with air support. But be careful — the enemies in this world will learn from your tactics; a fantastic gameplay innovation that forces you to stay on your toes and switch up your strategies. I love a game that challenges me even when I don’t necessarily want to be challenged! Oh, also there’s a dog and a horse who are your friends, and you can suck people up into the air using balloons.
The Phantom Pain had a bit of a muddled marketing strategy, perhaps a reason why it undersold despite critical acclaim. Although the game already has a built-in audience from longtime fans of the series, a fallout between creator Hideo Kojima and studio Konami suggests that the game wasn't even fully completed and might have been under-marketed partially out of spite. When the face of a franchise and the marketing team aren’t working in tandem, results can be underwhelming.
A strong marketing strategy is make-or-break in the video game industry. Good marketing can sell millions of copies of a bad game, and bad marketing can doom a masterfully-crafted title to the bargain bin. You can’t go wrong with any of the five I named above, as wildly different as they may seem in terms of setting and gameplay.
Whether you have a video game to promote or a business that needs more customers, Widefoc.us is here to use the best social media strategies and tactics to help you meet your goals. Just fill out our contact form to get started!
Despite writing this whole blog post about how many video games he plays, Copyeditor and Community Manager Zach sometimes goes outside and interacts with other human beings, he promises.