The Rockstars of Video Game Marketing

The art of marketing a video game before launch is something not often talked about, and yet it is a critical factor in how well a game will ultimately sell. Getting people excited while still managing expectations can be somewhat of a balancing act, and one that a game’s success may ultimately depend on. There are many ways to market games; some options are heavily situational while others are usually the go-to marketing strategy for blockbuster titles.

Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption 2 is one such title that released to record-breaking levels of success in October 2018, garnering more than $725 million in sales for the first 3 days according to Business Wire. Coming just shy of Rockstar’s own Grand Theft Auto V which achieved an astounding $1 billion in its first 3 days in 2013, Red Dead Redemption 2’s success is perhaps unsurprising. That being said, becoming the second-highest grossing entertainment launch of all time is never a given, no matter the studio’s pedigree.

Take Battlefield V for example. You would assume that being a mainline title in one of EA’s biggest franchises would guarantee you some decent level of success, and yet it met a significantly smaller sales margin than its predecessor, Battlefield 1. Now, all we can do is speculate when it comes to the why. Battlefield V’s weaker than expected sales figures could be attributed to a number of factors, such as criticism that the game lacked a variety of content at launch that fans consider staples of the franchise (e.g. the series’ iconic ‘Rush’ mode) and had a significant lack of polish, exhibiting a plethora of bugs and unfinished content.

I think, however, we can be fairly certain that the game’s poor marketing didn’t help the cause. A hot topic that came about as the game’s reveal trailer released was surrounding the trailer’s inclusion of a female soldier with a prosthetic arm. Many fans criticized this decision, while others defended it, leading to a war of words on social media. Developers chimed in to defend the trailer, and EA’s own Patrick Söderlund (who departed the company shortly after) chimed in, telling players via an interview at E3 2018 with gaming outlet Gamasutra that “…you have two choices: either accept it or don’t buy the game.”

Honestly, while Söderlund’s intentions here were noble, telling prospective customers that they shouldn’t buy your game isn’t the best way to win over consumers. Overall though, the game’s marketing was spread pretty thin from the time between the announcement and launch. This isn’t necessarily a bad strategy, and a lot of companies adopt it (most do, actually). However, I bring it up because I want to highlight how it contrasts with how Rockstar marketed their newest title.

Rockstar was surprisingly silent in the years spanning from Red Dead Redemption 2’s announcement, only releasing a trailer and some screenshots every now and then, while keeping details scarce. This was true right up until a month before the game’s finalised launch date of October 26th 2018. Once the end was in sight, marketing for the game ramped up exponentially, with a slew of new screenshots, trailers, and previews of the game for select members of the press.

Rockstar knew how difficult it can be to maintain interest in a game, even one as anticipated as RDR2, over such a long period of time, and so they kept their cards close to their chest until the moment was right, and they definitely had a good hand. It’s pretty clear they also thought it best not to show much of the game earlier in development, since a lot of the content they may have shown could have been cut before launch. (This is an approach CD Projekt Red are currently taking with their upcoming title Cyberpunk 2077, making sure players know that anything they show is liable to change.)

Personally, my excitement for Red Dead Redemption 2 was fairly moderate until that last month, and I believe that was part of the plan. Once the information started rolling in, I couldn’t get enough. I was looking up any outlet that got to preview the game to hear them talk about it; I wanted to know everything there was to know after such a long drought of information. The dam had finally burst.

That excitement lasted right up until launch because it is far easier to maintain interest for a month, rather than years. This is further backed up by the fact that Battlefield V did not meet its lofty sales expectations, which during EA’s quarterly earnings call on the 5th of February this year, was noted to have sold 7.3 million copies. While that may sound like a lot, it was still a whopping 1 million less than their target. Compare that to Red Dead Redemption 2’s sales of 23 million copies sent out to retailers (more than three times more!), reported on the same day, and you can see how much more effective Rockstar’s marketing was.

While we’re here let’s touch on a few smaller examples of good and bad marketing. You might remember that Nintendo released a trailer for Super Smash Bros. Ultimate that had no music backing it. This was actually a stupendously clever move, as it prompted fans to make their own mixes of the trailer with music of their own choice (like this one), leaving Nintendo with a wash of free marketing, and they didn’t even have to spend a dime on copyrighted music!

You may also remember the biggest blunder of Blizzcon 2018, when Blizzard decided to reveal a mobile-based Diablo game in Diablo Immortal. Was it an out of season April Fools joke? No. Was it poorly received? Oh yes. Fans were left disappointed after expecting Diablo 4’s long-awaited arrival, only for Blizzard to reveal a spin-off for everyone’s favourite gaming platform. Blizzard probably should have read the room with this one and announced Immortal in a less grandiose way and to a more appropriate audience than to a group of die-hard PC gamers. What? Do you guys not have phones…?

You could also take example from games with little to no marketing push, though these are usually games with smaller budgets and you can’t really blame them for not blowing half their funds on marketing their game.

That being said, there are some special cases where throwing out marketing altogether is the best way to go. Apex Legends is the best recent example of that. The game seemingly came out of nowhere, only leaking a couple of days before launch thanks to a preview event for online gaming personalities and press. In this case, there was a very good reason for the surprise reveal of the game, as outlined by Respawn’s Drew McCoy in an interview with Game Informer:

“Our goal for this game and our community is to be very transparent with them. To be completely honest, we know this game has skepticism around it. It’s not Titanfall 3. It’s a very different game than everyone expected. It’s battle royale, which for some people is a fad right now. Instead of trying to convince a skeptical audience over a period of time with marketing and interviews, why not just let the game speak for itself? The best antidote for any skepticism is to see and hopefully believe.”

It’s hard to deny that they were right with this decision. Announcing the game months before release and trying to market it while only giving people a slice of what to expect with the full product would have only drawn scepticism and hurt the game, considering it’s the first game Respawn has shipped since being acquired by EA, it’s a battle royale game with loot boxes and microtransaction, and it’s not Titanfall 3. That mix has “disaster” written all over it.

Releasing the game and marketing it after launch makes perfect sense in this scenario, and you can’t argue with the results. The game reached 25 million registered players in a single week, and 2 million peak concurrent players as noted by Vince Zampella on Twitter. To put that in perspective, Fortnite took 2 weeks to reach 10 million registered users.

The reason Respawn and EA were able to pull off this strategy, however, was heavily dependent on the fact that Apex Legends is a free to play game. There are a few reasons you couldn’t pull off this strategy with a full priced game, mainly that if you’re asking people to drop £50 on a new game, you’ve got to convince them it’s worth their hard earned money. That also feeds into another point which is that Apex Legend‘s marketing was mainly done by word of mouth, people telling their friends “hey, download this game, it’s free” which is a lot more difficult to do with a full priced game.

A stealth release could work for a full priced game, but the game’s day one sales would almost certainly be underwhelming, even if it’s from a studio with a record like Rockstar since it would take time for word to spread, and the majority of consumers might not have £50 just laying around. That’s why Rockstar’s marketing strategy for Red Dead Redemption 2 was so clever. They knew they didn’t have to build hype for the game over time, they just had to make sure people were well aware of and were excited for the game in the days leading up to launch.

At the end of the day, you’ve got this goliath of a game, a long-awaited sequel to one of the greatest games of all time. All these expectations come along with that, and so, much like Apex, if Rockstar had chosen to push their marketing over a thin stretch from announcement to launch, they could have faced a fair amount of scepticism over their design choices. I even remember hearing a few critiques of the game’s facial animations based on the second trailer they dropped. Imagine if they had rolled out even more information and given people the time to pick it apart piece by piece. It could very well have backfired for them.

Rockstar’s marketing strategy was smart because they knew they had something good, a product that could speak for itself. They knew people were excited for it and that they didn’t have to use their time and resources to market to people who were already excited, so they held back and they waited for the perfect moment to strike, to remind people that the greatest game they’ve never played was coming out soon. It’s a significant part of the game’s success that doesn’t get a lot of recognition, and it’s a lesson in knowing your audience and playing to your strengths.

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