Alan sent me a trailer for Dead Island, a game which I had not heard of. The trailer (which is here) is an engaging short film that uses a clever juxtaposition of forward and backward sequences to tell a story, creating the impression of a game with thaumatic depth.
But then I went to the Facebook page, and saw this:
- first-person melee combat
- 4-player coop
- weapon customization
- set on an open world tropical island
- RPG elements for character development
- hordes of gruesome zombies
Sounds like a different game, doesn’t it? I think the Dead Island marketing has a continuity problem.
Which Game Am I Engaging With?
It’s unclear which marketing story the developers are trying to tell. The trailer attempts to convey over-delivery: ‘Look’, it says, ‘this game is about more than just action. It’s about something.’ The Facebook page, on the other hand, says ‘It’s ok gamers. Look at our features. You get to hit and shoot stuff, with levels.’
While the trailer is certainly attention-grabbing, the features message is arguably more powerful in the long term because it admits to players that Dead Island is actually a normal zombie-bashing game in the vein of Dead Rising or Left 4 Dead. It invites the player to regard the game as just another me-too invisible game. Left 4 Dead but with first person melee combat (when has first person combat ever actually worked?) is the content.
So despite being a great trailer, the message is that all that trailer stuff you just saw only bears a passing resemblance to an actual game. This is a shame, because the positive commenters on YouTube clearly buy into the idea conveyed by the trailer. They want to connect with it and to be immersed in that world. So if the game turns out to not actually do that, or to seem like a typical zombie basher, the only possible result is disappointment.
Marketing stories only work when they have continuity. Continuity means that the trailer matches up to the game, that the game matches up to the publicity materials, that the interviews with the creators match up to what the trailer is trying to convey, and that the overall impression of the experience is authentic. Audiences respond to authenticity in a sustained fashion, becoming fans, but they respond negatively to smoke-and-mirrors because they hate being fooled.
Smoke-and-mirrors are what developers and publishers usually employ when they decide it’s time to start generating hype. The trailer is treated as an independent entity, the game is only marginally connected to it, and the audience is led by the nose with tantalising glimpses. It is just a tactic to attain visibility rather than a strategy to build an audience, and the hope is that the illusion of what the game is will pervade long enough to generate significant sales.
Big budget game marketing uses what is essentially an MTV model: Attract with video, generate hype, sell boxed product. It sometimes works really well, especially if the hype and the game match up. However, operating like that is risky. Word of mouth moves more quickly than ever before, and players rely more on social recommendation than broadcast sources.
In the old days the trailer might have played on TV or on the screens of retail stores. Magazine journalists might have enthused about it and it might have even been included on demo CDs. Now, a trailer hits YouTube and goes all around the world in a day. It is hailed as amazing, and the expectations for what the game will be are immediately lifted into the stratosphere by forum speculation and blog love letters.
Then a misstep happens. The game’s in-game footage shows something else. The early reviews from journalists say the game is only good, not fantastic, and so a gap between hope and reality emerges. The net effect can be light, moderate, or very serious depending on just how big that gap is. The market will forgive a game that doesn’t quite reach up to its expectations, but it will still be disappointed. However the market will savage a game that is really wide of the mark.
A great example of how trailers can work is the one for Halo 3. Simple, clear, and inspiring, it also was closely related to what the game is actually about. The audience knew this, and so there was continuity. Bungie (the developers) reinforced this through their community, sustaining the relationship, and this further created the impression of continuity.
A bad example, on the other hand, is the trailer for Killzone 2 that Sony used to build hype for the PlayStation 3. Showing unheard-of levels of sophistication, graphics and co-ordinated gameplay, it was the trailer that was too good to be real. Flame wars raged across the internet as to whether it was in fact fake, and when the machine and its games finally launched looking much the same as Xbox 360 games, Sony lost a lot of credibility among fans.
It didn’t matter that Killzone 2 was actually a good game. It just couldn’t live up to expectations.
Playing With Fire
The point is that relying on smoke-and-mirrors is actually playing with fire. Trailers are an excellent way to get a game noticed as a part of a campaign to achieve visibility, but the downside is that they often write cheques that the game can’t cash. Gamers are increasingly wary of what they see in trailers, (requiring publishers to display the embarrassing Actual Game Footage label) and likely to backlash if they sense discontinuity.
It’s too early to pronounce on Dead Island, but my initial impression is that the developers have created a very impressive set of smoke-and-mirror expectations that they will find nearly impossible to satisfy. Their trailer is several steps above the norm, and viewed as a short film in and of itself it is really rather good.
But how exactly will it relate with a game that is apparently all about first person combat, weapon customisation and levels? Not a whole lot.
So disappointment beckons.