Edgy or Out of Touch? Marketing Mistakes in the Videogames Industry

As a marketer and a lifelong gamer, it fascinates me to see so many marketing mistakes happening in the video games industry.

Perhaps I’m just naive and inexperienced, but it seems to me that the industry can’t go one year without some company seriously screwing up in the marketing arena. Huge PR controversies and anticlimactic marketing campaigns have become all too common. In fact, many gamers seem to expect it nowadays. We’re surprised when publishers like EA or Ubisoft manage to promote and launch a new game successfully — which is to say, without offending a large portion of their customer base along the way.

To be fair, it’s not all bad. The video games industry has evolved and matured significantly over the years, and has shown us that art and big business can (mostly) come together to make something great. I mean, they say you have to break a few eggs if you want to make an omelet, right?

That being said, it seems like plenty of marketers are consistently dropping the ball (or in this case… eggs?) when it comes to marketing their video game product. And I don’t just mean the big controversies that send internet forums into a frenzy. Offending your fans to the point where they file a lawsuit against you is bad, sure, but what’s worse is when you see a studio or publisher do something completely unremarkable or miss the mark entirely with their audience. Anyone remember the fail-tacular Sega Saturn launch from 1995?

So, what’s up with marketing in the video games industry? Big name publishers and indie developers alike have had their fair share of failures while marketing their games. Is it the result of edgy tactics in a rapidly evolving industry, or are folks just out of touch with their audience?

In this blog post, I’ll break down 3 recent marketing mishaps in the videogames industry and dive deeper into what that says about the relationship between videogame marketers and gamers, and how they can fix it. Here we go!

1) Deus Ex: Mankind Divided’s Scummy Pre-Order Program


Deus Ex: Makind Divided is arguably one of the most anticipated games to be releasing in the next year. So, understandably, many fans were eager to pre-order it as soon as they were physically able — myself included. The game’s publisher, Square Enix, no doubt expected this to be the case, so they apparently thought they’d try something new with their pre-ordering system.

In theory, it actually sounds like a pretty good idea: by offering pre-order bonus content like skins, extra levels, weapons, etc. in tiers, and having additional tiers unlocked based on the amount of total pre-orders received, customers could have some choice in their pre-order bonuses and Square Enix could boost their numbers by motivating Deus Ex fans to help drive more pre-orders. Everybody wins, right? …Right?

Wrong. It turns out gamers didn’t like being told they won’t get access to content unless a certain number of pre-orders are met. Rather than feeling like they were given “options,” most fans instead felt that they were given an ultimatum: give us more money or you won’t get these cool rewards. The whole system felt like some sort of pyramid scheme in disguise, as if those of us who did place pre-orders were expected to go door-to-door with flyers trying to convince our friends and neighbors to pre-order the game so that we could unlock the next highest DLC tier.

One might say the fans… “never asked for this” Eh? Get it? Heh heh… *ahem*

… Sorry.

Thankfully, Square Enix realized their mistake after receiving lots of negative feedback and quickly cancelled the program, promising to make all pre-order bonuses available with each pre-order or day-one edition purchase of Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. Things worked out in the end, but this could have easily spelled disaster for the game. The intent may have been to generate excitement and sales through mass audience participation, but when fans feel like they are forced to participate in order to receive rewards, rather than having actual choice, it disengages them and harms the relationship between them and the publisher/product.

2) Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 Fakes a Terrorist Attack on Twitter


If you ask me, the Call of Duty franchise has relied a bit too much on controversy to generate publicity since Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2’s “No Russian” mission. But, as they say, “there’s no such thing as bad press,” and you can’t argue with the fact that the Call of Duty franchise has done well for itself in terms of brand awareness and the growth of its fanbase over the years. However, the latest stunt Call of Duty’s marketing team pulled on Twitter may have backfired on them a bit.

Basically, the official Call of Duty Twitter account was changed to that of a fictional (but somewhat realistic-sounding) news agency, which immediately started reporting on explosions witnessed in Singapore, and evidence of it being a possible terrorist attack. Other tweets included details about Singapore’s government declaring Martial Law in a State of Emergency and references to potential terrorist suspects. They wrapped up their string of fictional tweets with “This was a glimpse into the future fiction of #BlackOps3.”

The intent here was clearly to generate some buzz about the game, but instead all that happened was a lot of people were either mildly confused or just unamused. Not much warning or context was given (most likely in an attempt to make this go viral), and the fictional claims were made at a time when things were very tense in regards to terrorism (it still is), and many people around the world were very sensitive to it (they still are). This made the campaign very jarring and confusing.

The game’s publisher and developer — Activision and Treyarch, respectively — received a moderate amount of backlash from gamers and non-gamers alike, but in the end the controversy was short-lived and anti-climactic. After apologies were made, everyone seemed to move on and forget the whole thing ever happened. You might think this is a good thing, but I would argue that this is actually one of the worst possible outcomes, at least from a marketing perspective.

Regardless of whether or not people felt this stunt was done in poor taste, the fact of the matter is controversy draws attention. If this marketing stunt had either excited waves of fans or seriously offended people in general, Black Ops 3 would have received a lot of free publicity, which could have helped promote the game. Neither happened here. This campaign was not wisely planed and was poorly executed, which resulted in an unremarkable outcome. In the end, this almost certainly did not generate a good return on the time, energy, and money invested into making the campaign happen.

If you ask me, it would have been better if the Call of Duty marketing team had abandoned their hopes for shock value and been clear from the start that this was for their game. That way, fans would know what to expect and could then actively engage with the campaign as it went live, while also getting an immersive look at the world of Call of Duty: Black Ops 3. This could have potentially helped generate excitement and momentum for the game prior to its release.

3) Dead Island’s Misleading Game Trailer


When Dead Island was first announced in 2011, a gripping and heartbreaking trailer was used to promote the game. For those of you who may not have seen it, the trailer tells the story of a family who is attacked by zombies while on vacation. Their young daughter is bitten and then, to their horror, starts to attack her own parents, who end up throwing her out a window. The trailer is set to a sad piano tune, and is beautifully directed to portray feelings of horror and tragedy. I totally didn’t cry. Really, I didn’t.

This excited a lot of us gamers, as we were led to believe that Dead Island was going to be a serious, dark survival/zombie game, which there was serious demand for at the time. However, once the game actually came out, things were a bit different than we expected.


Whereas the trailer implied that Dead Island would be serious, dark, and emotionally gripping, the actual game was goofy and played out like a Syfy channel action movie. Lots of gore, weird characters, and moments of sprinting through poolside cabanas beating bikini-clad zombies over the head with a nail-spiked baseball bat. Fun? Absolutely. Dark and gripping? Absolutely not.

While Dead Island itself turned out to be a pretty fun game with some pretty good reception, the fact that the game was very different from what a lot of gamers expected it to be left a bad taste in their mouths. This cost Dead Island a lot of potential fans, and resulted in a lackluster release.

There are two simple but important lessons to learn, here:

  1. Deliver on what you promise.
  2. Know your audience.

Dead Island’s trailer set the expectation that the game was going to be dark and serious, but it wasn’t. When you break expectations like that, you lose the trust of your fans, which hurts the reputation and value of your brand and product regardless of what industry you’re in.

Dead Island was actually not a bad game, but it was marketed to the wrong audience. The trailer attracted fans of serious, emotionally gripping games, when the actual end product appealed to fans of fun and wacky games. The marketing team here sent the wrong message to the wrong people. As a result, they disappointed a lot of potential customers. If they had marketed it to the right audience from the start, they could have ended up with way more fans and promoters.

Honorable Mentions:

I originally had a much larger list of videogame marketing mistakes, but not all of them made the cut for this blog post. I may include some in a Part 2 post, so stay tuned! In the meantime, enjoy these honorable mentions for recent marketing mistakes:

  1. Overwatch — For the developers vaguely addressing questions about paid DLC characters. Later they announced all future maps and characters would be free. Yay!
  2. Assassin’s Creed Revelations — For getting YouTuber Tobuscus to bring his “literal trailer” talents to an ad for the game. Wasn’t necessarily a failure, but it was a bit out of line with the game’s tone and seemed a bit awkward to some fans.
  3. Payday 2 — For adding micro-transactions to the game after saying they never would. Whoops.

So, why do these marketing mistakes keep happening? What can marketers do to fix this moving forward?

Clearly, there’s lots of room for improvement in the ways companies market their games these days. The examples I’ve listed in this blog post are just a small sample of the marketing mistakes that occur in the video games industry. The question I think we should be asking is: are these failures the result of marketers trying to use “edgy” tactics, or incompetent marketers who are out of touch with their audience? If you ask me, it’s a bit of both.

There’s a lot of variation among the companies that are active in the video games industry. Some are gigantic, some are small; some makes games of many genres, some only focus on one genre — and so on and so on.

But this isn’t just true for companies. In my opinion, the video games industry is also home to one of the most diverse customer bases out there. This means there’s a huge variety in the interests, ages, budgets, and other qualities of gamers, which means marketers have their work cut out for them. Sometimes you’ve got to be “edgy” to get results in a highly competitive and rapidly changing industry. But it can also be easy to lose touch with an audience who is changing just as rapidly.

How can marketers in the video games industry work towards successful campaigns, then? If you ask me, the answer(s) may actually be quite simple. If video game marketers don’t want to make mistakes like the ones mentioned above, I think they should consider following these points very closely:

  1. Understand your audience — Learn what your customers like, and give them that. Be careful not to mislead, confuse, or repel them with your campaigns.
  2. Be transparent and trustworthy — This is especially important when building relationships with gamers, who can be very distrustful of game developers/publishers. Deliver on your promises, and own up to your mistakes.
  3. Don’t sell out; keep games fun — Gamers (and any smart consumer, for that matter) can tell when you’re milking them for cash, and they don’t like it (gasp). Videogames make money, but they’re also art & entertainment. This is part of what makes games valuable — don’t forget that.

Bottom Line: The gaming industry is one of the most rapidly changing industries out there, and gamers have incredibly diverse backgrounds, tastes, and demographics. Given this, it’s not too surprising that there have been so many missteps made in marketing to gamers, but as long as video game marketers truly understand their audience, keep them engaged, and don’t treat them like money machines, I suspect they’ll do well.


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