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Inside the Arkham City marketing strategy that killed Batman's superhero stigma

At the Gamasutra-attended Game Marketing Summit, key marketing leads behind Rocksteady's Batman: Arkham City detailed the numerous advertising strategies that gave the superhero hit such mass-market appeal.
Rocksteady's hit game Batman: Arkham City pitted the iconic dark knight against some of his greatest enemies, but according to Russell Arons, SVP of worldwide marketing at Warner Bros. Interactive, the character had far greater foes to overcome in 2011, including notorious video game executives like Activision's Bobby Kotick, Ubisoft's Yves Guillemot, and EA's John Riccitiello. At the Gamasutra-attended Game Marketing Summit in San Francisco, Arons and other key marketing leads for the game explained that based on the success of Arkham Asylum in 2009, Rocksteady's most recent release needed to take things one step further. The game couldn't just appeal to the existing Batman fans -- it had to reach the same audiences as Call of Duty, Assassin's Creed, and Battlefield. "And while [Arkham City's success] was a benefit, it was also a bit of a challenge, as original IP dominates, and licensed IP has definitely fallen off," Arons said, noting that once-popular licenses like Spider-Man just don't carry the same weight as they did in prior console generations. In order to keep up with the year's top games and anticipated sequels, Warner Bros. had to find a way to make Rocksteady's game appeal to audiences who might not be interested in comic books and superhero mythos. "It's easier to market and sell a game that has critical acclaim, but we had another unique challenge -- a lot of players just don’t want to play as a superhero character," added Matthew Geyer, Warner Bros.' VP of core games marketing. "You want to be a superhero as a kid, but as an adult, not so much. You'd rather play as a badass assassin or things like that…and we wanted those Assassin's Creed fans [for Arkham City]!" Thus, Warner Bros. had to find a way to sell Batman not as a superhero, but as a mass market "action hero." A difficult task, considering the character's 70-year run as a crime fighter in tights. To find this new approach, Warner Bros. commissioned video game marketing firm Trailer Park, which helped design an ad campaign that broke away from traditional superhero tropes. A real key to giving Batman that mass-market appeal was a series of black and white print ads for the game's characters, said Trailer Park director Brian Setzer. These ads showed Batman weathered, tired, and bloody, showcasing not his gadgets or special abilities, but his perseverance and vulnerability. "It was about making Batman look more like a man," Setzer said. "When people first saw these ads, they really got into it. They made people connect with it, and talk about it." With this iconic imagery, Warner Bros. established an aesthetic that both caught the attention of a wide audience, and maintained the essence of what makes the Batman universe so appealing. The company then expanded this strategy across the web, TV, and numerous other media to ensure that the ads reached as many eyes as possible. Warner Bros. leveraged its numerous media divisions to insert Arkham City promotions in DVDs, TV spots, billboards, magazines, and more. It's this widespread distribution that helped the company show this new interpretation of Batman to the world. In addition, the company also made sure to implement a number of retailer-exclusive pre-order bonuses to ensure that stores would give Arkham City plenty of promotion in the months leading up to its release. In the end, Arkham City's ad campaign became the biggest marketing campaign in Warner Bros.' history, and Arons said it played an essential role in transforming the Batman IP from one with hardcore, niche appeal, to one that stands among the industry's most prominent franchises.

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