At the MI6 game marketing conference in San Francisco, execs from 2K Games' marketing team presented a candid look at how the plan to sell BioShock 2
adapted to fan skepticism, game delays, and a tough marketing environment.
The presentation from marketing director Tom Bass and marketing VP Matt Gorman began with a frank admission: Fans were not looking forward to BioShock 2
. Said Gorman, "they held it as a very special experience, and a lot of the focus test research we did afterward, people said they didn't want any more BioShock
In the face of this, the team identified three groups who they wanted to market BioShock 2
to: fans of the original, hardcore gamers who skipped it, and casual console gamers who might wait for Mass Effect 2
or God of War III
instead of buying BioShock 2
Knowing that the original game was viewed as so unique and its success was predicated on the game's quality, "the first thing that came to our mind was, everything we did with BioShock
we had to throw away" when it came to the marketing plan, said Gorman.
"We didn't even open the marketing plan," said Bass. The plan for BioShock 2
was to "focus on the newness, focus on the Big Sister." The problem was that after the initial push, gamers said, "That's great. What's next?"
The team had to throw out its ideas and start over, spending three months working on a single vision for the campaign: a giant panoramic image of Rapture that contained tremendous detail and could inform all of the marketing materials from commercials to point of purchase standees.
Bass said the team came up with "a lot of concepts, really great concepts." However, he added, "what we found was that it was great to have a good concept," but it didn't work on a practical level -- "it became very difficult to render out" to marketing materials.
Another plan was sunk. The team stepped back and identified the essence of the series and what was new for the sequel. Then the team had to figure out what could work in the context of marketing and what was best left to the game for the users to discover.
Said Gorman, "It was important for us to focus in on these pieces. There was a very difficult decision along the way: What parts of the universe can we pull out, and make sense, and what do we just leave to the narrative?"
There was also a challenge in launching in early 2010. The gaming media was so focused on holiday titles that getting their attention was not easy and they had to hold off with their plans. Launch-target media buys started after Christmas 2009 as well.
A major part of the campaign was a four-minute trailer
that debuted on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, setting up the story, world, and gameplay.
But slick marketing like this doesn't draw in the fans, said Bass: "Marketing is all bullshit to them. They sniff through it. They hate marketing people." Fortunately, he said, "we have a tremendous respect for our community" and thus "we wanted to create an experience for them. However, when you look at something like your community, you need guiding principles."
The game's website
, which operated for months and had fiction that gelled with the game's story, "gave them a way to participate without being part of the marketing machine. We would update this website every single day," said Bass. "People got very involved with the fiction and breaking things down."
The alternate reality game (ARG)
revolved around a botanist named Mark Meltzer whose five-year-old daughter was kidnapped. This fiction transitioned into the real world when a P.O. box address was published and someone sent in a letter.
Once that writer got his response, "hundreds of thousands of pieces of mail" poured in. The marketing team featured some of the letters on the website -- many of which were very artfully done and featured original fiction that fit in the world of Rapture. The marketing team sent back to all respondents a vinyl record containing a secret message.
The marketing campaign was carried forward to PAX and San Diego Comic-Con. 2K's booth at those events, instead of being composed of carpet and kiosks, was a recreation of the office of Mark Meltzer. It was completely interactive and real, filled with fictional documents that fans could read and interact with, and puzzles for them to solve during the show.
The company even delivered clues via "telegrams" handed over by actors dressed in period costume and followed those up with packages with more clues.
The challenge for the marketing team was to "make sure we're not violating the fiction," Gorman said. Fortunately, it was handled with enthusiasm and class, and the developers "became real big fans of the whole process, and they got involved with us, and they ended up authoring this character into the game itself."
The campaign culminated with a real world "manhunt" which ended in San Francisco with a fake crime scene. Later, when the character showed up in the game, "people were in tears writing to us," said Bass, saying things like, "Thank you for not killing him."
Though marketing has become more challenging, the audience is "still there, they still want content, they still want texture and engagement," Gorman said.
And, he added, when it comes to a sequel, "don't assume that because they're fans, that the print and TV ads will be enough to convince them." Engaged responses from fans also make "a good story when you walk into retailers" to talk about the game, he said.