The art of (over?) exposure: Ken Levine discusses Bioshock Infinite promotion
It can be hard being Ken Levine at a show like PAX East. Nearly every minute of the show gets taken up by some sort of responsibility to the games he’s working on. Presentations all morning, talking to the press all afternoon and, at PAX East this year he was always, ALWAYS promoting Bioshock Infinite. I felt like I was adding to the mess by asking about a very unsexy subject in video games: Marketing.
It’s hard to keep up with gaming news without feeling like the AAA games are endlessly discussed long before launch; I was curious whether Levine himself found the game to be overexposed. Everything Levine says and every detail shared about the game gets splashed across the gaming blogs and fora. Heck, the game was even announced to the public earlier than he would have liked due to external pressure.
“We probably would have announced it later, but we were worried about it leaking. We had a nice unintentional head fake, everyone thought we were working on this X-Com game, but we weren’t. It wasn’t what people expected,” Levine said. “Without our presentation, people would have gotten the wrong message about [Bioshock Infinite], it would have been confusing.” The game takes place in a different time period and in a very different setting than the previous Bioshock titles, and it requires a significant investment to educate gamers about what to expect from the new entry in the well-established series.
I had spoken to members of the Assassin’s Creed 3 team earlier at the show, and they had also described their game as a sort of “backdoor new IP.” It’s the same universe as past games, but with a new lead character, a visually and mechanically distinct setting, and new branding and game play challenges. These sorts of shifts are risky, even for established franchises, and are treated with care when initially presented to the press and the fans.
“I would have announced it significantly later if I wasn’t worried about that. We had this external factor. Generally, when you announce… fucked if I know. Is there a science?” Levine asked. We both turned to Leonie Manshanden, the director of marketing for Irrational Games, who was standing nearby.
“Yes, there actually is, and it’s a very complicated formula that I cannot disclose,” she explained. Everyone paused for a moment.
“In other words, no.” Levine said.
The art of (over?) exposure
Bioshock Infinite’s promotional schedule has been interesting; the team is clearly careful about what character and story details are shown publicly, but at the same time we get campaigns like the “Heavy Hitters” series, where a different enemy is shown to the press every week. Polygon’s Justin McElroy complained about the game being spoiled by this style of drip-feed promotion schedule, and I agreed with that frustration. Why not save some of those character reveals for the players themselves?
“We get this a lot. Many people are really hardcore and don’t want to know about it,” Levine said. The problem is that this sort of promotional campaign is necessary if you’re hoping to get through to the consumer. “If you step back, and this might not be a popular opinion, but compare how games are marketed versus movies. Look at the Hunger Games, a big movie. And Bioshock Infinite, a big game release. Or Call of Duty, look at the extreme examples. How many impressions do you think a Hunger Games gets on the average person versus Call of Duty? How many opportunities are there to tell people about this cool thing?” He points out that games don’t get on the Tonight Show or get to do much marketing outside of the normal video game press. “We’re not covered in the New York Times in a major way, the way a movie would be. We’re not on the cover of Entertainment Weekly.”
Most of the complaints about these sort of “soft spoilers” and enemy reveals come from people heavily invested in games and their culture. “People overestimate how exposed games are, in comparison to other forms of media,” Levine said. The problem is that big name games with large budgets have to reach an audience that isn’t reading the gaming blogs on a daily basis. “There are maybe a million hardcore gamers, and Call of Duty is going to sell 25 million copies. You either find ways to reach the other [24 million] in ways you can’t normally, or repeat the imagery enough that when they go to IGN they might come across it.”
The need for constant promotion is something that all games struggle with. “If you want to leverage these sites you have to get mentioned on them at least once a month which means giving them reasons to write about you which means updates, DLC, controversy, sales, videos etc,” independent developer Robert Hale said in a post about his game Waves. “This is not something that is easy to do as a solo developer and especially not if you want to work on something new.” You need to build up support and knowledge about your game before the reviews hit, and that takes a near-constant stream of stories appearing in the blogs.
That level of exposure can be frustrating for hardcore gamers who see the same game talked about on a weekly, if not daily, basis, but Levine trusts gamers not to click on things that don’t interest them. Besides, reviewers and writers may not be the best people to discuss how a game is promoted.
Levine pointed out that the press doesn’t share the public’s issue of choosing which games to buy. “They come to you. Justin was a game reviewer. He probably got most of his games for free before,” Levine said. “I can understand why he doesn’t want to be exposed, the game is going to be on his doorstep.” From Levine’s point of view, he’d rather give the players as much information about the game as they’d like and, if they don’t want to know something, they can avoid clicking on the stories that talk about enemies or character development.
Besides, the drip-feed schedule works to an degree that’s hard to dismiss. Each “Heavy Hitter” e-mail included a video and a few details about an enemy in the game, and they were sent to the press in mass mailings. The videos are pure promotion, but the 24-hour news cycle creates a demand for content that’s hard to fill; embedding a video that gives details about a game people may be interested in is a no-brainer for the gaming press. I typed “heavy hitters Bioshock” into Google and the search engine returned over a million hits for these videos. Every major gaming site and blog ran them. That’s an unbelievable return on investment.
“We’re asking them to spend a lot of money: $60. That’s a lot of money. It’s our responsibility to give them the information they need to make the purchasing decision,” Levine explained. “But at the end of the day, the last person you should listening to about making a buying decision about Bioshock Infinite is Ken Levine. I’m biased.”