Public Relations and Gaming, or Why Valve is Bloody Brilliant

Hey there, ladies and gents. Have a seat and make yourselves comfortable. Today, I’m going to talk to you about Hype. Overhyping is a very serious issue, one which affects hundreds of otherwise passable titles yearly.  It has many ill effects, but they include unreasonable expectations, reduced enjoyment, damage to the developers’ reputation, and sometimes even undue stress on the games’ creators. Have no fear, though- despite how toxic hype can be, there is hope- but only if we all do our parts.

You’ve probably surmised from the title that I’m going to be addressing Valve’s long-anticipated Half Life 3. You know, the game that some fans are (unreasonably) starting to worry might never arrive, the sequel to one of the most critically-acclaimed PC franchises of all time, the next stage in a narrative that may well have defined video game storytelling…we’re getting off track again.

People are starting to get antsy- and who can blame them? After all, we’ve been waiting for what, eight years now? Eight long years, and all we’ve got to show for it are a few whispered rumors, some hearsay on the part of fans, and a few pieces of concept art. That’s it. It’s gotten to the point that a few over-the-top individuals have actually put together a petition begging Valve to release more information to the public. Yes, I’m serious. Some fans have (in a display which, I’ll admit, most certainly does scream “entitled brat) actually expressed anger at Valve for their silence, and all but demanded that they start talking.

To them, I say- why? What they’re doing is downright sodding brilliant!

Molyneux’s Strategy- Say Everything, and Then Some

“You’ll be able to cast spells, and create cities, then cure cancer and become GOD, and then….”

Peter Molyneux- a charming, energetic gentleman with a hairstyle reminiscent of an Occidental Monk- is the former CEO of Lionhead Studios, a large developer responsible for such legendary titles as Fable, Black and White, and Dungeon Keeper. He also has a reputation for running his mouth. A lot.

See, unlike the folks over at Valve, Molyneux has no problem talking about the development process of his titles. Using hyperbolic language, he’s become known for making sweeping, absurd promises. Nowhere has this been more evident than the Fable franchise- deep social relationships, a vast, open world to explore, an intricate moral system, a world that you can watch grow and flourish around you…and that was just for the first Fable.

The worst part about all of this is that he knows how to work a room- people were inclined to believe him, at least at first. But after a torrent of empty promises and hype which was impossible to deliver on, Molyneux has managed to garner himself a reputation as a snake oil salesman- and the Fable games, which, as a whole, weren’t all that terrible on their own, were focused on with the high expectations forged by Pete’s promises.

It didn’t help that later games in the series ended up being pretty mediocre- though I can’t help but wonder if we’d have seen them differently without Molyneux talking in our ears.

Of course, most people now know that whenever that man speaks, they should probably plug their ears. His credibility is in the toilet, and Lionhead Studios is a sad shadow of what it once was. It’s hard to say why they’ve fallen so far- but one can’t help but wonder if Molyneux’s string of broken promises had something to do with it.

Valve’s Strategy- Say Nothing

“When we’re damn good and ready. Now go play TF2.”

Valve’s taken the opposite path. Rather than tell fans everything that’s in their upcoming title, they’re telling them nothing. They’re letting fans form their own ideas, their own expectations, and doing absolutely nothing to confirm any suspicions or rumors they might catch wind of. Rather than being inundated with advertisements talking on about how incredible a title will be, or interviews babbling on about new characters, antagonists, and gameplay elements, fans are getting…

Well, almost nothing. All Valve’s said is that they’re working on it, and provided us with a few pictures. That’s it- and that’s all they need to do. See, their franchise is popular enough already that the fans are going to do all the work for them. Everybody knows that the game’s on the way, and even though we only know a detail here and there- there’ll be a battle against an Advisor at  some point, and Freeman will be searching out Aperture Science’s research vessel “The Borealis”- that’s all we need to know. Valve’s already proven to us that they’re capable of making high-quality, AAA titles. They don’t need to prove anything more.

We already know that, whatever Valve ends up doing, it’s gonna be good.  I mean, come on. This is Valve we’re talking about. While EA might well be one of the most hated companies in gaming, Valve definitely stands among the most loved.  Yes, people are going to whinge and complain and threaten to boycott if Valve doesn’t release more information. But we all know that no matter how much you complain, when launch day rolls around, you’ll be buying Half Life 3, regardless of the empty threats you make now.

And Valve knows that, too.

Suffice it to say, that strategy won’t work for everyone.

The Middle Ground- How Much is Too Much?

Truth be told, there’s going to be a bit of hype around every popular video game that’s ever released. People like to talk about that which interests them. They like to share their thoughts, ideas, and experiences with others. If a reviewer, for example, loves an FPS and gives it a five star review, people are going to try that title out. If they like it, they’ll talk, and their friends might start playing. People are going to start forming their own expectations, and whether or not that game measures up isn’t something a developer or publisher can control.

By that point, it’s out of their hands. But hey, it’s free advertising- why sweat it, right?

Whether or not a title starts to get too hyped lies in how a developer/publisher markets their game. Ultimately, when a title starts to gain too much of a reputation and people start to develop unreasonable expectations of the game…that’s really a sign of bad marketing. There’s a very fine line between letting people know about a game and trying to force the belief on them that your game’s the best game that they’ll ever play.

A lot of people in the industry don’t really seem to understand that.

Advertising’s one area where we see a lot of unreasonable ideas being set forth. Marketing one’s game as the best thing since sliced bread is nothing new…but if you’re not delivering the sort of quality you’ve promised, people are going to be angry. They’re going to feel slighted; cheated. Sure, you might make a torrent of sales now. But when the time comes to buy another game from your organization…how many of those people are going to remember the awesome game that wasn’t?

More than you might think.

At the end of the day, it all comes down to establishing rapport with your customers. The most popular developers and publishers- Bioware, Valve, Blizzard and so on- are all businesses that have shown time and again that they listen to the people who play their games. They respect their fans, and they’re honest about what people can expect to see. It helps, too, that they’re all known for the quality of their titles.

So what am I saying here? This article’s not one of my best works, I’ll admit- I’m meandering all over the place like a drunken sot during Happy Hour.

Final Thoughts

If this is your advertising campaign, you’re doing it wrong.

Basically, I’m saying that marketing for a game should be done smart. Developers and Publishers: Don’t make promises you can’t keep. The safest way to do this is, of course, to promise nothing at all- that way, fans won’t be disappointed when you can’t deliver. It’s alright to talk about features that are already guaranteed to make it into the game, of course, but don’t embellish the details- sure, you might sell a few extra copies…but that’ll be at the cost of your integrity.

Next, show respect and dignity to your fans. Communicate with them. Listen to them. Demonstrate that you value them as customers, and they will in turn value your organization. It’s one of the most basic concepts of business, yet a lot of developers just can’t be arsed to follow it.

Oh, and… Follow the basic rule of common sense. Don’t do anything too outlandish when it comes to PR stunts. Know who you’re hiring to represent your business. And above all, don’t be offensive just for the sake of being offensive. You’d think it goes without saying…

But it really doesn’t.

As for everyone else…don’t buy into hype. Take it with a grain of salt, and you’ll be better for it. I don’t believe half of what I hear, and I tune out the other half. Draw your own conclusions, and don’t let what other people say about a title change how you feel about it before even touching it. You should definitely make informed purchasing decisions, and listen to the basics, of course- but when someone goes off about how terrible or amazing a game is, don’t take their word at face value- wait until you experience it, then form your opinion.

Image Credits: Gamefront, WordPress, The Penny Arcade Report, What will I Do?, Ranker

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