Video games are big business and convincing consumers to buy the latest game is a challenge many developers and publishers have to contend with. Companies try to come up with innovative and memorable ways to market their products to stand out in a crowded market, but sometimes these efforts can go too far and have the opposite effect. In this article we highlight what we think are five of the most questionable promotional campaigns to have been run by video game companies.
No. 5: God of War 2 (PlayStation 2)
The stunt: To mark the launch of its highly anticipated sequel to God of War, Sony held a themed launch party for God of War 2 in Athens, Greece in 2007. The media event made use of a Greek mythology theme that went beyond the authentic location, with Sony staff wearing togas, scantily clad women littering the venue, alcohol flowing freely, and food served directly from the inside of an already slaughtered and decapitated goat. What Sony original intended with the goat remains unclear to this day, but it may have wanted to recreate an old Greek style banquet to add to the atmosphere of the event.
The fallout: As soon as the media got a whiff of the event, in some cases literally as the dead goat was stuffed with offal, the God of War 2 launch in Athens instantly became a contentious issue, with several publications condemning the depraved nature of the event. While Sony obviously felt that the media had overreacted to the goat issue, it did apologise to anyone who was offended by the gore. While the Sony PR team had to deal with condemnation by the media for some time after the launch, the PR fiasco had little effect on the sales of God of War 2, as it went on to enjoy enormous success not only on the PlayStation 2, but also on its release for the PlayStation 3 as part of the God of War Collection.
Did you know? Hollywood actor, Michael Clarke Duncan, did the voice of the Titan called Atlas in God of War 2.
No. 4: Dante's Inferno (PlayStation 3/Xbox 360)
The stunt: When a mob of religious protesters descended outside the Los Angeles Convention Center during the E3 2009 exhibitions, PR representatives all over must have been in damage control mode. However, it turned out that the 20 or so protesters were only angry about Electronic Arts's upcoming hack-and-slash adventure game, Dante's Inferno. This was made abundantly clear by the signs they were waving around with the words "EA = Electronic Anti-Christ" and "Hell is not a Game". Apparently, the religious imagery in the game was the problem, though the media and E3 attendees soon suspected something was up when the brochures handed out by the protesters pointed to a website that condemned the game as much as it promoted it. A few days later, EA finally admitted to orchestrating the stunt.
The fallout: As soon as EA admitted to organising the mock protest, real Christian organisations chipped in with their opinion. Instead of condemning the game, they instead had issues with the actual publicity stunt, as they felt it painted them in a negative light and was "anti-Christian". The media also did not react well to the stunt, viewing it as a cheap attempt to draw attention with misdirected controversy. Whether the negative publicity was a contributing factor to the game's underwhelming performance is hard to say, though it certainly did not help to build goodwill for the game. Despite EA's high hopes for the property and the game ending on a cliff-hanger, Dante's Inferno has yet to receive a sequel. The developer also shut down its Australian studio in 2011, though it is unclear what role it had in the development of Dante's Inferno, and if at all.
Did you know? EA promoted the game in the same way it had with Dead Space by commissioning a straight-to-DVD animated feature, titled Dante's Inferno: An Animated Epic.
No. 3: Homefront (PlayStation 3/Xbox 360)
The stunt: Outside a developer conference in San Francisco in early 2011, a lunchtime rally took place at the Yerba Buena Gardens convention centre before 10,000 bright red balloons were released into the air. It was a poignant moment during the rally, as in the past South Korea has sent out balloons to spread messages of hope in the North. However, the rally turned out to be staged by game publisher THQ to promote the release of its Homefront game, which is set in a fictional timeline where North Korea declares war on America. Additionally, the messages of hope in the balloons were replaced with special game coupons that could be redeemed at the GameStop retail chain.
The fallout: The combination of wind, rain and the heavy advertisements meant that many of the balloons disappeared out of the reach of people and instead went straight into the San Francisco Bay. Local residents were concerned and angered about the pollution the balloons caused to the bay, and so were environmentalists who were quick to condemn the publicity stunt. Homefront eventually underperformed on its release due to bad reviews and low interest by consumers, while the original developer, Kaos Studios, was soon shut down by THQ after the game's release.
Did you know? The Japanese version of Homefront had all references to North Korea removed due and replaced with my generic terms, such as "A Certain Country to the North" and "Northern Leader".
No. 2: Turok: Evolution (PlayStation 2/Xbox/GameCube)
The stunt: Acclaim was no stranger to coming up with imaginative publicity stunts, and the company was not going to rest on its laurels when it came to promoting the 2002 reboot of its Turok franchise, Turok: Evolution. It initially started out as a competition to get people to change their names to Turok and change their entire identities to be like the character, all in order to win a video game console, a few games and some cash. Acclaim quickly followed it up with a campaign where it would give US$10,000 to any family that named its first baby Turok when born on the game's launch day.
The fallout: The publicity stunt was generally derided by the press and the public. However, this tended to not bother Acclaim too much, as its approach was that even negative coverage is good coverage. While controversy might have worked for Acclaim when it published the original Mortal Kombat games, people were starting to loose patience with Acclaim's ridiculous PR stunts for often lacklustre games. Past iterations of the Turok games gained a sizable following on the Nintendo 64, but the multiplatform Turok: Evolution received bad reviews and sold tepidly. In 2004, two years after the release of Turok: Evolution, Acclaim would also go bankrupt.
Did you know? Turok originally started life as a comic book in the 1950s and the property would exchange hands between publishers before Acclaim acquired it in the 90s.
No. 1: Daikatana (PC)
The stunt: Former id Software luminary John Romero had set the bar high for his first person shooter magna opus, Daikatana, and publisher Eidos aimed to communicate this enthusiastic zeal in its pre-release campaign for the game. With anticipation by the media and public for the game running high in the years following the announcement, Eidos commissioned a print advertising campaign that consisted of a red page containing the text, "John Romero's about to make you his bitch". At the time of the campaign, there was some minor confusion about what the statement meant –- was Romero going to develop his master creation for gamers? Or was he going to somehow corrupt gamers' masculinity with the awesomeness of his new game? Ultimately, the small tag-line that said "Suck It Down" at the bottom of the advertisement seemed to overwhelmingly point to the latter.
The fallout: Initially there was excitement born from the anticipation for the game, as well as from the sheer arrogance and confidence communicated through the advertising campaign. However, as the game's development continued to be fraught with problems and delays, the initial excitement by the public and press soon turned to frustration. Pretty soon people were wondering whether the arrogance portrayed in the campaign was more of a case of unwarranted hubris. When the game finally saw release in 2000, it was unanimously panned by the media and the public did not buy into the hype. In addition to the developer's Dallas office closing and Romero leaving in 2001, the developer as a whole was shut down by Eidos in 2005. In years since, Romero has apologised for the advertisement, adding that before it came out he had "a great relationship" with the gaming and development community.
Did you know? Daikatana was released on the Nintendo 64 a few months after the PC version, though it was significantly scaled down and is considered even worse than the PC version.