written by Fyren
We all know it, we can all hear and see it coming. The hype train. It hurtles down the proverbial tracks with fervor at a shockingly slow speed. We get an announcement of a game now sometimes years before it even launches. We get a slow drip feed of information leading up to the release of the game. Of course, there has to be a long pre-order window. This is the prevailing wisdom for the AAA game industry and to a certain extent it makes sense. The goal of marketing is to grab the most attention possible and that goal takes time to accomplish. Then, along comes a game like Apex Legends, which announces and releases on the same day from out of nowhere and immediately has over 1 million unique players in the first day.
So let’s question the conventional wisdom of the slow and building hype train then. Is this really the way to go about marketing for games? First, let’s take a look at why the hype train works. With the hype train approach, the first taste consumers get of a game is a reveal trailer. This is the chance for the developer to really shine. It is a chance to put the best foot forward in a highly controlled and highly polished manner. There is no impression like a first impression and if the first impression of a game is something that is just overwhelmingly positive, that stick with consumers. This move gets the game instant fans and most importantly gets the game into the press before it is even complete. The more people are talking about the game the better it is likely to do in the long run.
Next comes the long process of ensuring that the hype train keeps building. Now that the title has grabbed the attention of the media and it has got people talking, the hype train needs to maintain that. A long social media campaign ensues. Development updates, testing phases, and pre-orders keep the game in the headlines and keep the conversation going. Even just screenshots of development progress and comments from the developers keep the fans that were grabbed with the initial reveal engaged. After this long campaign to remain in the spotlight, the hype train should have acquired an ever increasing number of consumers leading up to the launch. The pay off. Or is it?
How does the hype train approach fail? It fails in many respects for developers and in some cases it can fail the consumer as well. The initial reveal of a game might turn many heads, but if those people don’t stay engaged all the way then the game may soon be forgotten. When the game reaches the launch day train station reactions very well may be similar to “Wait, I thought that game already came out?” or maybe “Oh wow, I forgot that even existed”. This has happened many times before and really derails the entire purpose of the hype train approach to start with. This is a sad result for both the developer and the consumer. An otherwise great game may suffer in sales for trying to play the long game with its marketing.
The hype train may also have the opposite of the intended effect. Instead of building hype along the way, it can lead to burnout before a game even launches. With long pre-order bonuses, early access, and testing phases while maintaining an aggressive presence in the media, it is very easy for fans to get burnt out on the game or even just the idea of the game well before it even releases. Not only that, but playing with such a long marketing campaign inevitably reveals a ton of information about the game. This means that skeptics of the title have plenty of opportunities to disembark the train and in some cases run with negative media. This amount of information that this necessitates is great for consumers usually, barring any lies from the company.
Now, to Apex Legends. There are several reasons that this launch was as successful as it was. Obviously the fact that the game is free to play does factor in to this equation, but we’ve seen other free to play titles fall on their face before as well. One of the other major factors is the timing of the release. Apex feels very well timed, it released mostly alone with no other major titles on either side of it. The biggest factor I believe though, is the lack of hype train. That initial bump that other games get with their first reveal trailer, is the bump that Apex experienced on its launch day. From a marketing perspective this does something pretty magical, especially in the internet age where social media can move across the world nearly instantaneously. Instead of looking for more information after the trailer, people go play the game. This quick pace removes the decision making process of the consumer and replaces it with an emotional process. “Knowing what I know about this game, I’m not sure if I really want to play it.” instead becomes something more like “That was awesome! I can play it now?!? Let’s go!”. This leads to a very rapid snowball effect as well, empowered by social media. Tweets get fired off and Twitch streams fire on all cylinders. Public opinion rolls quickly, and within 8 hours Apex Legends hit the 1 million player mark that I mentioned earlier. The out of left field approach meant that the entire hype train started and finished its journey in that 8 hour stretch. This translated to a ton of press coverage, a ton of viewers and streamers, and most importantly a ton of players.
There is a lot more to be said on marketing, but I suppose the point of this discussion is merely to say that the conventional wisdom may not always be as wise as the alternatives. The hype train approach has become a bit of a meme and a tired one at that. Maybe it is time for large developers and publishers to re-examine how their marketing is handled.