An old boss once told me: to grow in your career, dress for the job you want, not the one you have. This sort of ambitious self-presentation is not a new concept. When it comes to marketing a new franchise like Watch Dogs, is there an innate deception involved in over-promoting?
Did they dress this six up as a nine? Well, if they weren’t going to believe in it, why would we? So it becomes a bit of a chicken/egg situation. Which comes first? The quality game, or the marketing to sell and make a return on the development costs for the quality game? Did Ubisoft maliciously mislead us to believe their latest opus would be an oasis in a Triple-A desert? I’m not the type to place the blame solely on any one party, so let’s explore the issue.
Watch Dogs had a storied development. More than five years in the making and an open-world concept; there was no doubt this game was going to be huge. So for a publisher like Ubisoft with immeasurably deep pockets, all they needed to do was top our list of anticipated releases we all mentally maintain by mercilessly barraging us with overly-frequent yet non-descript advertisements.
Here’s a quick way to know what an advertiser’s goal is: did you just see a logo and non-descript character? If the answer is yes, they’re going for awareness. All Ubisoft wants is for you to recognize the name Watch Dogs and know it is coming out soon. Don’t think this is powerful? Think about it reciprocally. How often would you buy a game you’ve never heard of? Marketers call this the first point of entry, and when it comes to selling a game released in a wide-open (less Mario Kart 8) timeslot, it makes all the difference in the world.
As we approached Watch Dogs’ release date, online videos were prefaced by an ostensibly hacked advertisement. You may remember Watch Dogs interrupting the intros to one of your favourite YouTube channels. We saw massive ad space purchased on various gaming or retail sites. There were many other marketing initiatives, but the online spots perfectly aligned with a key game mechanic – hacking. These pervasive ads were masterfully crafted and frequently delivered to tell you things about the game without actually saying anything.
Ubisoft was relentless and garnered the mindshare of gamers and gaming websites, who – given all the interest through mass marketing – had no choice but to report on anything related to Watch Dogs. And so the cycle continued like a hurricane, building strength and velocity before hitting our shores.
Watch Dogs sold 4 million copies in its first week – powered by pre-orders generated by all the promotion/commotion. Sadly, expectations were elevated by the hype and, inevitably, gamers were disappointed (it’s funny how games this big are put under the microscope).
Three of the most prevalent knocks against Watch Dogs revolve around the lacklustre driving, generally generic protagonist, and inconsistently satisfying side-missions. These factors, in addition to the perhaps understatedly derivative nature innate in any open world game, will likely keep Watch Dogs to a minor blip on the Game of the Year radar. Any game with this much hype, promise, and potential that isn’t in the running for Game of the Year is bound to be the brunt of brash criticism from the gamers who buy it.
As gamers, we don’t typically ask particularly burning questions when it comes to how good an open world game is, we just care about how big it will be. As long as we can reasonably presume the world will be filled with side missions/activities of the at-your-own-pace or completely-and-utterly-optional variety, we’re good. Unfortunately, this is a fairly irresponsible method of keeping our expectations in check, and only widens the game between the greatness we expect to play and the mediocrity we actually experience.
Ubisoft sold us the idea of a perfect game rather than perfection itself. And we bought it four million times in a week! If that’s not a marketing success story, I don’t know what is. Was it malicious and deceptive? I’d say no. Was it successful and persuasive? Most definitely! But gamers are savvy and quick learners. We won’t be fooled twice. Will we?