Marketing games while hiding the twist


#1

A few days ago Destructoid published (spoiler warning for Full Metal Furies) an interview with some folks from Cellar Door Games about the commercial failure of their new game Full Metal Furies. One huge factor blamed for the failure was their decision to keep a massive component of the game a secret. They presented the game entirely as a cooperative action-RPG, landing them in a hyper-competitive part of the indie-game market and putting off players (including myself) who don’t have regular co-op partners and expect solo play of co-op games to be a cut-down, repetitive experience. In their desire to surprise the player, Cellar Door hid the fact that nearly half the game involves intricate, grab-a-notebook style puzzles along the lines of Fez and The Witness. If I’d known about that, Full Metal Furies would have caught my interest immediately instead of turning me away! And I can’t be the only one.

That got me thinking: how can you sell a game built around a surprise without ruining the surprise? The interview mentions NieR: Automata’s “please keep playing” message after the first ending, which I believe was added because some people stopped at ending A of the first NieR, missing the bulk of the game. I was also reminded of a little platformer called Omegaland that’s also built on surprises. Anyone with enough genre savvy can read between the lines of how it’s presented and see the general shape of the twist (yo, it’s cheerful then it gets dark). But most of the fun is in clever specifics so seeing it coming doesn’t ruin anything.

I’m curious about what y’all think. What games have successfully teased secrets to catch your interest without giving everything away? Have you ever wished a game hadn’t been spoiled by marketing, or like Full Metal Furies, wished it had?


#2

An example of an UNsuccessfully teased secret, apparently the very first reveal trailer(s) of Quake 4 give away the game’s one big plot twist. Or maybe it was that the plot twist was printed on the box as a selling point, I don’t know the specifics.

Also, I think Doki Doki Literature Club is an interesting case in this regard. On one hand, the fact that a pretty serious content warning is displayed before you even get to the main menu does show the game’s hand that maaaaaybe there’s more to this than just a nice, fun, enjoyable dating sim. On the other hand, I definitely think putting that warning in, even at the expense of “spoilers”, was the right call. If anything, the warning at the start might be too vague and unclear, given how serious shit gets later on (although that may have been patched).


#3

I’ve been in a Marvel movie mood lately and just last night rewatched Thor: Ragnarok. While not a video game, it definitely got me thinking about how the MCU has to balance spoilers with marketing and the realities of film distribution. For instance, all the marketing materials (trailers, posters, etc.) referenced the fact that the Hulk would be in the Ragnarok. But I would argue that the movie would have been much more effective had the audience been as surprised as Thor was when the reveal happened. Instead, it’s more of a “huh cool, so that’s how the scene from the trailer fits in the story” sort of reaction. Now, I’m not saying that Marvel had to keep the reveal a complete secret (a tall order given the nature of the modern internet), but perhaps marketing the movie in such a way that you’d have to actively search out the spoiler would have made for a better experience for us as movie-goers.

But that’s a very specific example that is only a tip of the iceberg that is Marvel’s spoiler problem. Like, wouldn’t it be cool in Infinity War if Brie Larson comes out of nowhere to kick Thanos’s ass? But given the casting announcement at Comic-Con and the marketing machine spinning up for Captain Marvel, her inevitable appearance is probably going to elicit a “huh, neat” rather than an “OMG”.

I don’t know how Marvel can get around this issue, outside of the fanbase actively ignoring news and marketing until opening night. There’s no way you can book months of Brie Larson’s time without anyone inquiring what she’s up to, nor can you stop the leaks from distributors as you plan the rollout of her solo movie. So we’re kinda stuck with this problem as long as the movie industry keeps to its current system.

Anyway, sorry to derail the thread. I’ve not been in a gaming mood lately so this is all I could come up with.


#4

I think what works for Doki Doki - and I haven’t actually played it because I’m no good with horror games - but from what I’ve seen and heard of it, it does a really good job of being a plain old dating sim for the first hour or so. I guess what you lose in shock value (and you still have some of that, since you don’t know exactly how the game is going to become a horror at first), you gain in suspense as you wait for it to justify its content warning.

Something like this that I actually have played is Eversion, which I’d guess Omegaland is taking a bit of influence from. It’s presented as a cute and colourful platformer, but uh, isn’t it weird that the screenshots feature a Lovecraft quote and a content warning? It also pulls the same trick Omegaland does in its description, with features like “surprising plot twists” and “extra entertainment value when played alone at night”.

So, I guess if you’re making a surprise horror game, maybe just spoil your twist during the title screen and then pretend that you didn’t?


#5

I mean, Metal Gear Solid 2 has to be the most famous successful example of this? It wasn’t really a mechanics or genre shift like used in the examples, but having the marketing hiding the fact that you play as Raiden instead of Snake after the intro segment… that was a twist a lot of people didn’t take well at the time. That sentiment changed over time, of course, as more people knew about the twist and became common knowledge, but at the time it was a huge shock.

One unfortunate example was Brutal Legend, where EA forbade Double Fine from actually talking about the true genre of the game (an RTS), instead marketing the game as an open-world action game like Assassin’s Creed or Prototype. The game reviewed poorly, no doubt a large portion of it was because of that sudden change that reviewers were unprepared for.


#6

From the way big games and movies have all the surprise sucked out of them by their marketing materials, I can’t help but think that not knowing the twist or having information withheld really doesn’t focus test well. Maybe it’s the old “if you know the spoilers you enjoy it more” chestnut or maybe it’s the fact that a lot of people still look at games as an investment in a mindless time-sink rather than as texts.

I love me a twist, and I love being spoiled on them ahead of time. Metal Gear Solid 2 and Spec Ops: The Line function spectacularly because knowing the twist doesn’t ruin anything because it doesn’t mean anything until you play them. I wish media would be more withholding in general.


#7

I can’t cite the source, but I remember hearing about a survey that found that people actually enjoyed the experience more if they had it spoiled, though that might be particular to narrative.

It’s weird because I have to acknowledge this but also always want my experience to be totally unspoiled and new to me. ¯ \ _ (ツ) _ / ¯


#8

I can help with that cognitive dissonance: a later study had the opposite result, finding that spoilers generally make stories less enjoyable. The authors of that study also found that the degree to which spoilers hurt or help depends largely on the subject’s personality and approach to reading, which shouldn’t surprise anyone.


#9

Nier’s first ending has a notice saying you can continue playing for Kaine’s story and the game’s main draw is its multiple endings so “people stopped after A” isnt really a thing. The PR message in Nier:A appears because square didnt have enough faith that people would keep going after a similarly short message because they were already gambling on the product anyway.


#10

I dunno… I found with the devs insistence on constantly comparing Spec Ops: The Line to Apocalypse Now pretty much meant I knew exactly what I was in for going in. So the “twist” was never really present.


#11

I guess the twist for me was more about how much that game hates violence, hates the player for committing it unquestioningly and links it all to the culture that produced the game in a neat way.


#12

The possibility of game play twists makes me reluctant to buy a game close to release unless I’ve got a personal recommendation or have read an in-depth write up. I don’t worry about missing out because if a game has a well done twist that means I’ll enjoy it more than I might initially expect, there’s a good chance someone will eventually bring it up and I’ll have the opportunity to give it a try. But if a game has an important change in play style or theme I don’t enjoy and it’s hidden or downplayed in marketing it can lead to major disappointment.

Full Metal Furies is a good example of this as the way it was marketed made it look like something I would enjoy. I was lucky to watch a couple of people stream it and find out about the other major aspect of the game, that I didn’t want to deal with, or I might have ended up feeling let down.

Fez balanced this well in that I got a reasonably satisfying end point without having to engage with the parts of the game I didn’t care for. But it could have done a better job of signaling this. I almost stopped playing when these elements appeared because I assumed, at first, that they were necessary to get any kind of conclusion.


#13

If your game isn’t well-hyped prior to release, I don’t think you can get away with this in today’s market. Fez, MGS2, Nier - these were all very highly-anticipated games well before release, and were going to sell like gangbusters with or without their twists. I feel like concealing the twist in a game is going to have to be something the developers evaluate through the preview cycle, gauging whether or not enough people are already sold on the game prior to release.


#14

I’m generally of the opinion that if a game/film/book isn’t interesting or appealing without knowledge of the twist, then it’s not gonna be much better once you know it. There should be plenty of other aspects that you can use to market the game without revealing the twist, and if there aren’t, then that’s a much bigger problem. To use the common example of MGS2, the game I thought I was getting for those first few hours would’ve also been great. The twist doesn’t suddenly make an otherwise uninteresting game suddenly riveting, it serves to further elevate something that was already stood on it’s own by placing the player in an entirely unexpected role.


#15

Yeah, you’re spot on about the need for a strong brand to sell something intended to fuck with its audience. It’s why I’m constantly amazed that any big developer that has something approaching creative control and an established audience doesn’t take every chance they get to work in a subversion of expectations.