Do the abundance of recent retail leaks signal a new age of clandestine advertising?
The past year or so has not been the best that the games industry has seen: following debacles around huge ‘AAA’ titles like Destiny 2, Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor, and Star Wars: Battlefront II, consumer distrust rose to an all time high, climaxing in an ongoing investigation from a number of international agencies into the legality of loot boxes.
This distrust has leaked into the way gamers have reacted to press releases. Increasingly, adverts for games from the likes of EA, Activision, and Bethesda have been met with increasing derision, and industry-wide, the hype machine is becoming less and less effective after the aggressive marketing and poor reception of games like No Man’s Sky and the aforementioned Star Wars: Battlefront II.
With conventional advertising streams facing such issues, it is perhaps unsurprising that we have seen a sharp rise in ‘guerrilla marketing.’
Guerrilla marketing, simply put, is when companies adopt riskier marketing strategies to promote their products in places we might not expect, thus bypassing that bit of our psyche that has become so adept at ignoring adverts, or, in the case of games, feeling distrustful of them.
Three recent examples spring to mind, and all take the form of the industry’s new preferred guerrilla marketing strategy: the retail leak.
First, EA’s Skate series put itself back on the radar after being listed for sale by Swedish retailer Webhallen. Although the cover art looked dubiously low quality and the source was admittedly obscure for a company of EA’s size, potential motives for this move were clear.
EA were, at the time, caught in one of the most vicious cycles of consumer backlash I’ve ever seen: every tweet and Facebook post they put out was met with mass dismissal, with consumers lining up to throw insults about EA’s highly criticised microtransaction model, or make a joke about EA’s infamous, “a sense of pride and accomplishment” line.
Leaking the news through Webhallen, if EA were indeed the people behind it, circumvented much of this, and refocused the issue on the legitimacy of the source rather than issues surrounding microtransactions. There is some credence in this argument: it seems intuitive, and EA do have ties in Sweden through DICE, who are based there.
Next, a listing for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 Remastered appeared through Amazon Italy, sending fans into a fever pitch of excitement. Investigations by various Reddit and Twitter users seemed to verify this information, although claiming the remaster would not feature multiplayer from ‘charlieINTEL’ dampened excitement.
Again motives for this are evident: Activision have a habit of releasing massively unpopular trailers and news that attract all the wrong kinds of press, and leaking this information through Amazon and charlieINTEL would allow them to gauge reaction without having to formalise any plans.
Most recently, a leak from Walmart teased a whole host of titles, including a new Splinter Cell, a new Assassin’s Creed, a new Destiny DLC, as well as Just Cause 4, Forza Horizon 5, Borderlands 3, RAGE 2, Gears of War 5 and Dragon Quest 2. Oh, and a new DC Lego game.
Given the array of developers and publishers behind these games, finding a clear motive for such a leak is almost impossible, but, with E3 just a month away, the leak would certainly have the effect of creating precursory tremors for the internationally anticipated expo.
Of course, it remains possible that this form of guerrilla marketing doesn’t go further than the retailers, who may themselves be trying to increase traffic onto their sites, grab some headlines, and create conversation and a buzz around them.
Unfortunately, this increased tendency towards guerrilla marketing — if, indeed, it is coming from games publishers and is not just immaterial gossip or retailer generated rumours — comes with a major caveat.
This is that these kind of leaks need to remain unreliable. In order for guerilla marketing to remain guerilla and not become transparent, the leaks always need to be in doubt.
This, in effect, means that false rumours need to be planted, misinformation has to be rife, and uncertainty must continue to reign above all. This has the twin consequence of not only meaning that the validity of the information rather than the content remains the primary focus, but allows publishers to remain above reproach when such leaks come to light.
E3 will be the place where pretty much all of these rumours will be confirmed or disproved. Rather uncontroversially, all we can do for now is wait for the companies in question to show their hand – I just wouldn’t expect to get the full house we’ve been teased.