Getting gamers to pay attention to an original game can be difficult in a market dominated by annualized installments, system-selling blockbusters, and high-profile licenses. So with customers reluctant to spend money on the new and the unknown, D3 Publisher of America decided to hype its upcoming original intellectual property Matt Hazard by marketing it as if it were the return of a retro gaming icon.
Although the game itself hasn't been announced yet, D3 has been prepping the public with a variety of teasers. First the publisher put up an atrociously designed unofficial fan site for the character, complete with a retrospective on all of Matt Hazard's games, from the side-scrolling arcade original Matt in Hazard Land to the decidedly Duke Nukem-esque Matt Hazard 3D and the unfortunate Haz-Matt Karts.
That was followed up by The Real Matt Hazard, a blog purportedly penned by one of the franchise's original developers, a former marketing intern named Ralph Tokey. Over a series of posts, Tokey both glorifies and cheapens the Hazard legacy, talking about a glut of ill-advised licensing tie-ins (Matt Hazard laxatives, Hazard's "My First Extra Stabby Battle Knight" for toddlers) in one post, and taking credit for creating the first-person shooter and ending the Cold War in another.
Spiced throughout the ad campaign are a host of satirical nods to actual gaming icons. According to the unofficial fan site, A Fistful of Hazard was made because the publisher wanted to release as many Matt Hazard games as possible. As a result, it stuck the license on an unrelated project, not unlike Nintendo localizing the Japanese Famicom game Doki Doki Panic as Super Mario Bros. 2 for the NES. Tokey's blog also includes some easily spotted references to other games, such as a "true follow-up" to Matt Hazard 3D that has been in development for over a decade, recalling the long and checkered development history of Duke Nukem Forever.
Although the Matt Hazard sites all deservingly satirize the long history of the marketing-driven gaming industry, they were also created as a marketing tool for D3 Publisher's game. To better understand that contradiction, GameSpot recently posed questions to the Matt Hazard promotional team, including D3 marketing manager Sam Guilloud as well as Brandon Smith and Matt Frary, partners at Maverick Public Relations.
GameSpot: Where did the general idea behind the Matt Hazard marketing campaign come from?
Brandon Smith: The credit for the core concept behind the Matt Hazard campaign goes entirely to D3 Publisher and their brilliant marketing team filled with PhDs and Nobel Prize winners, and that token guy who likes games that they keep chained to a TV in the basement but bring out whenever they need a good idea... Pretty typical marketing structure, actually. And Sam is that guy, so I'll let him take it.
Sam Guilloud: Uh...thanks. Without revealing too much, I'll just say that our goal all along has been to create a homage to the gaming industry that sparks nostalgia for the last 25 years. The back catalogue of Matt Hazard assets we've released, including some eyebrow-raising box art, screenshots, Web sites, and other marketing materials, are here to remind us all of some of the most infamous moments in gaming history. As gamers ourselves, our intention has never been to flay sacred cows, but we also know that we're ready for some direct parody of the games and past marketing campaigns we all grew up with. Gaming's a lifelong hobby, so we want to tap into everyone who fondly remembers the milestones we've referenced. We're not trying to fool people, but we do want them to play along. And on that note, be sure to befriend Matt Hazard's Facebook page.
GS: So far, the long and not-always-proud history of marketing in the gaming industry has been a frequent butt of jokes in the Matt Hazard campaign. What's it like being a marketer devising a marketing campaign that mocks game marketing?
BS: So, you're clearly aware of some of Matt Hazard's more famous endeavors, including my personal favorite The Adventures of Matt in Hazard Land (1983). You know, we're not explicitly trying to single out video game marketing [or marketers] individually, but, boy, it sure is easy.
Matt Frary: And we've been around long enough that we are quickly able to "channel" the inner voice of marketing folks who we've worked with in the past. Not to mention that we've written enough fact sheets ourselves to be able to pull actual text from previous work that is completely laughable today. Have you ever heard of a "devastating arsenal of flesh-chewing weaponry." Oh, yeah...needs more exclamations and caps... "...WEAPONRY!!!!!" Recognize it now? I'm a genius!
SG: With 25-plus years of history of marketing campaigns both awesome and embarrassing, there's more than enough material to work with. Besides, people have always been critical of video game marketing, especially as the industry was just starting. If they hadn't been, then we might still be contracting Fabio to be on the cover of all of our box shots and magazine covers.
GS: The marketing campaign so far has been great, but other than establishing this character, how will it tie into the game? Is the same sense of humor or gaming-industry satire reflected in the upcoming Matt Hazard game?
BS: Suffice to say, the campaign will absolutely relate to the reveal in the next couple of weeks. Matt Hazard will ride again...pinatas beware!
SG: The content of the game has definitely given us a lot of creative inspiration for our campaign. It's doubtful we'd be doing something like this were we promoting an emotionally compelling, fantasy-stylized RPG. We knew going into both the design for the game and the marketing that gamers have a great sense of humor and are hungry for content with well-executed comedy. Games with any level of humor injected in them have been few-and-far-between lately, and practically none that are self-referential to the industry. We don't want to give too much away yet, but if you've been a fan of what you've seen so far, then you won't be disappointed. And if not, there are still more surprises to come when we pull back the curtain all the way.
GS: How long have you been in game marketing?
BS: Longer than I care to remember, but well over a decade now... If you add in Matt's history, we're pushing towards 30 years of video game work. That's scary. Between the two of us, we have had our fair share of atrociously bad (and funny) moments in marketing and PR. I've probably committed every marketing sin in the book, but I wouldn't trade it for any other job in the world. The more marketers and public-relations professionals we have in this business who are actual gamers...the more exciting, interesting and inventive marketing campaigns we're likely to see, and I'm all for that.
GS: Are you concerned at all that gamers won't "get" the satire involved and think of it simply as some fake retro-style ads for games that didn't exist? Do they need to "get" any of it for the campaign to be successful?
BS: In an effective teaser campaign, there's always the risk that the audience won't "get it" and then there will be some kind of backlash, usually involving "marketing lameness" or significant "meh-ing." At least initially, that's also exactly the sort of line you want to straddle. You want gamers asking, "Who is this Matt Hazard guy?" and "What is D3 up to?" without immediately deducing the answer or giving up on it.
MF: We see a couple critical elements that we keep in mind when creating this kind of campaign. The first is obvious, but easy to lose sight of: always try to keep the content and activity interesting and/or funny. Some people--you know who you are--will argue that we're never successful at that. The second key component, and probably even more important, is to provide something in the campaign that offers authentic insight into the eventual "reveal." Real information, backstory, assets, whatever, that fans who pay very close attention will be able to uncover for themselves before an announcement. Nothing would please us more than to have someone play the game later on and find themselves saying: "Oh d***! I remember when I read about this stuff on that blog! Cool!"
BS: I see teasers executed for popular and existing IP all the time. Take Blizzard's recent Diablo 3 reveal: It was well done and really got gamers and the media alike excited. However, do we honestly think that kind of activity would've worked well for them if it was anything but one of their three megafranchises? Not so sure. If Matt Hazard had popped out of that image... It would have been funny, but people would have said, "Huh? "
SG: While we know that we won't be able to get everyone's attention with this kind of campaign, those who have been following it will definitely feel rewarded. We just hope that everyone else isn't taking themselves so seriously that they can't give a non-space-marine concept a chance.
GS: Is it more difficult to create an ordinary official game site or a gloriously unprofessional mess of a creation like WeaponsOfMattDestruction.com that has just the right amount of typos, exposed html, repeating flame .gifs, missing images, and broken links?
SG: Some things like looping gifs should have never gone out of style. We've forgotten our roots, man! But seriously, in any campaign you obviously want a Web site that grabs people's attention, and we've certainly achieved that with WeaponsOfMattDestruction.com. Web sites have become a sort of secondary medium lately. I look at sites for competitive games all the time and I can barely remember any that have really stood out or held my attention once the flash intro is done and the looping trailer has ended. The most innovative and expensive-looking Web work doesn't tell you anything about the game other than the relative size of the marketing budget. WMD.com is so insanely retro that people will either laugh along with us or think we're crazy. But at least they're taking a closer look at it to see what it's all about.
GS: The author of "The Real Matt Hazard" blog claims to have started on the series as a marketing intern, and talks about how integral marketing people were to the development process at the time (supposedly the mid-'80s). Do you think the role of marketing in development has changed since the '80s? Does its current role make games better?
BS: Mr. Tokey is a wise man and I would agree that video game marketing has changed dramatically since that time, but for the better. Sure, there's a lot more noise, clutter, and even a greater number of bad titles coming out each year, but the increased exposure [that] marketing people are bringing to games has certainly been a major factor in expanding the sheer number of players out there. And, that's a really good thing. More players leads to more games, which creates more choices and ultimately ensures we'll see many more stellar titles every year. Of course, gamers will need to be more shrewd to pick out those gems, but overall I think it's a win/win.
MF: I think that back in Tokey's day, teams were just smaller so everyone had more of a voice. It often didn't matter where a suggestion came from, just that it was a good suggestion. I think this is still true in some ways today, but in the end, marketers today have less influence over development minutia, which isn't entirely a bad thing. If you let today's PR people influence the design of our video game heroes, for example, you might find the Master Chiefs of this world developing expensive taste in liquor and smiling way too much...with pure white teeth.
SG: Video game marketing in the mid-to-late '80s took an approach that was slightly deceptive and pandering: hyperactive messaging, unrealistic pack art that embellished the graphics into something resembling a romance novel cover, live-action kids playing the game with geeky, overenthusiastic looks on their faces, and screenshots that could rarely be reproduced through actual gameplay. Today, a lot of marketers like myself were kids at that time and remember it with both fondness and offense. Gamers are more sophisticated than that and always have been. And as gamers working in the industry, we don't check our controllers at the door. Any input we provide comes from real experience and is honestly based on what we think would make a better game.
GS: Are we just reading way too much into this thing? Was all of this done for no other reason than to get people talking about the game?
BS: Absolutely not! This is serious stuff! LOL. At its core, that's why we do everything we do--to get people talking about our game. At the very least, Matt Hazard is an interesting case study on how newer IP can effectively compete for attention in a marketplace filled with massively overexposed products and their marketing campaigns.
MF: Ah, Brandon touches on one of the biggest issues facing our industry today, especially in light of megamergers and required sell-through goals of 2 million units just to get something green-lit. How does a new IP break through and grab the spotlight, even for a minute, from these Goliaths? I know y'all in the press wrestle with this kind of thing as well, how much attention to give to this new game that no one has even heard of while this megafranchise just offered up a new screenshot or video? It's not easy.
BS: Don't get me wrong here, as a public-relations pro, I fully support big, creative marketing campaigns--it's just good business and it leads to better things for a franchise and the industry as a whole. But, as a gamer, I'm continually frustrated when interesting new games get swept under the rug by the clutter generated from hundreds of mediocre sequels, each one featuring enormous marketing support. I mean really, how many version 3 and 4 games are coming out this year? It's scary. This usually leads to that new title not ever getting a sequel, which is a shame.
SG: The most beautiful part of this campaign is that we're satisfying gamers' need and hunger for franchises and sequels by giving them the ultimate sequel...one for a game based on the most popular franchise ever created...kind of. To that effect, we're hoping this campaign will help cut through some of that clutter with Matt Hazard. The game itself will have to do the rest, and we think it will.