BioShock 2's submerged marketing campaign surfaces

MI6 2010: Two of 2K's top salesmen talk about the mixed blessing of promoting a sequel to a blockbuster original with a rabid fan base.


Who Was There: 2K Games director of marketing Tom Bass and VP of marketing Matt Gorman.

The BioShock 2 marketing campaign was actually scrapped twice before 2K hit on a formula that would work.
The BioShock 2 marketing campaign was actually scrapped twice before 2K hit on a formula that would work.

What They Talked About: Gorman started off the presentation by acknowledging that following BioShock was both a blessing and a curse when it came to marketing BioShock 2. The original game's "rapturous" critical reception ensured the second game would receive attention but also made for a fan base that was suspicious of any extension or alteration of what they loved about the first game. The new development team at 2K Marin was also an issue for the first game's fan base, even though the studio was formed around a heart of key talent from the original BioShock team.

The first step for Bass and Gorman was simply titled "Throw Out the Marketing Plan." They ditched everything that was done with marketing BioShock and started fresh for the sequel. The team started by focusing on the "new-ness," specifically the Big Sister character. At the outset, they focused heavily on the Big Sister. However, it quickly became clear that they couldn't just keep talking about the Big Sister for another year.

That led to the second step: "Throw Out the Marketing Plan." Starting fresh, they tried to cram every new element of the game into a single panorama to convey how different BioShock 2 really was, from new characters to multiplayer. While it worked on paper, the execution was convoluted, so it was once again time to "Throw Out the Marketing Plan." The third time was the charm, as the team distilled the appeal of BioShock 2 down to a handful of key factors (the Big Daddy, the Little Sister, the deterioration of Rapture) that carried the marketing campaign through the final push.

The "Something in the Sea" campaign centered on a series of kidnappings that led into the main plot of BioShock 2.

The BioShock 2 media blitz was focused on making everything "a destination." They introduced the launch trailer on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon (where Epic Games will unveil a new game next week). They created a wealth of high-quality renders and gave each to just one magazine for a poster insert, making each new piece of marketing something of an event.

Another aspect working in the marketing team's benefit was the BioShock fan community, specifically the Cult of Rapture Web site. Bass emphasized the respect 2K's marketing team had for the community. Those fans are very sensitive to being marketed to, he stressed, so they created the "Something in the Sea" Web site, which told bits and pieces of a story about the fictional character Mark Meltzer, whose daughter was kidnapped and taken to Rapture.

They showed some of Meltzer's mail on the latter site, and the first person to send in a letter to his real-life address received back a letter from the character asking for help with deciphering some clues. That prompted an avalanche of mail, Bass said, comparing it to a scene from Miracle on 34th Street. The marketing efforts continued to ramp up, with 2K sending out mock telegraphs on Meltzer's behalf to people who had written in, or sending out splicer masks, wine from Rapture, a record single of music from the game, and other props.

Appropriately enough, Something in the Sea wasn't all smooth sailing. Bass said they had to call some narrative audibles in their Mark Meltzer promotion when the game was delayed to February, as their original storytelling schedule had to be stretched months longer than expected. There was also the issue of trying to register a P.O. Box using a fake name, something the government frowns upon. Bass didn't explain how he got around that, but he did say it was a story better told over drinks some other time.

The Meltzer promotion ended with a virtual manhunt. Bass didn't mention the Halo 2 I Love Bees campaign by name, but the BioShock 2 campaign echoed it in some respects, with the community's collaborative online efforts helping to fill in parts of a larger story. That core community of rabid fans is one that needs to be catered to, Gorman said. They're starved for content, and a successful marketing campaign will provide them with as much as they need, even if that amount changes along the way.

Naturally, the Big Daddy was still an iconic cornerstone of the marketing.
Naturally, the Big Daddy was still an iconic cornerstone of the marketing.

"Marketing plans are dynamic nowadays," Gorman said. "With the advent of DLC, we can't just market games like we did in the old days."

Quote: "It's all bull**** to them. They hate marketing people. They hate all of us…We can't market to them, so this was our way of engaging that audience in a meaningful and sincere way." --Bass, on why the Meltzer campaign was needed in the first place.

Takeaway: The BioShock 2 promotional campaign went far beyond 30-second TV spots, and it went further--and longer--than the marketing team originally expected. Gorman and Bass had to roll with a few punches along the way, scrapping things that didn't work and refocusing on the things that did.

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