Alternative Marketing

Extra Credits is one of my favourite online productions: what started out as a couple of animated lectures on videogames as art written by then student Daniel Floyd and posted on YouTube has now attracted attracted a huge fan base of gamers wishing to greater understand videogames as a form of artistic media.  Nowadays the show is hosted by Floyd, utilises the art services of LeeLee Scaldaferri and Scott deWitt and its content comes straight from the mind of James Portnow, one of the videogame industry’s leading lights when it comes to advancing them as a respected form of media and art. It provides intelligent yet easy-to-understand discussion on a topic too frequently ignored and trivialised by gamers and the general public alike, and its existence is a boon to the gaming world.

However, a while back they produced an episode that I found particularly interesting. Creative Assembly, the developers behind the hugely successful Total War franchise, apparently had some money left over in the marketing budget for their latest game, Total War: Rome II, and offered to subcontract the Extra Credits team (with their old art maestro Allison Theus) to make a few episodes about the Punic Wars, possibly the single most crucial event in the Roman Empire’s rise to power. They weren’t asked to mention the Total War franchise or Rome II at all, or even so much as mention videogames, just to make some short historical lectures in the engaging style that has made them so successful. The only reason I know of this origin story is because they deliberately chose to mention it in their intro.

As a marketing tactic, hiring somebody to not talk about the content of your game is a somewhat strange one, at least on the surface of it, but when one works backwards from the end-goal of marketing Creative Assembly’s tactic starts to seem more and more clever. The final aim of games marketing is, of course, to make more people buy your game, which generally takes one of two forms; the creation, expansion and maintenance of a core fanbase who will always buy your game and will do their own viral marketing for you, and the attraction of buyers (both new and returning) outside this core bracket. The former area is generally catered for by means of convention panels, forums, Facebook groups and such, whilst the latter is what we are interested in right now.

Generally, attempting to attract ‘non-core’ buyers in the gaming world takes the form of showing off big, flashy adverts and gameplay demonstrations, effectively saying ‘look at all the stuff our game can do!’ amidst various bits of marketing jargon. However, gameplay features alone aren’t everything, and there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that, for many gamers (compulsive Call of Duty players perhaps being an exception) story is just as important a consideration in their games as gameplay features. For a game such as the Total War series, where there is no predefined story and a distinct lack of character interaction*, one might think that this consideration becomes irrelevant, but it nonetheless demonstrates a key point; the core motivation behind videogame players is frequently not concerned with the gameplay features that form the bulk of most marketing material.

For a Total War game, the key motivating factor is based around a power fantasy; the dream of the player controlling the entire world at the head of one of the greatest Empires in history and of winning epic battles against great odds. From here we can dissect the motivation further- the thrill of victory in some great, decisive battle against your nemesis comes not just from the victory itself, but also from the idea of the players’ skill allowing them to outsmart the enemy and overcome the no doubt overwhelming odds. The dream of dominion over all Europe and beyond comes is partly satisfying for the sense of power it alone generates, but this sense of achievement is enhanced when one knows it is being played out against some great historical background, full of its own great stories, giving it some context and allowing it to carry even more weight. In Rome II for example, you have the options to emulate or even surpass the achievements of the mightiest Roman generals and Emperors, placing yourself on a par with Scipio and the various Caesars, or alternatively you can play as another faction and overcome what history tells us is one of the greatest empires and most unstoppable military forces ever to walk the earth. You can literally change the course of history.

One might ask, therefore, why marketeers don’t focus more on these aspects of the games, and to an extent they do; adverts for games such as the Total War franchise are frequently filled with inspiring messages along the lines of ‘Lead your nation to victory!’ or ‘Crush all who dare oppose you!’. But the very format of an advert makes really delivering on this historical power fantasy difficult; with screen time expensive and thus at a premium, there is little room to wax lyrical about any great history or to debate military tactics. A convention panel or gameplay demo can go a little further, but the usefulness of these is limited since most of the people who are going to be there will be fans of the series anyway; their main focus is community-building. And that’s where Extra Credits come in.

What Creative Assembly have realised is that Extra Credits have a large audience of gamers who are already well-indoctrinated with the concept of buying games (as some advert-viewers may not be) and think deeply enough about their games that flashy adverts are unlikely to impress them as much as they might some audience. Thus, to recruit members of the EC audience to buy the game, they need to sell them on the core appeal of the campaign, that of the epic history surrounding the game and your chance to manipulate it; and thus, they came up with the idea to simply educate the gaming world about this amazing piece of history, get them interested in it and make them want to explore it through games, their favourite sort of media. The Punic wars too are a masterful choice of subject matter; once commonly taught in schools (meaning there’s a pretty decent body of work analysing them to draw upon), they fell out of favour as Latin and other features of classical education began to drop out of the school system, meaning the majority of the population are unfamiliar with this epic tale of warfare on the grandest of scales. Given how relatively cheap and simple a technique it is, since it lets others do most of the legwork for you, it’s a truly masterful piece of marketing. And I’m not just saying that because it’s resulted in a video I like.

*I didn’t mention it in the main post because it disrupts the flow, but even without a preset story grand strategy games most certainly have a narrative. Indeed, the self-made stories of beating down a simultaneous rebellion and foreign invasion, and in the process gaining the moniker of ‘the Great’, are one of the main things that makes me enjoy playing Crusader Kings II. There’s an entire post’s-worth of discussion on the subject of videogames’ potential for fluid, non-linear storytelling, but that’s for another time

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The World’s End

Yeah, I know I’m out of date on this- but this review was written a year ago, and The World’s End was thought-provoking film I saw last summer. So there.

Quite what the ‘Blood and Ice Cream trilogy’ (or ‘Cornetto trilogy’ if you prefer) is fundamentally about is a matter of some debate, ranging from it simply being an excuse for Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and Edgar Wright to make films together with an in-joke of relating each film to a Cornetto flavour to there being some subtle, in-depth backstory connecting all three that may or may not ever be explicitly discussed. Thematically, what ‘Shaun of the Dead’, ‘Hot Fuzz’ and ‘The World’s End’ all share is a sense of parody of both a particular genre and some aspect of British life, but one of the things that makes The World’s End unique among the three is its focus on the latter rather than the former aspect. Whilst Shaun of the Dead was essentially a zombie parody with a joking relationship subplot and Hot Fuzz an equal parts buddy cop parody and gentle mockery of the English country town, The World’s End is primarily a comedic attack on the normalisation and loss of identity experienced in British suburbia that happens to find itself turned into an ‘Invasion of the Bodysnatchers’ parody halfway through.

What hasn’t changed is the film’s focus on its characters, particularly those of Pegg and Frost, and the interaction between them, but what has changed is the role each is playing. This time out, we find Frost taking up the more serious character as former best mate turned serious businessman Andy, a role also adopted in some shape or form by the rest of the film’s male supporting cast of Martin Freeman, Eddie Marsan and Paddy Considine. Pegg, meanwhile, fulfils the more inherently comedic role as the wild, impulsive Gary King, former leader of their group as teenagers but now an ostensibly grown man incapable of moving on from their teenage antics and lifestyle. In keeping with this, he manages to cajole his four old schoolfriends back to their old home town of Newton Haven in an attempt to complete a pub crawl known as ‘The Golden Mile’ that they failed to complete as teenagers, but find the town (and its pubs) have lost most of their original individuality and personality. As this trend becomes both more obvious and more disturbing (whilst the four of them get progressively drunker), things start getting increasingly more bizarre. And then the robots materialise.

But anyway, back to the characters- and specifically that of Gary King. A manchild character in the mould of Pegg’s is hardly an underplayed comedic trope, but here things are given a twist by keeping Pegg as the focal character (as he has been in previous films) rather than using Gary as mere comedy relief or to fulfil a supporting role. Whilst this allows the more typical, experienced leading man Pegg to carry the film, this move is a very bold one thanks to the way it fundamentally changes the dynamic between Pegg & Frost. In the trilogy’s two previous instalments, Pegg has been the driving force moving the plot onwards whilst Frost has fulfilled a comedic role, oscillating plot-wise between helpful and dead weight, that is frequently the catalyst for the hilarity of the various situations they find themselves in. Here Pegg is playing plot-driver, dead weight and source of most comedic situations on top of a character whose story plays out more like that of a bastardised Arthur Miller-style tragedy than anything else; a man who not only has not grown up but physically cannot and is left clutching at the fading straws of his youth with all the bitter futility of Willy Loman’s belief in the American Dream. That Pegg manages to successfully deliver on all counts is merely the proof of his stellar acting performance.

The other headline actors are meanwhile left to work with parts that, although written with individual plot elements and multiple aspects to their personality in the style of a more leading role, are necessarily relegated to supporting roles by virtue of their having to act as a contrast to Pegg. All do so with all the ability one would expect from the cream of British acting, and it is a nice surprise to see Frost fulfilling a grown-up role with such aplomb, but two principle highlights come from Paddy Considine and Rosamund Pike as the film’s token romantic interests- if only because they manage to elevate their characters beyond being just that. So, to summarise: an interesting plot, a bold and successful choice to move beyond the old formula and all executed brilliantly by actors and action choreographers alike. Thus, it’s a good film; but something about the way it all fits it together meant I actually enjoy myself as much as I feel I should, and leads me to dub it the weakest of the trilogy.

Other than the structure of the Pegg/Frost combo, the main thematic difference between ‘The World’s End’ and previous instalments is the nature of its comedy. Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz both seemed to be having fun both with the genre and the side-angle they were poking fun at; it was gentle mockery, it was light-hearted, it was entertaining. The World’s End, however, is grown up thematically as well as in its characters (cue wild speculation as to whether this was an intentional metaphor), and rather than simply having fun with the concept the first half of the film is little more than a straight-up attack on and a condemnation of the loss of identity in towns like Newton Haven. And, frankly, that isn’t that funny. Similarly is the early part of the Gary King story; his wild antics in the face of his compatriots’ quiet, adult behaviour is apparently intended to be a source of humour and hilarity, but since he only partially succeeds in dragging them along for the ride this only highlights his disconnection from the group (a crucial factor in demonstrating the hopelessness of his character, to be fair) and creates moments that are more awkward than they are funny.

Thankfully, this all starts to fade away as our heroes get drunker and fantastically choreographed robot fights become the film’s principle focus, and this second half of the film does bring some of the fun back in. It’s just a shame that, to me, what could have been a shining way to finish off the trilogy had to spoil itself just a little by not being that consistently funny.

And we don’t even get to see a Cornetto until the end.

Why Do People Hate One Direction

Whilst reality TV gives a lot of ordinary people their 15 minutes of fame, in a few rare cases it manages to create lasting success for the individuals concerned. One such rare case concerns UK boy band One Direction, who after finishing a creditable third in the 2010 series of The X Factor have gone on to become one of the biggest pop groups in the world; by 2012 they were worth around $50 million to their record label, and said label’s CEO expects that figure to double over the course of this year. On top of their two albums to date, they are due to release a film in the immediate future (it might already be out- I don’t keep track), and there can be doubt that their veritable army of scarily impassioned, dedicated ‘directioners’ have propelled the five young men who make up the band to unfathomable fame and prosperity.

However, it hardly needs to be said that this wave of ultra-enthusiastic support for the band has not been universal by any stretch of the imagination. Outside of their primary market of pre-teenage girls, and particularly amongst young men*, the prevailing attitude towards One Direction swings between apathy at best to vitriolic hatred at worst. In some circles, they rank second only to Justin Beiber as objects of hatred that represent, in the eyes of these people, everything that is wrong about modern music.

Why should this be? After all, whilst people all have certain types of music they like, even a hardcore heavy metal fan would not begrudge the world the existence of, say, The Pogues, and there would, from a completely neutral perspective, seem to be little reason for the open hostility that gets directed towards One Direction’s brand of pop. It certainly doesn’t get directed towards all pop acts; just for a couple of examples, Queen were a pop group a lot of the time and have been accepted into the pantheon of musical greats, and Lady Gaga, despite (and in some ways thanks to, since they give her individuality) her various theatrics and non-universal appreciation of her music, is at least afforded some respect by the majority of the musical world.

One potential theory that at least serves as a jump-off point in investigating the general ill-feeling towards one direction might be the image and behaviour of the band themselves. Much of their success, it should be noted, comes from the image the band members present; they are all well-behaved, apparently friendly, straight-laced middle class white boys, possibly the single least offensive description imaginable and one that renders them endearing to both fans and their fans’ parents. Not only that, they are all (and I mean this in the most platonic sense possible) at least reasonably good-looking young men, adding an amorous aspect to their fans’ appeal. This is not in the mould of what one would consider your typical rock band to be (images of sweaty, skinny, partially naked men with long hair bouncing around a giant heap of amps and yelling obscenities spring to mind), and an element of some people’s dislike of the band is probably rooted in their being a bit too straight-laced. Some would argue, and I kinda agree with them, that their being relatively normal teenagers (by music industry standards at least)is probably good for them as people, but their presentation of themselves fits so into the safe normality of suburban, inoffensive living that it puts them straight in the firing line of rock music’s traditional ‘escape the system’ mentality. But that’s not enough on its own; as the antics of Justin Beiber and Miley Cyrus have proved recently, pop singers often attract far more abuse when they try to play the rock ‘n’ roll bad boy(/girl) than when they stay with a ‘safer’ image.

OK, let’s tick off a few other factors. One Direction pull off that oft-hated habit in musical circles of not writing (most of) their own music, and it’s fair to say that most of the songs they do sing are pretty banal, formulaic and aimed solely at repeat-delivering the same pseudo-romantic pop ideas to their aforementioned audience of teenage girls (although a) one could think that either one of those two points partially negates the other and b) anyone who’s heard REM’s Star Me Kitten knows that writing dumb lyrics is not just the preserve of pop groups). Their habit of performing covers of more famous songs has drawn them ire from overly protective music fans who have some idea that they are ruining ‘their music’ by ‘stealing them’, but this is exactly the same logic used by opponents of gay marriage and is frankly not valid. Some dislike their manufactured, reality TV origins (all originally editioned for The X Factor as soloists, before being encouraged to re-audition as a group by a judge), which is perhaps a slightly  fairer niggle if you don’t like that sort of show than the some people’s annoyance the fact that none of them play an instrument (whilst performing that is; they include in their number a guitarist and pianist, I have discovered), but claiming that this means they have no talent is a little invalid because they are not trying to be musicians. Other people claim they have no talent because they can’t sing, but reviews of their live shows reveal that they do comprise five genuinely capable singers. The issue here is that their recorded music, the stuff that finds its way onto iPods and radios, comes sadly complete with autotune and other bits of digital trickery, making their sound unnaturally smooth and free of the blemishes that, to me at least, give music character. I profoundly dislike autotune and its ilk, if only because it shows a profound lack of respect for the performers’ skill, but even this is not, I believe, people’s biggest cause of hatred. That, I think my investigations have found, lies in the Directioners.

I am sure that, as with most large and easily generalised groups of people, the vast majority of One Direction fans are basically OK people who happen to enjoy the music produced by the band, which is hardly a war crime. They are, it is true, predominantly squealing teenage girls which can be a touch annoying to overhear, but again this is hardly their fault. However, even a little One Direction-related digging will quickly reveal the existence of hardcore ‘Directioners’, whose almost terrifying level of deification of the band is combined with an air of self-superiority to match the worst of indie-rock hipsters and an unfortunate familiarity with the internet and its ability to help deliver anonymous and astonishingly aggressive abuse. Those fans who are not privy to every minute detail of the band members’ existences, so I gather, are readily derided and put down by this hardcore group, and anyone found publically admitting they don’t particularly like their music can expect an array of abuse ranging from mere insults of their intelligence and sexual orientation to desires for the death of them and their loved ones. The irony is of course that it is this behaviour that encourages much of the abuse received by the band and their fans, and provides one of the most significant reasons for people’s dislike of One Direction.

That and the fact that the band members care for their appearance, which apparently gives material to the homophobes.

*Actually, in researching this topic I discovered that probably the biggest source of hatred for One Direction comes from fans of The Wanted. I was going to comment on this, but then realised I have better things to do with my time than read up on another band I don’t much like.

Why Stealth Features Make Not A Stealth Game

After a lukewarm reception to Assassin’s Creed III following its release that some fear may have disillusioned some fans, Ubisoft went all-out in their marketing campaign for Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, the latest in the series. As a fan of the series (and, incidentally, one who didn’t buy AC3 following the less than perfect feedback it got), I have no problem with this, and was intrigued and excited to see some of the features being implemented get put to use. However, one particular bit of promo material that caught my eye was the stealth gameplay walkthrough, which talks up the various stealth features employed in the game.

[Yes I am perfectly aware that this post is hideously out of date- I’m working through a backlog here]

Y’see, watching that video got me thinking about the role of stealth in the Assassin’s Creed games, and eventually led me to the conclusion that, at its heart, the Assassin’s Creed series is not a stealth franchise. I could justify that statement by pointing out the huge variety of stuff the game offers beyond stealth (free-running, the admittedly awkward ‘wait around for counter chances’ combat, and traversing the high seas spring instantly to mind), or by pointing out the extent Ubisoft is prepared to go to to ensure you don’t ever actually have to use stealth if you don’t want to- I mean for heaven’s sake, they’ve just announced a new mobile game based on Black Flag called Assassin’s Creed Pirates, which allows you to do all the sailing around and piratey things without any of the exciting running around on rooftops that made the game so popular in the first place. But this wouldn’t actually address the core reason behind the AC franchise’s non-stealthness- for that we must consider exactly where the stealth genre comes from.

To explain: every game genre is basically defined by a single, core game concept, a sort of combination of mechanics and the emotional hooks that get us to enjoy (or not, as the case may be) games of that genre. In an RPG it’s about the characters and your advancing skills, in a strategy game it’s about the concept of ‘playing god’ and dictating how a whole system works rather than an individual, and in a stealth game the core concept involves hiding. This central concept naturally extrapolates itself into a series of other features after a while. In many (but not necessarily all) cases, waiting becomes a core mechanic too, as once our protagonist has hidden from whichever bad guy is appropriate it would be strange for him to be able to move out of cover immediately- as Extra Credits said during their episode on the subject of stealth, the trick to making a good stealth game is to make waiting fun. Not only that, but a key part of making the experience of hiding compelling and fun is for the player to be able to use it aggressively to their advantage. Thus, protagonists in stealth games are also generally able to make highly effective sneak attacks on an unaware enemy, frequently one hit kills such as slitting the throat or the Dishonored choke hold.

Thus far, Assassin’s Creed is sounding very like a stealth game, and it’s true the games have always featured stealth gameplay heavily. The game’s most characteristic feature is, of course, the hidden blade, intended specifically for insta-killing an unaware enemy (with the option for a suitably dramatic dive throwing them to the ground for good measure), and in later games this can be adapted to allow an enemy to be poisoned, meaning he won’t die until you’re well out of reach of any blame. AC2’s introduction of attacks from ledges, hide spots and rooftops also expanded on this, introducing a new range of ways for a player to get into a killing position whilst remaining undetected. Not only does the series’ ever expanding array of hide spots help this, but they also give the option of helping a player to run away from a fight if they so choose, meaning fighting need not be the only option. But then again these features alone aren’t enough to make a stealth game: by way of example, Skyrim had a sneaking system that allowed for high-powered sneak attacks on unaware enemies, but is quite clearly an RPG with a few stealth elements rather than a true stealth game.

Thus, mere adoption of stealth gameplay features does not make Assassin’s Creed a stealth game, and it fundamentally is not one for the following reason: for hiding and waiting to become a game’s central features the player must have a reason for doing so; hiding must benefit the player in some way. Not only that, but the usually slower-paced stealth approach must some how become the more attractive option compared to a full-frontal assault, which from the start has the advantage of being faster, more direct and more exciting. One can attempt to railroad the player down this route by making the player instantly fail if they are detected (as the AC series has done on multiple occasions), but this is a clumsy way of doing things that fails to make the stealth experience more fun and only serves to frustrate the player as to why they can’t just rush in all guns blazing. In most true stealth games, the player is forced into hiding by making it the most favourable defensive tactic (ie the best way to stay alive), which is achieved by making sure they have relatively little health/armour/defensive ability so can’t really stand up in proper combat.

And this, really, is what distinguishes Assassin’s Creed as not fundamentally being a stealth game. The combat in AC games is frequently (and rightly) criticised for being formulaic and repetitive, and part of the reason behind this is that all AC characters are really good at defending. To block just about all incoming attacks merely requires the ‘high profile’ button to be held down, and if the counter button is pressed at the appropriate moment then almost every incoming enemy can be killed the moment they attack. If countering isn’t your style, then many a foe can be taken down by simply bashing the attack button, and as later games allow you to upgrade your weapons by the end this can result in a very quick death for any NPC foolish enough to get in your way. And all that’s presuming the player wants to stand and fight; even in AC1 enemies could be taken out from afar with throwing knives (which I suppose could be tenuously considered stealth weapons), and by later games our protagonist has grenades and a ****ing gun* at his disposal, which aren’t stealthy by any stretch of the imagination.

By making it so easy to fight, to cut through swathes of enemies with hardly a thought, the developers of Assassin’s Creed have ensured the focus of their game is not about stealth, and although this is by no means a bad thing (not every game need be stealthy) this fact does, I feel, somewhat undermine many of the stealth features they have chosen to include in their various games. Just so I can consider my point proven, some months ago the Assassin’s Creed Facebook page asked its readers which series was their favourite: Assassin’s Creed or Thief, the series that almost single-handedly invented the stealth genre and had recently announced a new game (the fact that this game has subsequently turned out to be terrible is, of course, an entire other point). How did these people, who I shall remind you were writing on the official Assassin’s Creed Facebook page, respond? Why, overwhelmingly in favour of Thief, of course.

This was, however, before AC4 was released.

*That list doesn’t even mention stuff like the hookblade and parachutes which, cool though they are, do nothing for the games’ stealth elements other than distract from them.