Marketing Concepts: the Calculated Climate Change of Bulletstorm

After reading Andrew Vanden Bossche’s High Aspirations for High Scores article on Gamasutra, I’m really surprised at all the ways Bulletstorm’s “Echoes mode” demo failed to hold my hand, and found it to be a major stumbling block in the game’s otherwise stellar promotion.

Would like to try and dissect the marketing experience so far, here:

1)- The E3 demo was great. Succeeded in conveying “this will be weird, exuberantly foul minded, and a different game from Gears.” Interest piqued.
2)- Loved the trailer with NIN’s Wish, back in October (NIN is my favorite band). I also heard the storyline was influenced by the grubby space pirate adventures of Firefly. So: I was basically sold at this point.
3) I started following cliffyB on twitter, and enjoyed wondering what it would be like to be in his PR-conscious shoes.
4)- In January I finally preordered, because of the Gears of War 3 beta tie-in. I’ve never sought out betas before, but figured now was a fine time to get on board (I’ve deeply enjoyed Gears2’s horde mode, with friends).
5) Wasn’t really into the slew of “here are a few combos” videos, dismissing them as quick unimaginative gameplay filled tv-spots. “I’ll just play the game” I thought (not realizing they were actually an attempt to prepare me for the demo, maybe?)

So far, I think I was the ideal target market. I think their PR pushers were hitting every note perfectly.

6) Then I played the demo.

– My (primary Gears2 go-to) friend, Case, emailed to ask if I thought the demo was kind of a let down too (this was just a bad way to be reminded that I needed to download it).
– When I first finished the demo, I had no idea if I needed to: A)vary my attacks, or B) seek out new attacks for higher points, or C) just run through it all faster. Went ahead and restarted the level just to see if anything would happen differently. Was slightly hoping for Left4Dead-style changes, I think. Instead I “discovered” it would be exactly the same. It was exactly The Club’s “racing game in disguise” conceit. And that was a game I just couldn’t get into. I think shaving off seconds, and perfecting my turns, is boring.

I felt sucker punched. Wanted to be excited to “explore” my three approaches to getting a higher score – but really, I felt like the developer was hiding behind a curtain challenging me to figure out if there was actually anything fun to be found anywhere in their product.

– Decided I HATED the demo. Sent an email back to my friend explaining why.
– Switched over to playing the Crysis 2 demo: which was so awful and frustrating that I decided I had probably enjoyed the Bulletstorm demo much more than I’d realized at first.
– Went back in and tried Echoes a couple more times – just to see if I could get my score up. Failed! Somehow never improved on my initial run through score (!!??!?!).
My approach was to B) seek out new combos. So it was frustrating to see the same old combos coming up again and again (especially voodoo doll). Thought I’d done something different, and my “reward” was to be told I’d done something old hat. Had no idea what else to do. And I noticed I was already tiring of “achieving” some of the combos.
– Also noted I was just charging through the level, impervious to bullets. Longed to see how it all would have played out in the slower and less direct cover-based-mechanics of Gears.
– Played the demo maybe 3 more times, simply trying to pull off the butt shot. Kept getting to the end, and wishing there were more guys to experiment on. Waited for them to spawn. then sighed and decided to restart. Ended up wondering if this butt-shot was something only possible on PC (with a quick moving mouse). Thus, I was dismissing the much lauded talking-point as not even really possible on xbox (YIKES!).

So I stopped by Giant Bomb’s website to watch their half hour quicklook video, and it seemed they had the exact same problem. Hmmf. Also, realized I hadn’t been taking the time to bounce dudes into the air (just yanking them to me). whoops.

Went to sleep, and haven’t gone back to the demo.

– IMO, as a value proposition, this demo is hanging out somewhere around L4D’s Survival mode. (which is to say – I doubt I’ll spend much time with it). I keep wondering if they chose to lead with Echoes so that the mode wouldn’t be overlooked (as Survival mode was). Worst things first? Keep hoping I won’t have to suffer Echoes to enjoy the real game, which will be hiding elsewhere on the disc. Waiting for the marketing message “if you liked Echoes, you’ll love the main co-op story!” to drop.

This is why i think it was a weird demo. And am now worried that maybe the game will end being a hard quantity to properly market (like The Club).

7) Finally, the Duty Calls marketing move was funny. But I somehow watched the walkthrough video before I even realized it was available as a demo to download and play (…and as a 6 minute video, it is too slow paced to be greatly funny).

If they’d released DutyCalls AS their only Bulletstorm demo, I would still think they were marketing rock gods. Imagine how funny it would be to download the official Bulletstorm demo off xbox live, and get Duty Calls instead.
Image a 6 minute demo that ends with a random screenshots claiming “NONE OF THIS SHIT is coming soon, in the final Bulletstorm game!” – It would shake up your whole idea of what a demo can be.

I wonder if this was the original plan, and they compromised?

___________________

P.S. some random ideas for improving gameplay & engagement:

+ Would be neat if they offered a weekly promotion challenge. A random score (on a random Echoes level), is announced as “the goal.” First person to score it wins some small prize. I would probably play Echoes more to try and achieve a specific score, rather than pretend I could ever compete with thousands of teenage boys.
Think I’d enjoy the social involvement, in what is essentially a lottery, much more than comparing myself to others.

+ It’d be fun if the Echoes game mode let you hear what other players were saying. like on little radios you could choose to shoot or ignore. This way you’d feel more directly connected to their experience on the same level?

+ I suppose it’d also be fun to offer up a dummy who re-enacts another player’s walkthrough (Like the ghost car, in f-zero – but physicalized comedically). A meat puppet mode. You could:
– follow along, learning from their play through and combo placement.
– or try to kill every bad guy before they do.
– and you could shoot them down at any point you grew tired of them.
It’d be kinda like a co-op experience, but with a dummy that is stealing points from you.

This could lead to a new sort of competition, comparing level scores with regard to a specific replay dummy. Maybe each week they could change out the “replay dummy” to match random community members? Or maybe just offer up replay dummies of the week’s best and worst scoring players? Might keep people playing for a long time, hoping they’d be featured that week?

+ Wish they would show you your progress through combos. Sort of like the training mode in most fighting games – showing icons across the bottom of the screen to represent key inputs adding to the chain (boot, pistol, time piece: 5 sec., grapple, speargun).

Maybe add some suggestion of how many combos chains are still possible at the right side of this growing chain. As you fill in steps, the number goes down. This way you can have sense of how you’re progressing as you “explore” various attack combinations.

Icons in a chain could change color, or lose a glow, if you’ve explored every subsequent combination already.

___________________

– which reminds me: Haven’t we left behind the whole era of “discovering combos” in a game???

Initially I dug this experience, back in arcades of the early nineties, playing Street Fighter2 against strangers. Within a few years, some small bastard would hover around the Killer Instinct cabinet whipping everyone’s asses with obscure combo chains he’d worked out (after a fortune in quarters?). So I stopped enjoying/playing fighting games at this point. Right around this time, home consoles were porting well enough that I could bone up at home, which ruined the whole value of having blown quarters on learning combos.
And then the Internet came along, and the whole mystery (and word-of-mouth) aspect surrounding combos completely vanished.

Nowadays, If I want to know how to perform a fatality in mortal kombat, I just go look it up (or I watch them all, on youtube). i think this has fundamentally changed video games. More and more, I play games with a iPad nearby, to check that I’ve found all the obscure achievements before I exit a level.
________________________

In a way, it reminds me of leveling up in an MMO. I put in the time to sort of unlock all the known combos, while playing through the linear single player or co-op storyline. Now that I’ve reached my combo Level Cap, I enter a new non-linear sort of gameplay.

…Except, normally this is where you’d start seeking larger groups to play with… or seek out PvP…? Not where you’d cut yourself off completely from the rest of the game world…

Echoes is kinda saying “now you can enjoy PvP by yourself!”
???
_____________________________
Someone noted that they didn’t see why the article was written. The mechanics have all been seen before.
my reply::

I’d say this quote is key:
“This game shows that the actual system of points can be less important than the way it lets players know what’s going on.”

It’s not just about comparing scores in the end. It’s about the way applying points to every little action engages you to think perversely about every second of the game play.
(imagine if Halo went ahead and gave you some points for teabagging, instead of discouraging the activity. Even encouraged you to teabag different parts of a player, for obscure points and mysterious combo rewards. That is what is weirdly interesting about Bulletstorm).

Everyone knows the game offers one level of lewd appeal, and another level of satire – but nobody was really exploring how the point driven gameplay specifically relates to:
– the old “highscores” goal we enjoyed in arcades. (oft accompanied by obscene intials like “ASS” or “COX”).
– encouraging you to seek out lewd solutions, during gameplay.

( Madworld celebrated creative goring and environment attacks, BUT you had a limited palette of moves with which to explore the gore. A FPS approach to this idea, lets you apply each of your weapons to each pixel of the enemy’s body.)

(Duke Nukem also celebrates huge penis jokes, but will likely feel more like a linear story you to experience – less like something that encourages you to bring your own perverse creativity into gameplay, every step of the way)

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