Having a good PR strategy for your game is essential, whether you are a one-person development team or a multi-national studio. However, not everyone gets their video game PR right – which has led to some infamous PR failures.
Let’s dive into this pit of communication calamities, marketing mistakes and – in some cases – breaking of laws.
1. THQ Nordic’s 8Chan calamity (THQ Nordic 2019)
With plenty of social media channels through which to communicate with their audience and a dedicated Community Manager, THQ Nordic should have had no problem running an online Q&A. So, where did they decide to run their Q&A? Twitter? Facebook? Reddit?
In a very unorthodox (and quite frankly stupid) move, THQ Nordic opted for 8Chan as their medium of choice.
Merely searching for 8Chan brings up a whole host of bad press, racism and illegal content.
Clearly, THQ Nordic had not searched for information about 8Chan themselves. But it went ahead with the AMA (Ask Me Anything) Q&A anyway.
As expected, the Q&A was a disaster, and THQ Nordic was forced to apologise. It took the company one whole week to then put out a statement disavowing the AMA.
For all its flaws, stick to traditional social media if you want to do a Q&A. Also, don’t respond to controversial questions!
It honestly really is that simple.
2. Godfather II and illegal weapons shipping (EA 2009)
A classic PR move is to send something to the media that is related to the game that you are promoting. Perhaps it is a letter written from the game’s protagonist or a replica item from the game, recreated for a realistic effect.
EA decided that they wanted to send the media an item from The Godfather II – specifically, brass knuckles.
It was quickly discovered that sending out these items was illegal in many US states – including California, where EA is based.
A further dilemma occurred when EA sent a message around to the media asking them to send back the brass knuckles, having realised their significant error.
However (and full points if you have already spotted the problem), if the media were to send them back, they would be breaking the law by shipping weapons to California.
It was all very messy and not a good look for EA. After setting out to get members of the press excited about playing a criminal mastermind, they had almost turned them all into unwitting real-life criminals.
3. Duke Nukem Forever wanted to ban negative media forever (2K 2011)
When sending your game out to the press, of course, you are no doubt hoping for glowing reviews.
Unfortunately, you can’t force the media to like the game. That doesn’t stop some companies trying though.
PR firm The Redner Group, hired by 2K for this project, posted about Duke Nukem reviewers on Twitter:
“Too many went too far with their reviews… we are reviewing who gets games next time and who doesn’t based on today’s venom.”
They would be blacklisting journalists who didn’t leave positive reviews for Duke Nukem Forever.
Obviously, this didn’t go down too well with the media, and 2K was quick to fire the firm. 2K issued a statement:
“2K Games does not endorse the comments made by Jim Redner and we can confirm that The Redner Group no longer represents our products.”
4. Watchdogs safe appeared anything but safe (Ubisoft 2014)
Usually, journalists who work for a media outlet that covers games receive codes and press items that are obviously linked to the game. Because this is the most logical thing to do.
All logic went out of the window for Ubisoft in 2014 though, when an Australian journalist was sent a mysterious package. This turned out to be a safe that began to beep, and was posted along with a note telling the journalist to “check their voicemail”.
These all raised red-flags immediately, and the journalist in question did not even use voicemail.
After checking around with fellow media outlets, it was discovered that nobody else had received similar packages.
The final straw in the red-flag game.
So, to lay it all out – there is a mysterious safe, that has no code to open it, and then when it is attempted to open, starts beeping. Nobody else has received such a package, and there is no indication about who sent it or why.
So what happened next?
The bomb disposal squad was called in, and the entire office building was evacuated!
The bomb disposal squad revealed the safe to contain a copy of Watchdogs, a baseball cap and some other things. But thankfully, no explosive device.
A dodgy PR stunt and resulting media buzz meant Ubisoft had to clarify the situation and state that they would be more careful in the future.
The best part (or worst part I guess) of the debacle? The publication that the package was sent to, did not even cover video games.
5. Dead Island: Riptide (Deep Silver 2013)
“We wanted to provide a unique collector’s edition that was utterly Dead Island and would make a striking conversation piece on any discerning zombie gamer’s mantel,” said Paul Nicholls, Deep Silver’s sales and marketing director in 2013.
“…what kind of sociopath would actually want this 12-inch resin nightmare? Even putting aside the weird message a sexualized corpse torso sends, it’s just … ugly.” said Jim Sterling.
A limited-run in the UK and Australian market for Dead Island: Riptide, the Zombie Bait edition of the game left critics and fans of the series feeling disappointed and creeped out by the bloodied-torso in a Union Jack bikini.
6. Hitman’s Facebook app was not a hit after all (Square Enix 2012)
You know that something has gone wrong when the phrase “We’re sorry for any offence caused…” is pulled out.
This was the case for the Hitman: Absolution companion app for Facebook, in which players could put ‘hits’ on their friends.
Anyone putting out a hit could select, from a list, the reason they wanted to target their friend. An automated voice-message would then be sent to their target, including the stated purpose for the hit.
The app also allowed people to choose how their target could be easily identified, including their hair colour, bad tattoos, skinny frame and I am not making this up, genitalia size (or lack thereof).
Square-Enix admitted they were “wide off the mark” and “decided the best thing to do was remove the app completely”.
7. Shadow of Mordor and shadowy contracts (Warner Bros 2014)
Game journalist Jim Sterling and critic TotalBiscuit revealed that Warner Bros’ marketing partner Plaid Social alarmingly requested that all YouTube influencers who wanted pre-release codes would have to provide positive sponsored content for the game, with Plaid having ultimate control over what material was published and what was not.
Influencers had to meet strict quotas, including one live-stream, one YouTube video, one Twitter post and one Facebook post – again, all of which had to be lovely and positive about the game.
Reviewers were to ‘persuade’ audiences to buy the game and were told not to mention the Lord of the Rings films, The Hobbit films, the books or related media.
It’s safe to say that once this news got out, people were less than happy about these unethical and restricted business practices.
8. Fallout 76 (Bethesda 2018)
Bethesda announced the Fallout 76 Power Armor Edition in the lead-up to Fallout 76’s release. Player’s would get a variety of cool goodies, including a neat branded canvas bag, at a cost of $200.
When the Power Armor edition arrived, it wasn’t quite what people were expecting (a perfect allegory for the game itself). Those who had spent $200 found that their bag was instead a cheap nylon one that, for many, broke easily when trying to fit the Power Armor helmet inside.
A member of the Bethesda support team apologised, citing that the original bag was too expensive to make. This caused further outrage, as people waited for an official statement from Bethesda.
Bethesda stated they were investigating the response from the support team, and said:
“Unfortunately, due to unavailability of materials, we had to switch to a nylon carrying case in the Fallout 76: Power Armor Edition. We hope this doesn’t prevent anyone from enjoying what we feel is one of our best collector’s editions.”
Hoping to remedy the situation, Bethesda offered 500 Atoms, the virtual currency in Fallout 76, to affected players. While 500 sounds like a princely sum, it amounts to $5 and just angered fans even further.
Bethesda then stated that they would manufacture the original bags after all, and gave players until January 31st 2019 to request a replacement bag.
What must not be forgotten is that while players were given cheap bags, influencers were given different bags, made out of far better material than those sent to fans who paid $200 for the game.
9. Rockstar’s Hot Coffee lands them in hot water (Rockstar 2005)
Arguably one of Grand Theft Auto’s most notorious controversies, and that is in a storied franchise with multiple controversies.
‘Hot Coffee’ is the name of a mini-game in GTA: San Andreas, with protagonist CJ being invited into his girlfriend’s house for what we will term ‘coffee and chill.’ The mini-game used the dancing mechanic from a slightly less-explicit section of the game for ‘coffee and chill’.
Rockstar initially claimed that the mini-game was the result of ‘hackers’ on PC, but players found it hidden in the console versions. Which meant Rockstar had communicated a lie, to cover themselves.
This led to lawsuits, patches, the game being withdrawn from sale until versions could be released with the content wholly removed, and the reclassification of the games age rating in certain regions.
US Senator Hillary Clinton suggested that new regulations be put on the sales of video games. The US Congress passed a resolution for a Federal Trade Commission investigation, to determine whether Rockstar had intentionally undermined the ESRB rating system.
Rockstar’s denial didn’t help its case, but the company was, and still is, no stranger to controversy with many seeing it all an intrinsic part of the Rockstar brand.
10. Homefront’s balloons a deflated disaster (THQ 2011)
Cast your mind back to 2011. We had the Royal Wedding between William and Kate. NASA found evidence of possible water on Mars, and ‘blockchain’ was added to the English dictionary (people said it was a word that would never be used!).
2011 also the release of Homefront, an FPS, set in an alternate world where North Korean forces occupy the United States of America. It was marked by PR firm TrashTalk FCM releasing 10,000 balloons into the sky at GDC 2011.
These were, according to THQ, bio-degradable balloons, and primarily soy-based. So good for the planet, right?
It transpired it was actually a threat to wildlife, costing TrashTalk $7000 in fines as the balloons mostly ended up in the water of the Bay Area.
A spokesperson for the environmentalist group Save the Bay said of the stunt:
“Obviously, we have a problem with polluting of the bay and this is just polluting and littering,”
The balloons were also found to contain Gamestop advertisements, a very materialistic take on mimicking the efforts of South Korean activists to send balloons into North Korea filled with medicine, dollar bills and USB sticks that contain K-Drama videos and K-Pop music for North Korean citizens to enjoy in secret.
The retailer was quick to distance itself from the incident and blamed it squarely on THQ.
“…the balloon drop stunt in San Francisco was created by THQ …and Game-Stop had no prior knowledge of it.”
Perhaps this served as an omen of things to come. Homefront received mixed reviews across the board and the reception to its 2016 sequel, Homefront: The Revolution was even worse.
11. Dante’s Inferno’s ‘Sin to Win’ ends up a giant loss (EA 2010)
Hosting a competition to get people interested in a game is not a unique strategy and can lead to some great results.
But, if the competition requirements – and the resulting prizes – are in bad taste, it will go down as a PR failure.
Enter EA in 2010.
EA asked comic-con attendees to ‘sin to win’ as part of their Dante’s Inferno campaign.
Entrants were tasked with taking photos with the models working at the Dante’s Inferno booth, or any other ‘booth babes’ working at the show. These were to be uploaded to Twitter and Facebook, or emailed straight to EA.
The handpicked winner would win ‘dinner and a sinful night with two hot girls, a limo service, paparazzi and a chest full of booty’.
Ironically, the rules of the contest stated that entries would be disqualified if deemed to be inappropriate for reasons including depictions of sex and alcohol.
A lengthy statement was quickly issued as criticism piled in, and Twitter saw the hashtag #EAFail trend.
The contest was after that seemingly abandoned.
12. Pokemon Go fest catches nothing but bad news (Niantic 2017)
A year on from the global Pokemon Go phenomenon, Niantic decided to bring together 20,000 Pokemon Go trainers from around the world. Held in Chicago, the plan was for a day of events, games and community – culminating in a challenge to unlock a legendary Pokemon.
Ticket prices on the reseller market soared to a reported $2000 due to the hype among hardcore fans.
Game crashes, connectivity issues and an angry crowd making themselves heard in front of Niantic CEO John Hanke all made Pokemon Go fest a disaster.
Some technical issues began at 6 am, which was 4 hours before the event got underway.
Press interviews were pushed back before ultimately being cancelled, and Niantic gave out $100 in the in-game currency as well as refunding the $20 ticket price, to every player who had made it through all the queues and checked-in to the event.
The big challenge to top it off, the legendary Pokemon one, was scrapped. Instead, everyone who had checked-in successfully to the event got a free Lugia. This was great – for a few hours at least, as it wasn’t long until Lugia had been released to players worldwide.
13. Ocean Marketing gets into a sea of trouble (Ocean Marketing 2011)
The perfect lesson in how not to do customer service, this entry was a total PR failure.
However, this debacle centred around a gaming controller rather than a game.
In summary, a man called Dave emailed Ocean Marketing to ask about the status of his order. He had ordered two Avenger PS3 controllers.
What should have been a simple explanation about his order and the current situation, escalated into personal threats from Paul Christoforo, the man behind Ocean Marketing.
Paul claimed that they were such a big name in the industry that even if Dave showed people their email exchange, it would be no problem for Ocean Marketing.
Dave added some big games media names into the email chain, including Mike Krahulik, who just so happens to run PAX.
Ocean Marketing claimed that they would be at PAX – to which Mike told them that they would no longer be able to attend.
Ocean Marketing dismissed this, claiming that there were bigger and better shows to go to and then started questioning if Mike really was from Boston – as Ocean Marketing ‘knew everyone in Boston’.
Things escalated further, causing IGN to state in no uncertain terms they did not support Ocean Marketing nor want anything to do with it. Ocean Marketing became a meme, that even unrelated companies like Geico got in on.
14. PSN network gets hacked, Sony doesn’t properly communicate this (Sony 2011)
In 2011, Sony’s PlayStation Network (PSN) was hacked, put offline, and the personal details of around 77 million users compromised.
People were obviously very confused, and speculation was rife as people waited for Sony to clarify what had happened.
They waited and waited.
Sony took a long time to respond to the criticism, only confirming the possibility that data was stolen nearly a week after the outage.
This is of course where the PR failure comes into view.
Forced to respond to why it took them so long to notify consumers of the extent of the problems, Sony’s director of communications, Patrick Seybold, said:
“There’s a difference in timing between when we identified there was an intrusion and when we learned of consumers’ data being compromised,”
A class-action lawsuit was filed the very next day, which was just one of multiple that was to come from this incident. In fact, at one point, Sony faced no less than 55 class-action lawsuits as a result of the furore.
Sony apologised numerous times and attempted to gain favour with their customers again by offering them two free PS3 and PSP games from a small selection. However, many complained that they already had the titles on offer. SCEE Head of communications Nick Caplin said:
“We’ve tried really hard to put together a list of high-quality BD games, rather than simply offering cheaper PSN titles…the average metacritic rating for these games is over 84 per cent, so these are high-quality games.”
If something disastrous happens and messages need to be communicated, it needs to be communicated as soon as possible – even if you just confirm that you are investigating it. Especially if it is a data breach, with valuable information at risk.
15. EA tells people not to buy Battlefield 5 if they don’t like it – then complains about low sales (EA 2018)
Oh look, it’s EA again!
If getting audiences to buy your game is the primary goal, then telling them to do the opposite is never going to be a winning strategy.
Indeed, faced with mounting criticism that Battlefield V’s heavy focus on female combatants in a World War II game was becoming unrealistic and was pandering to changes in the social climate, EA’s chief creative officer Patrick Soderlund said:
“…I think those people who don’t understand it, well, you have two choices: either accept it or don’t buy the game. I’m fine with either or.”
People were all too happy to take Soderlund up on his offer. Battlefield sold over 7 million copies, but EA was expecting a few million more than that. Battlefield V’s limited single player campaign at launch, unimplemented cooperative missions and disagreements over the title’s presentation of history led to players holding off buying the game. The confusing staggered launch complicated matters further.
EA blamed the popularity of battle royale modes in the genre on Battlefield’s lack of sales, with EA executive Blake Jorgensen saying:
“This year, battle royale modes became incredibly popular in shooter games. As a result of these decisions, we struggled to gain momentum and we did not meet our sales expectations for the quarter.”
It can be hard to isolate the reason for the lack of uptake for a game. But avoid actively telling people not to buy your game if you want them to buy it.
If possible, don’t mess around with balloons even if they are supposedly environmentally friendly. The animals will thank you.
Something important happening? Tell people right away, don’t leave it a week, when it is too late.
Research the platforms you want to communicate on before you go and do so. I’ll help you. If it has a number in the title, literally any number, followed by ‘chan’, say no.
Don’t try to be too smart when sending things to the media. Definitely do not send weapons to the media, or anything that could be construed as a weapon. If the bomb disposal squad has to be sent in, you have clearly messed up promoting your game to journalists big time.
Make sure that if you have promised to send players something, you actually send what was promised. No shortcuts, no cheap alternatives. Don’t mess around with the mail.
Don’t hide inappropriate mini-games within the code, then blame it on ‘hackers’ when you know full well who is at fault.
Try not to get too graphic with zombie games and PR stunts.
Finally, don’t try to control the press and influencers. You cannot blacklist them or coerce them into leaving positive coverage for your game. It is only going to reflect poorly on you if you do.
By avoiding these failures, you should be able to come up with and run a stable but safe PR campaign for your game.