First-Person Marketer

First-Person Marketer
Tainted Love: The Marketing of Duke Nukem Forever

JP Sherman | 4 Jul 2011 14:00
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Duke Nukem Forever is out and in the hot little hands of the public. Much to the chagrin of Gearbox Software and 2K Games, the reviews are brutal accounts of the linear gameplay, the badly imagined content, the weak and thoughtless multiplayer, the dated graphics, the load times and so much more. I'll leave the actual business of reviewing a game to the professionals. What I want to take a look at is how Duke Nukem Forever came into our collective consciousness, built up steam, generated hype and then came crashing down.

The marketing of Duke Nukem Forever was a series of tactical successes, brilliant marketing schemes and spot-on messaging. Before the game launches, all you have is the marketing. We generate hype, we create media and we entice social interaction. The marketing that we create and control is the focus; the marketing almost becomes The Game by proxy. Even the demo of the actual game isn't much more than an interactive advertisement to grab what marketers call "mind-share". To a marketer like me, that's where we live. We scream to the world. We try to get the attention of people to tell them something amazing is coming. When that thing comes, we fade away and the center of our world is properly replaced by The Game Itself. What happens when the structure that we've created is crushed by the game we're promoting? Once the game is released, the marketing that was once a pillar becomes noisy ephemeral wisps that circle the new foundation - The Game. It must support the message and it must meet the expectations of the people. When that game can't support the expectation, what happens? It crashes, taking out the marketing as collateral damage.

Hail to the King Baby, Same as the Old King
The marketing of Duke Nukem Forever started as a tricky proposition. They had to craft a relevant message to an audience that had grown skeptical and comfortable with the Duke Nukem Forever vaporware meme. While it was still somewhat meme-worthy, that meme was the oozing remnants of a trodden flower that grew from the remains of a desiccated and beaten horse corpse. Facing that barrier, the marketing teams behind Duke Nukem Forever had to consider how to spin the story, character and features of a game that hadn't seen life since the second inauguration of Bill Clinton, the death of Princess Diana and O.J's civil court trial. The audience had grown up and continued on without Duke Nukem. The other critical issue the marketing team had to address was how to attract new players. Sure, there will be those who will pay attention and purchase the game based upon nostalgia but new gamers who'd never played Duke Nukem before only knew the franchise as a vintage punch-line that had grown into being only ironically funny.

Both audiences have since grown up, passing through Half-Life 2, the Call of Duty franchise and Halo as the progenitors of a new age of first-person shooters. At this step, the marketing team made the right decision. They would stay true to the image and mythos of Duke, their marketing will not be inclusive, it will not be neutral. They knew they were going to outrage segments of the gaming population. They knew that there was a large, diverse and modern population of gamers who wouldn't like their marketing.

Fuck 'em.

Duke Nukem Forever is an exclusive club for those who "get it". The people who would take issue with Duke, the marketing or any of the ancillary messaging wouldn't buy the game anyway. It's better to talk to the people who are already predisposed to buy your game. As a strategic decision, this was spot on.

Back and Still out of Bubblegum
On September 3, 2010 at PAX, Duke Nukem Forever was reannounced. The media and fan reaction ranged from skepticism to outright fan-boyish squeals of joy. There were playable demos, swag and schoolgirl booth babes. Immediately, Duke Nukem Forever regained the title of "controversial". Groups were upset that they would dare to "promote drug use". People were pissed at the over the top sexualization of the marketing. Out of the gate, the message was to male, core gamers: "Duke's back. He's not re-imagined, he's not re-booted, he's just back". The flurry of marketing went unabated. Websites were launched, social media portals were released and tweets were hashtagged. The marketing then went into a public maintenance mode and a private new content creation mode. Trailers were being built. Information only trickled out as 2K Games, Gearbox Software and The Redner Group were busily gobbling up personal information. Promises of exclusives, prizes, media and all of the standard fare were given as long as you submitted your email, "liked" a Facebook page or followed them in other media outlets. As is standard practice, this information you submitted would be used later to directly reach out to you.

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