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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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On April 8, 2011 the marketing and PR team released Duke Nukem Forever‘s “Babes” trailer. Staying true to the puerile and tasteless humor that pervades the franchise, everyone had to take a look at it. The only part that could have been considered innuendo was the part where Duke’s live-in twins alternately rise after presumably fellating him. The rest of the video was simply direct and blatant sexploitation, not sexy, not erotic and not subtle in the least. It was blatantly a biological trigger for titillation, nothing more. Needless to say, the internets erupted again. Labels of misogyny were leveled at the game, petitions arose and social media campaigns to boycott the game were generated.

Now, to say that I don’t get adult humor is wrong. Shows like Robot Chicken, Family Guy and Archer have based their entire image on adult humor that’s both offensive and hilarious. When a joke is offensive and funny, part of the reason is that the joke isn’t about the offensive thing itself, it’s about the clueless douchebag that thinks it’s okay to do what he’s doing. Good adult humor walks that line to make sure you’re not laughing at sensitive subjects, you’re laughing at a person who is inappropriately engaging in that sensitive subject. Because you’re laughing at a proto-cephalic dolt who doesn’t know better, that gives us an excuse to laugh. With Duke Nukem Forever, the attempts at humor fail because Duke is a hero, a savior with special permission earned from his past actions to do what the hell he wants to whoever the hell he wants to. The targets of his jokes become willing victims to Duke’s whims. That’s not funny and it’s not adult.

As a marketer, I’ve read dozens of case studies and statistical analyses that suggest that for particular audiences, sex sells. As a marketer, I need to consider, when promoting a sexually themed campaign, the following scenarios: who I’m talking to, the predicted reaction of influential groups who wouldn’t like the campaign and most importantly, whether the latter group can influence members of the former to change their behavior. As a human being who strives to understand people, respect people and communicate to people I was not impressed with the trailer. More accurately, this trailer made me feel dirty. Not only did it feel exploitative and misogynistic, there was a brief scene where there was a woman with a 1970’s style afro gyrating. The not so subtle message was that these women are nothing more than tools to be used by Duke. The strippers, the partiers at his Vegas mansion were no different than his freeze-ray, cigar or sunglasses – except that Duke would probably be pissed if he lost his sunglasses.

In marketing, this is called a wedge strategy. You create something that will blatantly offend people in order to get two groups fighting about it. This is about manufacturing a controversy. On one side, the defenders are those who are going to buy your game, on the other side are those who’d rather chew glass than buy your game. In so raising the publicity of the fight, media outlets will pick it up, debate it, put in their two cents and be Very Serious and Thoughtful about This Controversial Game. The raised profile will expand the marketing net to introduce the product to a lot more people who are predisposed to buy this game. The problem with this strategy is that it works. It also treats people who care about the portrayal of women in games, the objectification of women in society and the somewhat subtle racism of blacksploitation-like images in their marketing as objects themselves. This kind of marketing bullshit is focused on the short term gain of sales, rather than the long term acquisition of loyal players. When I say that there were tactical successes and brilliant strategies, it’s not to imply that these were good things, only that they work and, too often, work well.

The last bit of marketing that Duke Nukem Forever got noticed for is the delay of the game, spun as “Duke never comes early”. At this point, the pool of people who would buy this game is pretty much solidified. There aren’t a lot of new acquisitions to be made. This freed up the marketing and PR team to make a lame pun about ejaculation and pretty much deliver it to the people for whom the message was intended. The group of people who had decided not to buy the game or participate in their marketing had also passed it off as another reason to not buy the game – it was a no loss situation at that point. It did, however, spike interest in the game and it was a PR and marketing success because it accomplished what it set out to do. Solidify intent to purchase among those who were predisposed to buy but either didn’t know about it or those who were leaning towards purchase.

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This Happens to Every Guy at Some Point
Duke Nukem Forever was savaged when it was launched. In an ironic twist in which I experienced a small amount of schadenfreude, the things that Duke does to everyone in his game who’s not himself was now being done to Duke. Battered and bruised from nearly every game journalist, the clueless idiot that Duke truly is finally emerges. So with style and panache, the PR firm The Redner Group threatened to hold review copies of their future games hostage because they didn’t like the tone of the reviews. Not only did they actually do this, they did it on the most inappropriate platforms for that kind of reaction, Twitter.

While they immediately retreated from that position, for a PR group to do that is comically unthinkable. They’ve galvanized an entire group of professionals against them. They’ve willingly stepped in the path of a bullet that was aimed for the game without realizing that there are plenty more rounds in the clip that can be fired at them.

Never Meet Your Heroes
It’s always an uphill battle when using nostalgia as the primary driver in marketing. The reality will almost never meet your expectations. Marketing nostalgia elicits the same psychological and evolutionary triggers that make psychics able to pretend like they have supernatural powers. People in a state of heightened emotions like nostalgia, grief, excitement tend to only remember the “hits” and not the “misses”. We remember the “hits” of the past games and enjoy the resurgence of those memories in the current marketing campaign. We also forget the “misses” by justifying them away through cognitive dissonance, perceived bias, loyalty and curiosity.

The marketing campaign for Duke Nukem Forever relied on the fact that as a culture, we have fond memories of the old Duke Nukem games. We still share stories of LAN parties, hilarious multiplayer experiences, late nights playing with friends and the joy of discovery that the original game series gave us. The marketing campaign used those nostalgic feelings we justifiably had (and still have) and presented to us a continuation and extension of those experiences. Consumers, in a heightened emotional state remembered the positive feelings we had and applied them to the current game. This was how they were able to build such an effective marketing push for Duke Nukem Forever. The marketing teams built an amazing pillar of promotion and content that truly convinced people to suspend their skepticism and buy into the new game. This pillar was crushed by the game’s failure to produce.

Ultimately, I predict Duke Nukem Forever will succeed by turning a profit for 2K Games and Gearbox. Secondly, it will soar in the used game market as people who don’t want to pay for the new version will be overcome by a low price point and a curiosity to see how bad this game actually was. Gearbox will live to make more Duke Nukem games because they’ve built a base of people who don’t care what the reviews will say, they’ve become loyal to Duke and just the honor of walking around in his shoes is reward enough. Gearbox will also know that even after making a profit from this dismal game, they can’t do worse… right?

JP Sherman’s a professional marketer based out of Raleigh, North Carolina and spends his time providing his marketing skills to The Escapist Magazine, playing games and getting bum-rushed by his 3 young boys. You can follow JP on Twitter where he generally talks about marketing.

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