There’s an old adage that goes something like this:
You want what you can’t have. The more something is withheld, the more we try to get hold of it. Some might call this “playing hard to get.”
Conversely, when something is too freely given we often take it for granted or find ourselves growing bored or uninterested, its glimmer quickly fading.
Too inundated with what we thought we wanted, we turn to greener pastures. The grass, as they say, is always greener on the other side—until, of course, the other side is reached.
It’s a tough enough balancing act in real life as we navigate relationships and self-care and all the rest. In politics and marketing and other aspects of public life, it can also pose a challenge. I swear, if we’d just told everyone “You’re not allowed to wear masks!” we’d have had the country masked up in no time. But when you give people exactly what they want, they grow disinterested or suspicious.
When it comes to marketing, the same applies.
Most films release too many trailers before release, especially big blockbuster films that we already know plenty about. Did each new Star Wars movie really need so many trailers and posters and so forth? Wouldn’t one cryptic trailer that shows just enough to whet our appetites be enough? Did we really need to learn that Palpatine was alive in a trailer? Most Pixar movies are roundly spoiled before they ever reach theaters.
The same applies to video games. One of the most successful game launches in recent years didn’t even get a trailer. Apex Legends just suddenly launched out of the blue (though EA’s marketing approach to that game was clever: They simply paid a bunch of popular streamers to play the game right when it was released). The surprise launch, coupled with the influx of streamers playing Apex Legends suddenly on Twitch, was enough to get the battle royale off to a strong start. Would half a dozen trailers have served Respawn any better?
Far too often, games are over-marketed with too many trailers and gameplay videos and too much information long before they ever see the light of day. In some ways, Activision avoided this in 2020 by delaying the announcement of Call Of Duty: Black Ops Cold War until just a few weeks before launch—instead of a few months—and by using Warzone and ARGs to get gamers excited rather than more traditional marketing.
One of the worst offenders in the video game space when it comes to over-saturating a game’s audience is FromSoftware and its publishing partners like Bandai Namco and Sony. “This next game needs no introduction” really could apply to pretty much every single one of their games these days. The fanbase is passionate and loyal. We would be just fine with one reveal teaser and one launch trailer and a handful of screenshots. We don’t need much.
Bloodborne had a “debut” trailer, an “official story” trailer, the “Cut You Down” trailer, the “Old Hunters” trailer (ok that’s for an expansion), a “gameplay” trailer, a “release date reveal” trailer, a “launch” trailer and so on and so forth. Maybe there were more. It’s exhausting. Hype slowly fades into familiarity; familiarity breeds contempt. The game ended up being superb (other than load times) but the marketing was too much.
There were too many trailers, plain and simple.
The game needed exactly two: One to tease us—without revealing what the game was—thereby stirring up interest in the community; then one more, to give it a name and a face. Don’t call it anything. Just release one more trailer closer to launch that reveals just enough—what it looks like, when it comes out, what platforms it’s releasing on. That, and various inevitable leaks, should do the trick.
So far, FromSoftware is almost (almost) overcorrecting when it comes to its newest game, Elden Ring, a collaboration between the Japanese RPG-maker and Game Of Thrones author George R.R. Martin (who sure likes to distract himself from actually finishing The Winds Of Winter with projects like this, doesn’t he?) It’s a dark Norse-inspired action-RPG and it just won the Most Anticipated Game at the 2020 Game Awards. And we know next to nothing about it.
We’ve seen only one trailer so far for Elden Ring, and it was just an announcement trailer with no actual gameplay. It had some dramatic narration and some creepy, gorgeous CGI, though, and it certainly got people’s attention.
Here it is:
That was from E3 2019, in the Before Days, back before COVID-19 swept across the globe, shutting down gaming conferences like E3 and vastly slowing down production on things like movies and video games (if not halting it altogether in some cases).
Since then, crickets. We’ve neither seen nor heard a thing about Elden Ring, other than the occasional leak and rumor, and FromSoftware has remained silent. Mum’s the word when it comes to this grand collaboration, to the point where game journalists have started writing ghastly, click-baity headlines wondering “Has Elden Ring Been Cancelled?” while knowing full-well it hasn’t been.
I don’t know if FromSoftware is staying so quiet because they’re not ready to share more or because they’ve realize that withholding information is having the desired effect: Building hype in a way that no trailer or info-dump ever could.
Would Elden Ring still be the Most Anticipated Game at the Game Awards in 2020 if we’d had five more trailers at this point, and dozens of different articles about the latest screenshot or gameplay reveal? Maybe. But the very fact that it’s achieved this without a peep, without the lifting of a single finger, proves that sometimes the best marketing is the type that builds suspense, fosters curiosity, and makes people want what they can’t have.
We know that Elden Ring is coming. We just don’t know when. Xbox boss Phil Spencer says he’s played a good chunk of the game and that it’s From’s most ambitious so far. “I've seen actually quite a bit. I've played quite a bit,” he told GameSpot.
"As somebody who's played all of Miyazaki's games over at least the last decade, this is clearly the most ambitious game that he's done," Spencer said. "I mean, I love his games, but seeing some of the gameplay mechanics stuff that he's tackling, he and the team are tackling this time, of the setting, working with another creator in terms of story. I love it."
The cynic in me thinks that the dam is about to burst. That this genius marketing won’t end with one, grand, magnificent trailer that gets everyone talking before the game is released into the wild, but instead a steady flow of traditional, corporate marketing designed to inundate us with all things Elden Ring.
We’ll get our story trailer and our gameplay trailer and our release date trailer and our IGN exclusive 15 minutes of gameplay and select YouTubers will get their choice cuts to dribble-feed audiences and by the time the game actually comes out there will already be wikis filled with information about it and half the lore will already be on display and it’ll be just another video game among many, garishly paraded down the aisle for all to see. Probably a damn fine game, but still.
(GameBeat’s Jeff Grubb says we’ll get some sort of new Elden Ring soon but so far nothing).
Existing also within me, like some wolf of the steppes, is the optimist. This part of me hopes that FromSoftware and its partner publishers will resist the urge to overshare in this culture of oversharing. That they’ll keep Elden Ring a mystery, or at least more of a mystery than Bloodborne or Dark Souls III or really any of their other games save perhaps Demon’s Souls back when it launched in obscurity on PS3 lo these many years ago, in a simpler age.
Elden Ring doesn’t need marketing to succeed, or at least not very much, not with the way organic gaming communities build hype all on their own. One more trailer with a little gameplay. No gameplay videos or release date trailers. No developer behind-the-scenes nonsense until after release. No pre-release streams. Maybe one batch of screenshots. Maybe we don’t even know it, but I really do think we want mystery. We want to be surprised.
Less is more, more or less.
I have spoken.
A version of this post originally appeared on my blog at Forbes.
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