Growing up, my parents used to warn me that video games would distract from success. They were right.
For the creative industries that compete with them, video games are one hell of a distraction. According to the research firm New Zoo, gaming industry revenues hit $121.7bn worldwide in 2017, more than movies ($39.9bn) and digital TV ($64bn) combined.
If your business relies on the attention of others, video games will distract from your success. Case in point: in one of the strongest fall box offices of the last decade, the video game Red Dead Redemption 2 had ‘the single-biggest opening weekend in the history of entertainment’, according to a release from Take-Two Interactive.
An open-world epic from Grand Theft Auto developer Rockstar Games, Red Dead Redemption 2 pulled in $725m over just three days. It even beat Avengers: Infinity War – by almost $100m.
But while gaming might now be bigger than the Hulk, it didn’t get there by acting like it. In fact, compared to mass-appeal blockbusters, successful game launches like that of Red Dead Redemption 2’s play by different rules. Here’s what marketers can learn from them.
Lesson one: know your fans
The hype around Red Dead Redemption 2 began with a single tweet. At 6am on 16 October 2016, @RockstarGames shared a simple image: its logo on a blotchy red background.
— Rockstar Games (@RockstarGames) October 16, 2016
Twitter exploded. Then, with the eyes of the gaming world on Rockstar, it followed up the next day. At the crack of dawn, it posted simple silhouettes in the same art style. No captions. No calls to action. But to hardcore fans, it was an unmissable signal that Red Dead Redemption was back.
Rockstar knows what many have forgotten: contagious moments start small. In the social media age, that means engaging niche communities – the more passionate, networked and self-identifying the better.
Marketers might shy away from community hubs such as Reddit or Twitter because they’re ‘difficult’ (read: not afraid to reject inauthentic content). But that’s backward thinking. Fans aren’t naturally challenging toward content creators – they love your thing! That’s why they’re fans! They do, however, punish anything that smells like opportunism
The solution: get to know your actual fans. Learn their wants. Learn their codes. Listen to them when they say, “this sucks”. There’s no better way to gain relevance than by putting in the time to learn what relevance means.
“Just tweet your logo” is the advice of fly-by-night podcast hosts. Tweet a logo that winks at hardcore fans through cues only they’d recognize after months of rumors? That’s the start of a contagion, from Twitter to The Guardian to a 12-fold increase in Google traffic.
Lesson two: focus on moments
Red Dead Redemption 2’s reveal week was simple, but most importantly it was just that: a week. There was no tour, and the development team didn’t run the late-night show circuit. It was a weeklong broadside, then months of silence.
In a saturated media landscape, flashbulb moments break through. Rockstar went in big. Red Dead Redemption 2 entered the cultural arena, then, when their next moment activated in September 2017, the world was that much more primed for it. Knowing how to provide relevance to fans was part of it, but eschewing gradualism mattered just as much.
For an attention-grabbing idea to stand out, it has to get in then get out. The 24-hour news cycle will shuffle your idea along whether you like it or not. To break through the noise, burn twice as bright for half as long.
Lesson three: own who you are
Knowing your hardcore fans and providing moments for them can take you most of the way. But for your idea to really rise above, it must double down on truths about who you are.
Case in point: at a September 2018 press preview, a Kotaku journalist asked one of Rockstar’s developers about just how immersive the game was. The developer’s response: your horse’s testicles would “shrink and expand depending on the temperature in the game world”.
Fans went, ahem, nuts.
First thing I'm gonna do in red dead 2 is race my horse to the top of a snowy mountain to watch its balls shrink — Sunless (@SunlessKhan) October 25, 2018
Rockstar, a studio famous for obsessive details like your car’s tires deflating over time in Grand Theft Auto IV, had surpassed even themselves. The icing on the cake: they had done it in a way that was relevant to hardcore fans (young, male, meme-friendly gamers) by being...well, come on. It’s outrageous.
The 'horse testicles' meme marked an inflection point in Red Dead’s prerelease coverage, sparking top posts on Reddit’s /r/gaming subreddit and catapulting what was already a hot game to top-of-mind status for an entire chunk of the internet. It was unplanned; it was genius.
One final note: if you’re introducing a new brand (or mistakenlybelieve you don’t have the cool factor that attracts hardcore fans), social listening is your friend. A simple Twitter advanced search will bring you to relevance insights of all sorts.
If an insurance brand could launch one of the buzziest campaigns of the decade, the sky’s the limit.
Know your fans. Focus on moments. Own who you are. As far as distractions go, there’s a lot today’s creatives can learn from watching video games.
Alex Rakestraw is a junior strategist at Droga5