Thunderbolt logo

ARGs, Controlled Impressions, And Videogame Marketing


Videogame marketing is changing quickly, and it’s important for gamers to understand how. If we know the tactics publishers use to market to us, we can avoid No Man’s Sky situations, where we get over-hyped and buy a disappointing game.

As more and more releases saturate the videogame market and the industry becomes more competitive for coverage and sales, many publishers are in tough situations. They invest so much money into their games that a single one being a flop could lead to them closing their doors permanently. Even good games that are critically acclaimed by critics and fans can be a financial loss if marketed poorly. As more traditional ads like TV commercials and print ads are becoming less effective, publishers are looking for unique ways to sell their games.

To help raise awareness and protect your wallet, here are many newer marketing tactics game publishers are using right now to create hype for their games.

Alternate Reality Games

While it sounds more akin to VR headsets, alternate reality games (ARG) don’t use the HTC Vive or Oculus Rift. Instead, ARG’s are an interactive tactic to tell a story requiring participation from the players in the real world to progress. A prime example of this is Overwatch’s ARG involving Sombra, requiring players to decode messages, solve puzzles, find clues, and follow a dialogue on a series of Overwatch websites.

ARGs aren’t new, with the earliest occurring in 1996, but as they become more advanced and immersive, they are becoming more popular and interesting. They have been used to promote games like Halo 2, movies like The Dark Knight, and live events like the 2008 Summer Olympics.

Utilizing ARGs for marketing have two major benefits. The first is that it increases the publicity of the game, both with the players in the ARG, and with news sources. As new developments are uncovered in the game, it’s more likely the ARG and the videogame itself to stay in the daily news cycle. That means more coverage, which leads to more hype and attention, and more sales.

The next benefit is allowing the publisher that gauge interest in the game more effectively. The company is getting data from consumers involved to better advertise the game to (through cookies and site data) so they can better gauge interest level and target ads directly to people interested in the game. So to put it in better context, if you were to visit a site involved in the ARG, the publisher could then purchase online ads to target specifically to you.


Overwatch’s ARG to reveal Sombra not only drew a lot of attention to the new character, but to the game itself. Overwatch was already a common topic in videogame journalism sites, but this ARG gave it even more coverage, drowning out competition and bring it more attention. For a long term multiplayer like Overwatch, constant marketing is essential for it to remain profitable and active.

As a gamer and a consumer, it’s important to recognize that an engaging ARG won’t mean the game itself will be great. An ARG can be a marketing tactic to get more attention from gaming journalism and to increase player interest in the game.

Huge, Lavish Booths at Gaming Conferences

A big part of videogame marketing isn’t just targeting the players, it’s also about targeting retailers and journalists. If a developer wants to sell a game at a retail store, they need to convince stores like Wal-Mart and Target to buy their game to resell at their stores. The goal of a retailer is to buy just the right amount of copies so they don’t have a bunch left over they can’t sell.

So it falls to the publisher to convince them each game is the next big hit. One major way they do this is by building these huge booths at major gaming conferences like E3. Representatives from major retail chains go to events like these to meet with the staff, try out the game and get a feel if the game will sell well. So, instead of simply having a TV and the game set up, they create an entire experience to impress them.

mafia 3

Remember last E3 and the massive Mafia 3 booth? They created an entire New Orleans neighborhood inside their booth and everybody was floored with how detailed and large it was. The game itself received mid-to-low review scores and overall didn’t perform well with gamers. The game itself sold great with retailers, pushing 4.5 million to stores and became the publisher’s fastest selling game, proving their marketing worked for a poorly-liked game.

Journalists, to a lesser extent, are affected by these booths. It builds hype for the game that they pass on in their coverage of the event to their followers and consumers. Good games can still have flashy booths, but don’t base your purchase decisions off of it. If the publisher focuses more on the booth rather than the gameplay of their product at a conference, but cautious of the finished game.

Relying Heavily On The Brand

Over the years, the game industry has been flooded with sequels and yearly iterations of games, and many of these rely heavily on the brand they’ve built. Many gamers are willing to buy the newest Call of Duty or NBA game simply because it’s what they play. They’ve become extremely loyal to those brands, and their publishers know they can use that loyalty to sell a certain amount of games.

That isn’t to say they don’t use other marketing tactics, they do. There are commercials, E3 booths, and billboards to help keep them top of mind. They want players to make associations with the successes of the previous games so they don’t need to prove their newest game is good. The other games built brand loyalty that they can now capitalize on.

Controlling Early Impressions

In 2016, Bethesda announced that they were no longer going to give review copies of games to the media. Instead, they would rather have reviews go up alongside releases so everybody has a chance to experience the game without outside influences.

Some would argue though that they are simply trying to control impressions that might negatively affect sales, and other companies are doing the same. Many companies, like EA and Square Enix, either by themselves or through a PR company, are declining to give review copies to unpredictable or negative reviewers. Instead of sending copies openly to get a realistic picture of the game’s quality, they only send them to people they are confident to give positive scores.

This creates an ethical issue for many gaming journalism sources that rely on those review copies. It’s their duty to provide honest reviews of a game to inform consumers about its quality. If a game isn’t good and they give it a bad score, they risk not being eligible to get future games for that publisher. On the other hand, if they give a good score to a bad game, they risk losing the trust of their followers and the ad revenue they get from their online traffic.

It’s not a terribly large amount of control, but it does inconvenience gaming journalists and give publishers better control of a game’s impressions leading up to its release. It forces gamers to either purchase a game blindly at release or wait until proper reviews of a game have a chance to be finished and go up.

Marketing and You

Now you have a better understanding how the game industry is marketing to you, and hopefully, help you determine what games to buy and when. It’s clear that some companies are willing to do some less than savory things to sell copies of their game, while others are trying their hardest to control the market.

Got something you want to share? Tired of the pre-order agenda game companies are pushing on me? Thought of a tactic publishers are using to mislead us that wasn’t mentioned above? Let us know in the comments below!

The author of this fine article

is a at Thunderbolt, having joined in January 1970. Get in touch on Twitter @allen24ben.

Gentle persuasion

You should like us on Facebook.