Hitman: Absolution is hitting store shelves today, but it found itself in the crosshairs earlier this year when a trailer triggered a wave of criticism for its portrayal of protagonist Agent 47 brutally killing a group of mercenaries dressed in sexually suggestive nun costumes. At last week's Montreal International Game Summit, Square Enix director of marketing Cord Smith spoke with GamesIndustry International about the Hitman: Absolution campaign, responding to controversy, and the increasingly complicated world of preorders.
Beginning with the controversy, Smith said it came as a surprise to him when the "Attack of the Saints" trailer raised hackles. Having immersed himself in the project and being well acquainted with the missions the spot was based on (in which the nun mercenaries go from hunting Agent 47 to being hunted by him), Smith said he was too close to see how others would perceive it.
"It's hard for any of us being immersed in a world or a creative field or a particular project to pull yourself out of that bubble," Smith said. "But when you do try to see an asset like that with fresh eyes and say, 'What if you knew nothing about this? How you would react?' And it was only at that point I think we looked at it and [understood]."
"It's a difficult thing from a public relations side. Do you try to dispel it or provide people with enough context to have a more educated conversation about it?"
Prior to the release of the trailer, Smith said the greater concern had been meeting various advertising guidelines. A variety of filters had to be applied to scenes and stills from the Attack of the Saints trailer in order for it to receive approval, including painting exposed buttocks to look covered by latex.
As for whether or not the controversy ultimately helped or hurt Absolution's marketing campaign, Smith painted the situation as a bit more complex.
"In general, you'd imagine any controversy provides increased awareness of the game's existence," Smith said. "So if you're just looking from an awareness standpoint, maybe it's helpful in spite of the tone of some of the comments and debates that went on. But I don't think it was something we would want to exploit, that sort of awareness. It's a difficult thing from a public relations side. Do you try to dispel it or provide people with enough context to have a more educated conversation about it? Or do you kind of let it burn out?"
Speaking for himself, Smith said he doesn't approve of marketing through manufactured controversy. "We do it on a lighter scale in our industry, like leaking [an asset]," Smith said. "And that's fabricated; I'm not an advocate of that. But certainly if that wave swells up, how do you ride it?"
Beyond the Attack of the Saints trailer, perhaps the most notable part of the Hitman: Absolution marketing campaign was the Sniper Challenge preorder incentive. Sniper Challenge was a stand-alone sniping game that preordering gamers could download months in advance of the game's launch date. While it was a GameStop-exclusive (in the US; as a commenter mentioned, it was available through multiple stores internationally), Smith pointed to it as the sort of substantial preorder incentive that could work at all retailers.
Channel-wide, retailer-agnostic endeavors would help simplify the preorder process all the way around, Smith noted. Instead of trying to promote multiple offers at multiple stores, the publisher could focus its resources on one big push for a more substantial preorder bonus. Gamers would no longer need to worry about which retailer-exclusive incentive they wanted more or feel like they were losing out on something cool regardless. As for publishers, Smith said they only had to worry about shipping a couple SKUs of any given game "in the good old days." However, with codes for retailer-exclusive bonuses often packaged inside copies of games, that means different SKUs for different retailers, multiplied again by the number of platforms on which a game appears. Smith said the SKU count now gets up between 20 and 50, calling it a "daunting" proposition with its own logistical issues.
"The retailers have been very receptive to the fact that something channel-wide doesn't really take anything away from them."
Even retailers could stand to benefit from moving to a more unified approach to preorders, Smith suggested.
"It's a sensitive game, but it's one I think we can play," Smith said. "The retailers have been very receptive to the fact that something channel-wide doesn't really take anything away from them. It kind of puts the ball in their court. The more they can do to bring awareness to their particular customer base about the offer, the better they'll do. As long as it's a good incentive, it's not so bad that's it's not fully exclusive."
As for Square Enix specifically, Smith said the company is working on channel-wide endeavors for Tomb Raider. Not all of that game's promotions will be channel-wide, however. Amazon has already announced an exclusive Final Hours edition, which includes an art book, character skin, and Kindle Fire copy of a behind-the-scenes video series. GameStop has a Challenge Tomb level to explore, and Best Buy has a hardcover comic and character skin in its bundle. Walmart is also expected to have an exclusive preorder campaign for the game.