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Skyrim and Batman: Arkham City: Inside The Marketing

How Skyrim and Batman: Arkham City broke out of their niche markets

The Game Marketing Summit held in San Francisco on April 17 was a gathering of top marketers in the gaming industry to network, attend sessions, and hand out some awards for game marketing.

One of the top reasons to attend the summit is to learn the details of successful marketing campaigns, so two sessions that examined the marketing for Batman: Arkham City and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim were both very well attended. Despite the differences between the two games, the core goal of their marketing campaigns was the same: break out of a niche market and appeal to a broader audience of hardcore gamers.

The key to the Batman marketing campaign, as Russel Arons, Senior Vice President of Worldwide Marketing for Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment made clear, was to make it a top-selling game, not just a top-selling superhero game. Arons made the point with some humor.

"Batman's greatest foes weren't The Joker, The Riddler, or Catwoman. They were Bobby Kotick, Yves Guillemot and John Riccitiello."

Russel Arons, SVP Worldwide Marketing, Warner Bros.

"Batman's greatest foes weren't The Joker, The Riddler, or Catwoman," said Arons. "They were Bobby Kotick, Yves Guillemot and John Riccitiello" - the CEOs, respectively, of Activision, Ubisoft, and Electronic Arts.

Driving her point home in a way that had the crowd laughing, Arons displayed a slide of Bobby Kotick Photoshopped into The Joker's body, Yves Guillemot as The Riddler, and John Riccitiello as Catwoman. "Looking good, there, John," Arons deadpanned.

Her point was that if they wanted to go big against big competition, they needed to broaden their audience to include gamers who weren't superhero fans. Warner's marketing team wanted to break out of their narrow genre and make Batman appeal to fans of Call of Duty. The team wrestled with this challenge, looking through the 70 years of Batman's career as a cultural icon. They concluded they couldn't get away from his identity as a superhero, but they needed to express the key elements in the character that would make him appeal to FPS and action gamers.

Brian Setzer of Trailer Park Video Games said their art director thought of the power of black & white photographs to capture iconic personalities like Steve Jobs or James Dean. The result was the image called The Wipe, which formed the basis for the visual campaign.

The black and white portrait, with blood, bathed in light, moved away from the classic superhero image to focus on the essential humanity of The Batman. The campaign appeared on 120 different magazine covers, 15 million targeted fans across a broad spectrum of social network pages hitting many different Warner Brothers properties. A viral campaign of videos created by different European units racked up a lot of impressions, with costumed actors "crashing" press events and appearing in the streets.

The three gameplay trailers got over 6 million views, and their Facebook page had almost 850,000 fans. Working with key retailers to provide exclusive DLC, Warner was able to increase pre-orders by over 200% over Batman: Arkham Asylum. The final result: Over 6 million units sold worldwide.

The Skyrim team also saw their basic mission as expanding the potential audience. They felt that Skyrim's weakness was being a single-player fantasy roleplaying game. First, all the best-selling games lately seem to be multiplayer games, so how could Skyrim compete with that? There was not way to get around the fact, so it had to become a strength for them.

Second, they worried that fantasy might be seen as too strange or weird for Call of Duty players. Pete Hines, VP of PR and Marketing for Bethesda Softworks, noted that they decided to focus on the aspects of the character that were independent of the genre, his heroic nature and the gritty, realistic tone underlying the story. The game really had a modern, cinematic take on fantasy, and that's what they felt the marketing campaign had to transmit to the consumers.

ED Davis, the account lead at AKQA, the agency that handled Skyrim, noted five keys to making their marketing effective. The first was relationships: Working closely between publisher, developer, and marketer; trying to foster close working relationships, and getting to know everyone gave the marketing campaign more depth and made it easier to take risks. Next was positioning: Determining that the game was going to be gritty and cinematic was important, and kept them away from trying to list features or tell a story. The story is in the game; all they needed to do was transmit a mood.

After that, craftsmanship was critical: The attention to every last detail made the impact of the marketing much greater. Even seemingly little things like the logo of the dragon took months of painstaking effort to make it just so; this was a level of detail that was in the game itself, so they felt the marketing needed to be just as painstaking in its detail work.

The commitment of the marketing was the fourth key element. Every component contributed to the brand. This meant not just using the same image everywhere. The marketing was considered to be part of the game experience for the players, which is why they got obsessive about the details. Finally, the last key element was restraint: They had a big landscape, there are lots of devices, channels, and formats, and the usual response of marketing is to fill everything up, but they decided on restraint. This meant only three video assets were released in the first eleven months of marketing. Fans were begging for more, but it wasn't until the final month before release that more information was forthcoming.

The results were stellar, with Skyrim selling ten million units in one month worldwide, and becoming the number 2 grossing title for 2011.

Both Batman: Arkham City and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim spent a great deal of money on their marketing efforts. Neither company would mention a figure, but clearly the budgets in both cases were into eight figures. Outside agencies worked with marketing personnel in-house for well over a year in both cases, producing a wide range of advertising, marketing pieces, artwork, video, DLC, print pieces, billboards, and events.

In both cases the teams felt that their games could sell well beyond the potential of games in their respective niches, and that an extraordinary marketing effort was necessary to make that happen. The level of success achieved in both cases shows what can be done when you combine a great game with excellent marketing.

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Latest comments (13)

Terence Gage Freelance writer 9 years ago
"How Skyrim and Batman: Arkham City broke out of their niche markets"

Niche markets - really? Considering the Batman brand has been completely rejuvenated thanks to Nolan's films (not forgetting The Dark Knight is one of only 11 films to earn over a billion dollars at the Box Office) and didn't Oblivion shift about 5+ million copies?

Not taking anything away from both games' marketing - they did exceptionally well, and deserved to earn their publishers and developers a lot of money - but to describe both series as niche in videogame terms seems to be underselling them in my opinion.
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Tommy Thompson Lecturer in BSc (Hons) Computer Games Programming., University of Derby9 years ago
The team wrestled with this challenge, looking through the 70 years of Batman's career as a cultural icon. They concluded they couldn't get away from his identity as a superhero...

Erm... Batman is a superhero. That is what he is. In fact I find that particular statement a wonderful contradiction given that, regardless of what Batman is as a character, he is a cultural icon. People know what he is, and he has evolved depending on trends in popular culture. If anything, Christopher Nolan's films have shown that if you tell good stories with the character that present a tone and universe suited to the mass market, fans of the source and the story you're trying to tell, then it pays dividends. Furthermore, Rocksteady did an exceptional job of handling that.

Though I do think that some credit is due for handling Skyrim, as I would argue it is still a niche market in some respects. Sure, Elder Scrolls is a successful franchise, but it is something of a 'hardcore' (hate that term) franchise that has not permeated into the public consciousness. When my girlfriends friends started asking what Skyrim was then you realise they're doing something right.
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Weston Sohlden9 years ago
Excellent read, thanks!
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Show all comments (13)
Roberto Bruno Curious Person 9 years ago
@Terence Gage: I absolutely agree. The whole "we broke out of a niche" sounds ridiculous.
They were both sequels in established and successful franchises and they increased the sales over the previous chapters as pretty much *any* decent sequel could expect.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Roberto Bruno on 19th April 2012 5:13pm

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James Ingrams Writer 9 years ago
Penny wise pound foolish and very short-sighted. Go generic and sell more games today and sell less games tomorrow! I think the next Elder Scrolls game will be third person only, much more Mass Effect style roleplaying and streamlined to the point of not recognising it. And hardly anyone will buy it.

It's funny how every pirate copy is supposed to be a lost sale and yet no one talks about sales not made because all games are becoming alike.

A lot of multiformat games will sell 4 million on console and 2 million on PC. If games were more PC orientated and different versions made, like Baldur's Gate versus Baldur's Gate Dark Alliance. I think we would have 5 million on console and 4 million on PC. Yet we never talk about these "lost sales" because of gaming going generic.

It's funny that everyone says that PC games don't sell on games like Mass Effect and Dragon Age, with PC sales in the 1-2 million range, yet when we have European titles like The Witcher 2 or Gothic, they come out on PC only and sell 2-4 million in Europe alone! And, of course, these games being brought to market for 1/3 of the big U.S. publisher AAA titles, they are very profitable. Hence we are up to Gothic 4 and there will be a Witcher 3!
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Steve Peterson Marketing Consultant 9 years ago
Yes, I was startled that both teams thought their essential problem was that their basic audience was too small. They seemed to focus on the idea that if the game was stripped down to its basic identity as "a superhero game" or "a fantasy RPG" that would limit their sales potential. So they both felt their challenge was to redefine their game in terms that had broader appeal. In a way, they started by looking not at their game's positives, but at the potential negatives -- the barriers to sale. Then they figured out how to get around those with things that were core attributes of the game.

Of course, both of those games were not in any sense basic example of their genre; Batman was a not merely a slugfest, and Skyrim was not merely a hack-n-slash. So the games were worthy of marketing that tried to broaden their appeal. Those campaigns would have ultimately failed if the games weren't worthy of the tone and style brought out in the marketing. We can all think of games that didn't live up to the marketing hype, and get slammed by fans. These games transcended their basic identities, and the marketing was intended to communicate that, and did quite well.
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Morville O'Driscoll Blogger & Critic 9 years ago
@ Steve

That's a good point. Both the superhero and RPG markets can be viewed as dominated by males, and geeky males at that. Whilst that's not entirely right, it's not entirely wrong, either. So, if you start by defining the negatives, you can start shaping the marketing towards the people who may not be your obvious demographic.
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James Ingrams Writer 9 years ago
Let's not forget, that in vanilla Skyrim, it's quite hard to die and it's entirely possible to lockpick an expert chest open at level one. Many would say this is not roleplaying as they know it. Hence European PC gamers especially, going for the STALKER's and Witcher's that require somewhat more intelligence!
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Nicholas Pantazis Senior Editor, VGChartz Ltd9 years ago
I would argue Batman's marketing wasn't as successful as WB hoped. While it did sell faster than Arkham Asylum, it hasn't actually sold much more. That said, that's partly because Arkham Asylum had a re-release in the GOTY edition, which has yet to hit for Arkham City.

@James Considering Skyrim sold more on PC in 3 months than the Witcher 2 and STALKER did combined over their lifetimes, I'm pretty sure that's really not true. Do you have any evidence that Europeans are in any way favoring those games over Skyrim? They are certainly successful games, but nowhere near on the same level. It's kinda like saying people chose Rayman Origins over Super Mario 3D Land. Sure, Rayman was successful, but compared to Mario? Not so much.
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Meelad Sadat [a]list daily editorial director, Ayzenberg Group9 years ago
For Skyrim, let's not forget the powerful score composed by Jeremy Soule. Now there was an asset elevating the game above "weird RPG" and helping establish it as a cinematic masterpiece.
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Weston Sohlden9 years ago
I honestly don't think Skyrim's marketing was the driving force behind its sales. What I think really pushed Skyrim's appeal was the giant behemoth I like to call WOM (word of mouth). In all seriousness, the amount of community created and delivered buzz concerning Skyrim (FUS RO DAH meme anyone?) crossed more news sites and social media gateways than any ad Bethesda produced (which is a good thing).
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James Ingrams Writer 9 years ago
@Nicholas Pantazis Problem is, hard to find out sales figures for PC alone, as more often than not console sales are included to make it look better!
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Morville O'Driscoll Blogger & Critic 9 years ago
@ James

The main issue is actually the lack of digital sales figures. (which I assume is the site Nicholas works for) appears to separate PC and console sales, but doesn't seem to count digital. And, even if it did, there's no Steam sales figures except for what the publisher of a game chooses to release.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Morville O'Driscoll on 21st April 2012 5:24pm

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