Promoting a blockbuster video game used to be a relatively simple affair. You secure prime placement for your ads on TV and city billboards, plaster your title across the biggest games website and maybe arrange a celebrity endorsement or two if your budget allows it.
However, with the vast number of titles on the market (particularly when you factor in mobile and digital as well as retail), the increasing competition for consumers' time and money with other entertainment forms such as Netflix, the rise of ad-blockers, and seemingly an increased resistance to blatant marketing, publishers have to think outside the box to push even the biggest releases.
Ubisoft has taken an interesting approach with Ghost Recon: Wildlands. The publisher's UK marketing team has commissioned a feature-length documentary that explores the real-world struggles depicted in the upcoming open-world shooter.
The new Ghost Recon takes place in Bolivia and tasks players with taking down a ruthless drug cartel that has seized control of the area. The new documentary, named Wildlands, explores the real impact of the drugs trade on Bolivia and the efforts of Special Forces fighting against it.
The film is based heavily on the book Marching Powder, a true story by writer Rusty Young of a reformed drug smuggler and a South American prison that has become a microcosm of the drugs trade. Ubisoft managed to recruit Young to narrate the documentary as well as the subject of his book Tomas McFadden, who revisits the notorious San Pedro Prison.
Elsewhere, Young speaks to George Jung, the man who introduced cocaine to North America, and a former Navy SEAL Adam Newbold about his own experience fighting much the same fight as the Ghost Recon team in the game.
It's an odd and ambitious project given that it's essentially selling a game that some may argue glorifies the issue for the sake of entertainment. However, the marketing team and the Wildlands producers at Chief Productions have taken care to ensure the documentary is a respectful and authoritative look at the impact of drugs on Bolivia. Marketing director Mark Slaughter stresses that, from the beginning, the team "set out to create a truly compelling piece of content, which could stand alone alongside any documentary in its genre".
The hope is that not only will Wildlands enable Ghost Recon players to explore the conflict they are immersing themselves in, it may also introduce the series to new audiences.
"We wanted to delve further into the game's fictitious narrative and its relevance to South America and the drugs trade today," Slaughter tells GamesIndustry.biz. "We are certainly looking to introduce the brand to a wider, more mainstream audience through the documentary. As well as attracting a new audience to the franchise, the documentary also provides added content for our existing fans."
"As our audience viewing habits change, how we engage as brands also changes. Our marketing should reflect that"
Originally planned as a marketing asset, the project has evolved to be treated very much as a separate project. A screening for press in London featured no demo booths for the game, and no gameplay clips have been interspersed into the film itself. Aside from the small use of the logo on Wildlands title screen, you wouldn't know this to be anything other than a legitimate documentary on South America's drugs trade.
"The two are, essentially, very separate products," Slaughter says. "The documentary certainly deals with a very serious subject matter, so we have ensured that we've worked with a leading production team and figures with extensive knowledge of the regions featured in the documentary and the key individuals, who have lived in that world.
"Global audiences continue to be interested by the war on drugs - our documentary provides insight and a wider context to the real-life battle, which still rages on to this day."
The documentary will be released on March 6th - the day before Ghost Recon: Wildlands - and GamesIndustry.biz understands Ubisoft is in talks to make it available through one of the many video streaming services currently available. But why create such a film in the first place? The effort that must have gone into filming a story that spans hemispheres must have been significant.
Slaughter says the decision stems from the growing need to do something different to grab potential customers' attention, and Ubisoft's ongoing evolution into a broader entertainment company - something already seen with the release of the Assassin's Creed movie earlier this year. Slaughter hopes it will also encourage more publishers to attempt such projects.
"As our audience viewing habits change, how we engage as brands also changes," he says. "Our marketing should reflect that.
"This is the wonderful nature of the video games industry. We are already seeing amazing campaigns, which constantly look to push the boundaries with innovative concepts - whether that's through video content, feature films, novelisations of franchises or, in our case, a feature-film documentary.
"I fully expect us, as an industry, to continue this trend and lead the way in taking marketing to new levels. "