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Marketing for Darwinia+: An Impossible Vision

Introversion's Vicky Arundel ponders the problem of promoting a game that defies normal genres

In the third of our exclusive editorials on the ongoing development of Darwinia+, Introversion's head of marketing and PR Vicky Arundel talks about the problems associated with marketing a title that defies normal industry stereotypes.

What happens when screenshots simply can't convey the sense of a game, and how do you therefore get the right message out to the right people?

There seems to be an unwritten law in videogame development that those games which take their creators to hell and back whilst developing, will also create similar headaches for those who end up having to market them. I wonder if this is because a difficult development phase often implies an inherent struggle with defining what kind of game it is you are actually creating, for what audience, and then resolving imbalances between creative aspirations, the scope of the project, and the available resources? If these difficulties are not successfully resolved during the development phase, then they are likely to rear their ugly heads and raise merry hell for the marketing team as the launch date looms.

Take two Introversion games, diametrically opposed in terms of ease of development and marketing: Defcon, our third, fastest-to-produce and most commercially successful title to-date, versus Darwinia, our second title, critically acclaimed but accompanied with a hellish development history and plagued with commercial difficulties which have threatened to bankrupt Introversion not once, but twice.

Defcon was fully prototyped in a week, ready for market 365 days later and could be explained in one sentence: "It's like chess with WMDs". Darwinia, on the other hand, was a mammoth, unwieldy project that took three years to complete (18 months longer than planned), and was plagued with an identity crisis throughout its development - is Darwinia an RTS, an action-arcade, a surreal retro-sim, or none of the above? - which made marketing it nigh-on impossible.

All of this may beg the legitimate question, why an earth did we decide to revisit the Darwinia IP (given all the past horrors) with the development of Darwinia+, a package containing both Darwinia and Multiwinia for XBLA? Well in short, because we knew these were great games, and the opportunity to port these games to XBLA seemed too good to miss. But this decision also presented the return of an age-old dilemma: How do you market a game that is impossible to define using conventional marketing jargon, and that utterly defies our industry's love of game genre classification?

The difficulties behind Darwinia's development from the outset did not bode well for the marketing of the Darwinia franchise. Introversion has always favoured an organic creative process, the theory being that this frees up the opportunities to experiment as we go along, and therefore open up the flood-gates of inspiration.

With Darwinia, this method of development was taken to extreme; it wasn't until nearly 19 months into the project that the storyline was in place, and even at this stage, we were still struggling to understand what sort of monster it was that we had created. While this enabled us to create a game that has been universally applauded for its unique innovation (Darwinia won three coveted awards at the Independent Games Festival), it made it excruciating to try to explain to anyone what kind of game they were actually looking at.

I'd go so far as to say that games that are difficult to define, that shy away from any type of genre categorisation, are considered unmarketable by most publishers and marketers. In order to mitigate the enormous risks of backing IP, publishers seek to back titles that they can box into neat categories of definition - action, RTS, FPS, you know the score.

Marketing teams are then bought in to market said title according to the 'rules' of marketing a game in that particular genre. So sports titles will aim for celebrity sporting endorsements, FPS games will feature lots of moody screenshots with close-ups of guns and trailers with lots of explosions, etc. The publisher knows what kind of game they have, the marketers know what they need to do in order to communicate what type of game it is, and the customer understands exactly what it is they're about to buy. In theory, everyone’s happy.

This is all very well but our obsession with the ability to be able to define and understand something, whether it be a film, a book or a game, before we've even consumed it, is having a dramatic effect on the ability for creative out-of-the-box projects to get a foot in the doorway. This is problematic because creative industries absolutely rely on these breaths of creative fresh air coming in and shaking things up a bit in order to evolve.

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