The Brave, Brave Marketing Decisions of DCUO

A defining aspect of the superhero genre is bravery. The hero stands often outnumbered and outgunned, but is driven to do things to create a finer world. Regardless of what powers they have, the hero has bravery as a shield against doubt and as something that drives them forward.

Inspired by this theme, Sony Online Entertainment is being very, very brave with their marketing of DC Universe Online.

Uncommon Valour

GameSpot's popularity statistics for DCUO

DCUO has a month to make some big jumps closer to the top of the charts.

Assuming things stay on track, DCUO launches in about 30 days. DCUO is scheduled for a November 2 launch, right in the middle of Q4, right before Xmas. Although this is a time when sales of video games goes up as people pick up games as easy gifts (Dead Rising 2 is about the gift of giving… zombies a haircut with a chainsaw) the problem is that there are so many titles released during this time that it becomes hard to stand out in the market.

Titles such as Gran Turismo 5 and Call of Duty: Black Ops also launch in early November and are seeing some pretty high pre-launch demand. Gamers need some notification about a title launch so that they can plan to buy it – this is especially true for MMOs, where you aren’t just buying the box, you are also potentially committing to paying a monthly fee.

You’d expect that DCUO would be out in front of gamers with a large presence, at the very least to convince PS3 player that they should pay a subscription fee to play as well as to remind PC players they are launching. As the first MMORPG on the PS3, Sony Online Entertainment needs to be out in front of these potential customers to explain to them why they should be paying a monthly sub to pay. PC gamers needed a bit of convincing before sub fees became widely accepted; it shouldn’t be thought that PS3 customers – who arguably have more limited payment options available to them – will need any less information on the topic. But SOE really aren’t out there, at least not in any depth.

Despite the proximity to launch, SOE is sticking to launching videos where the game developers tell you about the game, or static screenshots of the main characters, rather than show you. Sure, there are gameplay videos out there, but actual gameplay shown at conventions has been limited to the same areas for a while now – the STAR Labs or against Harley Quinn at a fun park. (A recent interview did show a new area that apparently is the tutorial – Gorilla Grodd takes on Metropolis in a stiffly animated way while the latest video release shows some shots of Metropolis that may not be entirely recycled from earlier videos.)

The main site is threadbare regarding actual game information (but of course will encourage you to pre-order) and there is yet to be an official forums opened to the public. Also, it doesn’t appear to clearly indicated on that main site when DCUO is even launching – a plucky move, given that various sites have various release dates (if they list a date at all) for this title.

Despite being 30 days out, there are lots of things that remain unknown about DCUO, which is a brave choice. Things like what will be included in DCUO’s microtrans store (not yet confirmed in any great detail), guild functionality (what features exist specifically for leagues / legions?) or even a final powers list haven’t yet been released to the public. SOE will go the route of announcing that there will be 10 weapon sets at launch, but not actually detailing what those 10 weapon sets will be. To find out that kind of information, you’ve got to hope a developer answers you on a fan forum. Some fans have a theory that SOE is trying to build mystique about DCUO; you’ve got to be pretty bold to try to do that on a multi-million dollar title that is heavily dependent on early sales.

Never Have I Seen Such Bravery

The complete absence of public beta testing announcements is another example of SOE’s ambitious DCUO marketing strategy. Announcing a closed beta is an easy money PR item – suddenly the game becomes potentially playable, which brings a whole new level of interest towards a title. However, despite all signs pointing to DCUO having started some kind of closed beta testing and the existence of a hidden DCUO forum, there still hasn’t been any official announcement of that event.

Some comic book fans - from the movie "Kick-Ass"

DCUO is being advertised in DC comics. Let's hope they notice.

Jens Anderson, DCUO Creative Director, has dismissed public testing as being important, but not nearly as important as internal testing. Taking one quote as an example:

“Basically what I am trying to say is that a quality game is a quality game whether or not it has 1 year of beta or 1 month. The foundation has to be there for beta testing to make a difference. Ours is there, I see it everyday. Beta testing is always helpful but only as helpful as the testers in it. If people are simply looking to play the game for free before it launches then a year long beta test won’t be much better than 1 month beta test.”

Get that? DCUO is in great shape and public beta testers drawn from the public aren’t really going to add that much to an excellent foundation. Plus a lot of public beta testers are freeloaders who don’t actually test, so there isn’t much point in having any kind of lengthy public testing process. About 30 days of public testing just before launch will be good enough.

Instead, DCUO is relying heavily on internal testing, friends and family beta and other internal methods that “take the best practices of console games which usually don’t run beta testing what so ever, they use internal testers. And those game’s turn out just fine.” because single player console titles are just like massively multiplayer games. The public testing bit will be done just before launch. It really requires solid brass testicles to launch a MMO on an new platform (the PS3) while ignoring one of the basic game testing tools available to MMO developers – letting potential players provide feedback on their play experiences over numerous sessions (or at the very least the collection of large scale play data from such testing).

The Brave and The Bold

So, what’s the reason behind this bravery? If you look at every bit of media that DCUO puts out, it covers the same ground every time:

  1. It’s a MMO set in the DC Universe.
  2. It’s an action MMO.
  3. There’s some funky physics-based action in DCUO involving big balls.
  4. You can create your own legend – here are some shots of Wonder Woman doing things to encourage you.
Green Lanterns fighting villains

There is a bit of a disconnect in saying you can "create your own legend" in the DC mythos, but I suppose "create your own PG-rated fanfic" was too much of a mouthful.

If I was being unkind to SOE, I’d say they keep repeating those things because that is all they have to talk about. There’s been a tendancy to blame SOE marketing for not letting them release more information, but the video game industry is full of marketing initiatives that would happily get people arrested if it only sold one more copy of the game. SOE would be in a unique position if its marketing department is staffed with people who want to keep a game launch as quiet as possible.

I get the impression that there isn’t much extra substance that DCUO can talk about. The Inside the Studio videos touch on only the safest of topics – costume pieces, DC characters and the like. DCUO Games Director Chris Cao falls into the trap of mentioning something but not wanting to detail it – no crafting but there is some kind of exploration system (but the “you are crafting your own legend” line really was groanworthy spin), or that DCUO has stats, but he doesn’t want to go into it in detail until he has time to go through it in detail, or that there are “literally hundreds of powers” but all that can be talked about are the general power types. If DCUO was 6 months or more out from launch, I’d admire the restraint, but in the run up to launch I can only marvel recognise the daring in not wanting to release some pretty basic details about the title.

If I were being kinder to SOE, I’d recognise that they are actually only one part of DCUO – DC Entertainment and Warner Brothers Interactive make up the other parts. Anderson has made the point that every video that shows game footage needs to be approved and I’m guessing that approval process goes further than just SOE offices. It takes time to get approval from different entities – people might not get back to you, they want something changed then they will look at it again, and so on. Screenshots are easier than video footage to get approved since you can send out 12 and be left with 4 ready to go, where video needs re-editting. DC Entertainment is also going through a restructure which can be distracting to getting things done as well. So perhaps instead of being able to say what they want, DCUO marketing led by Anderson and Cao are being gagged by larger organisational issues.

(Side note: I got a chuckle out of the PC Gamer article that suggested DCUO’s combat system sits next to action RPGs such as Batman: Arkham Asylum. Batman: AA was an action RPG? Who knew? Plus, compare in-game combat footage of Batman: AA against DCUO’s Batman – not really the same at all, with Batman: AA relying on button-press timing to overcome greater odds, while DCUO will rely on button-mash basic weapon combos that build up energy so you can do superpowered attacks.)


Cover to a Foolkiller comic

I really did think Foolkiller was a DC title, but I can't think of an appropriate replacement.

There’s always a chance that everything is going exactly to plan for DCUO – the title is as great as the developers say, it works near perfectly across both PC and PS3 platforms and the release information is perfectly timed to bring DCUO to the top of the sales charts. I’m fairly certain that SOE has a greater focus on DCUO as a PS3 title than a PC title – after all, there is no MMO competition on a PS3 and it is Sony’s platform – so perhaps that is the reason why a lot of the more typcial PC MMO steps aren’t being taken. Perhaps if you are in DCUO’s closed beta, everything is clear.

This kind of marketing and release strategy may also be the model that SOE is using from this point forward. SOE’s Clone Wars Adventures – a Star Wars freemium title – was announced 1 June 2010, started its public beta 20 August 2010 and launched 15 September 2010 to a lot of initial interest. It has an official forums, but it appears you need to be a paying or Station member to see them. So, despite lacking a lengthy public testing phase or any major marketing push (the IP arguably did a lot of the work) Clone Wars Adventures did fine out of the blocks. Although I don’t think they are strictly comparable – a PC freemium game versus a PC / PS3 box cost plus sub fee plus microtrans title – I could understand if SOE was looking to cut down on development costs, of which running a forum and public testing can become expensive.

DCUO’s next big publicity moment is likely to be the New York Comic Con, where a panel held on October 9 will show off the character creation system. There’s some hints of other announcements at the same time, but really, there isn’t much time left for holding back info – perhaps official plans will cover pre-order players / VIP beta  test for a few days before launch, or perhaps a fuller showing of Gotham. After all, if SOE is going to hand out VIP beta keys at NYCC, they haven’t got much time left to actually let players onto the servers or to let potential players that they are launching soon  (and yes, in the last few weeks before launch, players will be playing rather than bug-testing).

Of course, if everything works out, DCUO is going to look very clever for taking this course of action. Then again, there is a fine line between bravery and stupidity.

10 thoughts on “The Brave, Brave Marketing Decisions of DCUO

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  3. They’re planning to launch in November?! Holy Cow, Batman, but that just sounds like an utterly ridiculous idea. I thought the game was months away from completition and wouldn’t come out until 2011. I guess I shouldn’t judge but I’m just totally shocked and, frankly, a little bit worried.

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  5. I would be utterly utterly astonished if this strategy works. I think you need to time your release well to get a new game up and running. I think you need excited fans salivating over it.

    Isn’t this “brave” strategy essentially what APB just did? Launch without telling anyone? I’m expecting it to do roughly as well.

    Possibly the comic ads are going to have an impact. Although how many comic readers are there out there who don’t know about MMOs? I suspect not many.

    The problem all games face is that they are judged by World of Warcraft. Is it as polished as WoW? Is it as fun as WoW? Is it as easy to get into the action? Is it as complex at end game? Is it as popular? (unfair that one, but I think the reason a lot of people prefer WoW).

    Games should aim for excitement, fan anticipation. WoW had it. Warhammer Online had it. SWTOR has it. I take the point that perhaps they’re trying something new in marketing (and didn’t notice APB trying the same tactic then bombing) but I can’t see it working.

    I called it as a flop in June. I do hope they can prove me wrong.

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