It’s not easy mining for success stories among mid-size game publishers, not at the end of this console generation. That’s what makes Deep Silver’s ability to put out console hits noteworthy, and they just did it again with Saints Row IV. According to Deep Silver, marketing the game involved overcoming challenges and misconceptions set by a struggling THQ, which sold the IP to Deep Silver as it went into bankruptcy. Now Saints Row IV has topped the August charts in the UK, and it’s being pegged by analysts to do the same in the US once NPD sales figures are released. For its own part, Deep Silver recently announced that it sold-through a million units of the game.
Until Saints Row IV, Deep Silver’s claim to fame was mostly centered on its Dead Island franchise. The first-person zombie apocalypse game has built enough of a following to warrant a sequel and a free-to-play spinoff, the latter as a MOBA currently in the works called Dead Island Epidemic. Deep Silver has shown that it grasps what it takes to get a game to cut through a splintered and cluttered market, not to mention the average gamer’s scattered attention span. If they have a knack for one thing, it’s leveraging a game’s key asset – its universe – to generate awareness. Call it using owned media to own the media. The first Dead Island captivated the gaming world with a single unforgettable CG trailer. It got massive media play and gamer tongues wagging for the new IP. The rest of the industry got a reminder of how important that first impression can be.
When it came time to market Saints Row IV, the game had what Deep Silver’s other properties didn't - notoriety. But it wasn’t exactly the ideal kind. Deep Silver’s Aubrey Norris, who heads up PR and marketing for the company, believes that while Saints Row has become a beloved franchise among gamers, what they knew about Saints Row IV wasn’t necessarily helpful.
“There were inherent challenges with Saints Row IV when we picked it up – all the turmoil from THQ’s demise and uncertainty around what was going to happen with it,” said Norris. “And then there was an expansion pack, Enter the Dominatrix, that THQ had announced before. There was a lot of confusion about whether or not Saints Row IV would be just an expansion pack, does it really justify a full price, does it really justify a full game?”
Norris implied that Deep Silver knew all along that they had a full game on their hands when they were considering acquiring it. But as THQ struggled to bring in revenue, they may have been in a rush to get something to market and decided a Saints Row expansion might be the ticket.
Said Norris, “There is actually more content in Saints Row IV than there really has been in any other Saints Row game, but when you have an expansion that’s announced like that, and then sort of like difficult messaging where it sounds like THQ just took an expansion and decided to call it a game, you’re fighting against what has been done before, and you have to turn around that perception of what it is.”
“To be fair THQ actually announced that they were working on another [Saints Row],” she added “They said ok we’re working on this then shortly after that they said ok, we’re taking Enter the Dominatrix and making it into a full game, but they didn’t really announce what that was. That’s where the confusion stemmed from, and we could see that confusion kind of continuing.”
Once Deep Silver had announced the game, they set out to set peoples’ perception straight. Key to their strategy was showing rather than telling.
“It’s something that you have to prove to people,” Norris said. “It’s not something you can fix overnight. It takes time for people to see all of the stuff that you have. That requires laser focus to show people the scope of the game. We would show the game at a trade show, we’d take the mini-map and we’d unlock everything so people could see how many activities there were. We’d show the things that are new in the game, like superpowers, and really try to emphasize how different it was.”
Even there, Deep Silver had to balance showing enough without revealing so much that it would undermine their campaign.
“You can’t show everything that you have right away, otherwise what kind of marketing campaign would you have,” Norris said. “It was something that we had to overcome over time. The game very obviously is its own deal and very obviously a full game, so it wasn’t hard to overcome that, it was just a matter of time. You have to get to a certain point where you’ve shown enough.”
Deep Silver faced another challenge in picking up the title. They acquired the game from THQ in January of this year, and shortly afterwards announced Saints Row IV would ship in August. It gave them eight months to run a campaign for what they hoped would be a triple-A blockbuster. According to Norris, the time they had to turn it around, from strategy and planning to execution, was about the time most publishers take to create key art.
“We did it in six weeks,” said Norris, adding, “We all put in an ungodly amount of time, sunup to sundown, every day.”
Norris said that Deep Silver also decided the game needed a slight tweak on positioning. Despite the success THQ had with it, including making the last installment Saints Row III the bestseller in the series, Deep Silver saw an opportunity to embellish on certain aspects of the franchise, especially just how over-the-top it had become.
“One thing that we noticed was that the way that Saints Row had been marketed before to a certain extent, it didn’t feel like it was playing up the things that people love about the game as much as it should have," she said. "We wanted everything that we did to be just crazy. We wanted people to look at our key art and be like, ‘what the hell’. Everything should be fun, it should be funny, not take itself seriously.”
“I think we did a lot of things differently and we had a lot of fun with it. I’m glad that we did things our way.”