Although Volition has been around for over 20 years, making games such as Descent: Freespace, Red Faction and Summoner, the company is best known for the Saints Row franchise—which grew from being perceived as a Grand Theft Auto clone to a game series with a unique identity.
That identity includes a hilariously over-the-top style that often parodies pop culture and other popular game franchises like Mass Effect. The games are set in an open world playground where players are encouraged to run wild using special powers and absurd weapons such as the Dubstep Gun, which literally fires deadly tunes. Now Volition is ready to branch off with its newest game, Agents of Mayhem, which releases August 15.
Although Mayhem doesn’t bear the Saints Row name, it is a direct spin-off from one of the Saints Row: Gat Out of Hell endings, where God decides to create an alternate universe in which the Saints never meet. In Mayhem, players must choose between 12 different agents—each with their own personalities, abilities and weaponry—to form a three-person squad and fight an organization called Legion.
Will Powers, senior manager of marketing and communications at Deep Silver, explained to AListDaily how the differentiating factor between the Saints Row and Mayhem came down to gameplay.
“A Saints Row game has cooperative play and custom character creation. Mayhem purposefully doesn’t have those things—it’s brand new and is its own thing,” said Powers. “The best way to describe it is that Saints Row is a parody of pop culture, where Agents of Mayhem is meant to be a comedy of comic book culture. Think Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Deadpool, Suicide Squad and so on. So, it made sense to make it its own thing.”
However, Mayhem is a Volition game, and that means players can expect an open world playground where they’re encouraged to make a variety of choices, especially when putting together their squad of agents. “These games are about having fun, so we want players to experiment and tweak their agents the way that they want,” said Powers. “That’s where we see the stickiness for these types of games—people get attached to making these characters their own.”
Converting Saints Row Fans
Powers admitted that the fan base was probably surprised when Agents of Mayhem was announced last year because they were expecting Saints Row V. But Volition likes to keep people on their toes, and Agents of Mayhem allowed them to start a brand new universe. So, the first challenge was to bring Saints Row fans over to the new game so that they would become its biggest advocates.
“We had to speak in their language, and that means giving them a reason to care,” Powers explained.
Deep Silver realized that players didn’t yet care about the Mayhem agents nor did they know exactly what the game was. So, the publisher made a point of showing the humor and drawing parallels to the Saints Row universe to establish it as part of the Volition brand.
“One key pillar of the campaign was subtly convincing Saints Row fans that they weren’t Saints Row fans—they’re Volition fans,” said Powers. “A tactic we’ve been using in our marketing, without overtly hitting people over the head with it, is putting Volition’s name more front-and-center. Once they become Volition fans, they care about everything the studio does, and that’s a huge shift. Rather than caring only about a single IP, they care about everything the studio puts out. That leverages the studio’s social, its weekly Twitch streams—everything. Fans care about the individual people there instead of the characters in an individual game.”
After leveraging the Saints Row fan base, the next step was to expand beyond it and establish Volition fans through Mayhem. The one thing Volition had to avoid was having Mayhem be compared to franchises such as Grand Theft Auto, which was a perception that hurt some of the early Saints Row games. To that end, laughter may be the key to success.
“There has been a significant tonal shift in the types of products that have been releasing lately, and that’s where we saw an opportunity during the campaign,” said Powers. “A large concentration of games are taking on very serious subject matters. Apocalyptic games like Nier: Automata and Horizon: Zero Dawn—they’re very good, fun games about very serious subject matters. These aren’t games that you’ll be laughing at constantly and although these games are of all different genres, we saw a kind of tonal fatigue for serious games.
“I think that between the political spectrum and everything, there is an opportunity to make people laugh. Comedy is thriving—especially in the late night TV world—right now, and people are starved for content in the gaming space that will allow them to laugh and relax instead of coming home from a serious day at work, seeing serious news and playing a serious game. That’s opened up an opportunity for us to come in and hammer our unique tone and why Volition has always created games that are over-the-top and crazy—they’re fun, but not meant to be taken seriously. That’s the market we see as a huge growth opportunity for this game.”
The Leaked YouPorn Video
One Agents of Mayhem promotion included a leaked game video on the adult video site, YouPorn, which was an idea Powers came up with. It took months of planning with lawyers and Deep Silver’s CEO to make it happen, but an in-game cutscene featuring a character named Hollywood (an ex-reality TV star turned Mayhem agent) was hosted on the adult site as a fake sex tape called Deep Under the Cover. It was followed by a humorous press release that addresses the leak, with lines such as:
“Judging by the curvature of his buttocks at 1:12 seconds and the angle of the money shot, that is, the shot where the male actor on screen is literally wearing a bag of money around his junk, it is impossible to tell if that is my client on screen and ask that the public give him the benefit of the doubt until things firm up and the facts become rock solid.”
“I want everything that I do in marketing to come from a game perspective,” said Powers, discussing the YouPorn activation. “What I mean by that is that I’m not going to market something that’s not in the game. I don’t feel like it’s genuine marketing and that you’re being disingenuous to the product if you’re not marketing something that’s not representative of the product. So, this wasn’t even a trailer—it’s an unedited in-game cutscene that we leaked.”
The idea was to get people outside of the normal communication channels talking about the game, with the joke being that a tame and humorous video (it’s also hosted on YouTube) can be found on a not-safe-for-work site. Additionally, the press release links to a download URL on YouPorn so that viewers can watch the video without having to visit the adult site.
Regardless of what people might think about pornography, the fact of the matter is that sites like Pornhub get over 100 million unique visitors per month. Furthermore, some adult sites have tried to establish themselves more like everyday brands. YouPorn in particular has done esports sponsorships in addition to other, more tongue-in-cheek, marketing campaigns.
“That target demographic aligns perfectly,” said Powers. “Their ComScore is better for our target demographic than IGN, and that’s no joke. So, we looked at how we could communicate with those people in a way that would be genuine to the product and wouldn’t feel like marketing like a side banner would.”
The YouPorn partnership, which was a free marketing opportunity, was a huge success. The Agents of Mayhem video ended up on YouPorn’s homepage within one hour of being posted because so many people watched it.
However, Powers explained that Deep Silver had to walk a fine line and make sure that it didn’t follow the same marketing campaign as Saints Row: The Third, which was originally published by THQ.
That game included the voices and likenesses of real porn actresses, and its marketing was about the adult entertainment industry, complete with a porn star car wash at E3. That wasn’t a campaign Deep Silver wanted to be associated with, so it had to figure out a way to speak to YouPorn’s audience “in a contextual way that made sense using content that was already in the product without being sleazy,” said Powers. “That’s a very difficult thing to do, and it’s a calculated risk in positioning the product, but we saw the reward as being way higher than the risk.”
Although Powers couldn’t yet get into specifics, he indicated that audiences should be on the lookout for a different kind of leaked tape to hit the internet sometime in the near future.
Creating An “After Hours” Fan Base
Tamer promotions include a partnership with DeviantArt to put together Agents of Mayhem: After Hours. In it, artists created images based on what they thought each Mayhem agent did in their spare time. For example, one likes to draw live portraits of tigers, and these stories may become part of the game’s lore.
“It goes back to giving people a reason to care,” said Powers. “We wanted people to see the characters’ personalities outside of what was projected through trailers and we wanted artists to create even more of a backstory. Seeing these characters from an artist’s and consumer standpoint leads to a couple of things. It becomes a curated focus test of how people are viewing these characters and if one is resonating more than the others, which could lead to the most iconic piece in our campaign.
“It also engages the most hardcore fans. When you get people to create something and then bless it as canon, that gives them a huge emotional attachment and reason to care about the project. They’ll become people who will evangelize your product. The genuineness of these advocacy programs is worth its weight in gold.”
Perhaps the biggest challenge in marketing a game like Agents of Mayhem is that there are so many aspects to it that it’s difficult to hone in on specific parts and communicate them in coherent ways without spoiling the plot. Powers said that Mayhem is about 50 percent bigger than Saints Row IV.
“If people just see one beat like a leaked sex tape or fan-made artwork, they might be confused over what the game is about. But it’s a good problem to have if they’re asking the right questions and want to learn more after seeing them.”