Art be damned, let’s make some money – The sad reality of Dark Souls marketing

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Haydn

With the UK release of Dark Souls III on the horizon, it’s become impossible to traverse the internet without getting your digital bones crushed in the churning hype machine that publishers, Bandai Namco, have created. It’s like going for a leisurely stroll in the woods with the hope of spotting some wildlife only to have your supple limbs mangled in a bear trap while the bear, for whom the trap was destined, sits in the near distance making fun of your stupid backpack. The point is, it’s uncomfortable and I’d like it to stop.

The Souls games are perhaps the darkest and most lucrative of horses in the industry. From the humble beginnings of Demon’s Souls, developers From Software, built upon that cult success with the creation of Dark Souls, a game into which I have invested countless hours and still maintain to be one of the greatest artistic achievements in videogaming history. Obviously that makes me some sort of teary-eyed, pretentious wanker but I stand by the assessment nonetheless.

Unsurprisingly, the popularity of the series is only growing. The Souls series has been responsible for the birth of a new genre in gaming. Titles like Eitr, Lords of the Fallen, and Salt and Sanctuary are all clearly inspired by this now monolithic franchise and, completely irrespective of whether those games are good or not, it’s a positive thing to see developers exploring the formula. It’s a natural occurrence in game development that we’ve seen a thousand times before from FPS to sandbox.

Of course, in this industry, success goes hand-in-hand with bullshit and Dark Souls is no different. I’ll be the first to admit that videogames are a consumer product and we are consumers. Even if you maintain that videogames have artistic integrity, they are still a product that must ultimately show a return on investment. That’s the free market and that’s the world we live in, right?

That said, Bandai Namco’s latest shit-fest is a complete disservice to the Dark Souls development team and will likely be remembered as one of the most laughable and asinine marketing ploys since the Dying Light: Spotlight Edition which, unfortunately, was little over a month ago because this industry is an absolute mess.

So, tell me, what’s the first thing that springs to mind when you think about Dark Souls? The difficulty? The intricate level design? The crushing sense of loneliness that accompanies you through a bleak, yet strangely beautiful world? No, it’s chicken wings, right? That’s the first thing that crosses our minds when we think about Dark Souls. It’s chicken wings. If anything, it’s almost too obvious.

Of course, you probably didn’t hear about this gross brand mismanagement from me. You probably heard about it from the popular gaming press. After all, that is the very purpose of the gaming press. To promote videogames that we, as consumers, want to purchase. If Namco decide to hold a contest to promote Dark Souls III, it literally doesn’t matter if the event makes sense logically or thematically. Thankfully, the campaign didn’t receive universal coverage as some of the more reputable sites ignored it completely – others didn’t, of course.

Regardless, all that’s required is for the event to actually happen. That’s it. The fundamentals of games marketing dictate that the barest necessity for a successful campaign is to say that you’re going to do something, and then do it. The relationship between the game and the event need be little more than the name. This chicken-wing eating contest might as well be to win a drug fueled Vegas weekend with Peter Molyneux for all of the relevance it has. The marketing guru in charge of this sordid affair has created a tenuous link between overcoming the difficulty of eating very spicy chicken with the inherent difficulty of Dark Souls. 

“We’re very excited to be partnering with such an exciting food group as MEATliquor, whose famous food, individual approach and adventurous challenges have clearly captured the interest of food enthusiasts all across the UK,” said Lee Kirton, PR & Marketing Director of Bandai Namco Entertainment UK.

“Dark Souls III challenges players to overcome the odds – and we hope everyone will also enjoy the challenge of overcoming these incredibly hot wings.”

Is that not just the most tepid marketing drivel you’ve ever seen? Go on, read it again. It’s like a parody of itself. It’s sounds like the sort of thing Alan Partridge would awkwardly stutter before looking down at his shoes and internally conceding that perhaps he’d made a misstep. Is that it? Is Lee Kirton actually Alan Partridge? Is this actually a beautifully realised parody designed to highlight the unsightly disconnect between videogames as art and videogames as a product? No. It’s some grotesque corporate cross-promotion and it’s the unfortunate truth of the industry.

At this point, however, the details are utterly pointless. All that matters is that Dark Souls III is on front page of countless online publication and is tweeted out to millions upon millions of people. The true measure of success in marketing is brand awareness. The whole damn world knows that Dark Souls III is coming out in a few short weeks because of stunts like this. It’s worked and that’s a big part of what irritates me so much.

I am acutely aware that by talking about it, I am actively contributing to the success of the campaign but that’s besides the point. This campaign was always going to be successful and widespread coverage was almost guaranteed. They could have held a contest to see who can sit inside a soggy cardboard box for the longest and it would have had exactly the same effect. That said, I would have infinitely more respect for the latter strategy because it at least exists within the same solar system as some of the common themes in Dark Souls. 

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With this one beautiful shirt you become the human billboard you’ve always wanted to be. Represent MEATliquor, Dark Souls, and PlayStation all at once and show the world what a corporate stooge you are.

You might, at this point, say that I am overreacting. That this doesn’t affect me personally and will in no way impact my enjoyment of Dark Souls III. I’m somewhat inclined to agree but we’d both be missing the point. I find it a worrying trend in games that the more bombastic the marketing, the greater the disappointment. I don’t mean to say that it becomes over-hyped and the final product could never live up to my expectations; far from it. I mean that the marketing, in one way or another, is largely reflective of the final product.

They know their audience and so they build and market the game around that. This unrelenting focus on difficulty, of outrageous challenge, is but one small aspect of the Souls series. The hype machine for Dark Souls II was also of a one track mind – according to the marketing, it was going to be the hardest game around and you were going to love it. It was going to beat you mercilessly and you would beg for more. Dark Souls II more or less lived up to that promise and was, for that exact reason, not very good. It was difficult for the sake of it. It was unfair and uncompromising. I simply cannot shake the feeling that history is bound to repeat itself and Dark Souls III is destined to be as inelegant as its marketing would suggest.

Arrangements like this amount to little more than money changing hands. MEATliquor want publicity as does Namco, and it’s only natural because, as I mentioned before, we live in a free market world. The ultimate goal of Namco and MEATliqour alike is to generate revenue, to bolster the strength of their individual brands. But that doesn’t change the fact that such cynical displays are a flagrant disregard for the artistic integrity of Dark Souls. This cynicism becomes painfully obvious with the latest addition to the PR circle-jerk in the form of Dark Souls Tea.

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Dark Souls and Yorkshire Tea really was the most logical partnership when you think about it. This box, which must have taken weeks to design and is no doubt the magnum opus of the budding artist’s portfolio, should erase any doubt in your mind about the inexorable link between these two iconic brands. They’ve even put one of Dark Souls most infamous boss encounters on there – The Indomitable Sheep, from that standout moment of the series when the chosen undead has to visit Yorkshire for the long weekend and watch the fucking cricket for six hours.

Now, you may say that this should not be held to the same standard because it’s to raise money for charity but I would have to disagree. If anything it demonstrates the abject lack of interest or concern for the charity in questionRaising money for charity is one thing that is considered to be almost universally a good thing. Perhaps we shouldn’t turn our noses up at this mockery, but if the people involved were even remotely invested in this, they would have done more than write the words “Dark Souls” on a box of Yorkshire Tea.

It amounts to little more than me printing off pictures of my own face and writing the words “Fuck Cancer” on them before setting up outside my local Tesco and throwing bundles of them at children. The people at Yorkshire Tea don’t give a toss, they’re just doing it so they can say that they did. It’s lazy at best, utterly disingenuous at worst. Let’s not forget that Yorkshire Tea has been less than studious when it comes to the ethical sourcing of their product in the very recent past. *see editor’s notes

The late nineties and early two-thousands left videogames with an image problem – they had become this gaudy cultural mess and it’s a stigma that’s been fought ever since. In recent years it’s felt like we were finally making some progress, perhaps even winning the debate; that games could finally be considered art. I believe that the original Dark Souls is art and, in that sense, is no different from Van Gough’s The Starry Night, or The Beetle’s White Album. So why don’t we show it the same respect?

Dark Souls is important to me on a deeply personal level so I’m willing to accept that my reaction is an extreme one. That said, the point still stands. The marketing of videogames is a tasteless vortex that consumes everything it touches, perpetuated by morons with no respect for the consumer or the product. It’s a ceaseless tirade of nonsense and seemingly nobody involved in the process cares one iota about what they’re actually pimping or how they go about it.


*Editor’s note: Thanks to some insomnia induced angry tweeting, I got a response from Yorkshire Tea regarding the box. It’s pretty muted and tries to explain the origin and why it’s up for auction. I’m inclined to agree that this is at least a mostly accurate version of events and therefore I have less to be indignant about. Even so, I’m leaving the body of the article unedited; partly for posterity and partly because I’m still annoyed about the whole thing and stand by much of what I said.

I still think it’s a cynical PR circle jerk and I still think it was incredibly lazy and disingenuous. It’s good that they are raising some money for charity, but let’s not give them any Brownie points for it this time. Especially given that Yorkshire Tea has crossed some clear ethical lines in the very recent past, tastes like sadness in a cup,  and is responsible for some brand mismanagement of truly biblical proportions. I will never be able see Yorkshire Tea on the shelves without thinking Dark Souls Tea – if that’s what they wanted, then they have succeed but for that, I detest them even more.

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“This box has clearly pushed you to breaking point eh?” – A pretty accurate assumption of my feeble 3am, Yorkshire Tea induced madness.

 

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