Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Blog Post; Binary Domain's sales woes and the difficulty involved in marketing new IP

It's never an easy thing to sell a new property. Looking back at Binary Domain's ride to release, it was certainly on a road rife with ups and downs. The game's first trailer was not received well, to put it mildly. The script, voice acting, and character designs, often a tricky thing with games coming from Japan, all came under immediate scrutiny, and for a different reason than is often the case; this was a game that tried, maybe too hard, to appeal to Western tastes. It was a game intended as a worldwide hit, and probably a new franchise for Sega, whose own Toshihiro Nagoshi (Yakuza, Super Monkey Ball, F-Zero GX) headed up its development. But even so, very little was done in the West to establish and promote Binary Domain as a must-have title. Though future trailers unquestionably got better, this never was positioned as a potential hit, its marketing never established its own identity, and it didn't, I feel, do enough to highlight its distinguishing features and to make it stand out from the crowded market of third person shooters.

Once released, reports of modestly successful sales in Japan were clouded a good deal by what can only be described as a complete sales tragedy in the UK, and the game is already being discounted at several retailers in North America; never a good sign, especially for a title developed for worldwide tastes. Binary Domain, it's sad to say, was an example of the difficulty often experienced by publishers to release and promote new franchises, especially when a Japanese studio is attempting it in the West. This is what I personally feel could have been done better in this case. Keep in mind, I haven't played this game beyond the demo (Mass Effect 3 came out this month, more on that later) so this is coming, I'd like to think, from a place of non-bias. I'm a gaming (and gaming industry) fan and a Sega fan, certainly not one with marketing experience or the knowledge of what goes on behind the scenes at companies like Sega. But this is what I feel, as an observer, were the flaws in the marketing of Binary Domain and many other new franchises which stumble out of the gate.

Target Demographic
Before anything else is accomplished, before a game is even finished with its development, I feel that deciding a target audience should always be the first step. If this is accomplished early on, it then allows a publisher to immediately begin to focus on interesting this audience all throughout its development. Binary Domain's focus was always tricky; was it targeting fans of Japanese games or fans of Western shooters? Was it targeting sci fi heads or the more mainstream Gears of War fans who likely think of sci fi as nerdy? It really was just never clear what type of game this was, with some trailers highlighting a heavy focus on story while others showed off Binary Domain's various gamaplay systems. But little was here that made this game pop out to anybody who wasn't already looking out for it. And very little to alone attract any sort of strong following in any particular demographic.

Take a game like Skylanders, for example. For all intents and purposes, this was a new IP that just happened to feature Spyro the Dragon; the planned sequel will be removing Spyro from its title entirely, which just goes to show how much the Skylanders have become their own entity. Never was an effort made to cater to Spyro fans, and I definitely never saw any commercials for Skylanders during the shows that I watch on TV, but the kids the game was targeting all had seen them and were well aware of its release. Activision has clearly managed to market well to their target demographic of 8-13 year old kids, and the game has become a massive hit. Had Sega West picked a demographic for Binary Domain and focused on appealing to that group, rather than the sometimes confusing "who is this game for" marketing direction that we ultimately received, I think we would have had a stronger-selling title.

The Game Itself
To be fair, not all of this may be Sega West's fault. Some aspects of Binary Domain's confusing transition to overseas markets may have more to do with its own developers. It would definitely surprise me if Sega West was not asked for any input throughout the development of this game, especially with the developers' focus on Western markets, but then again, that's the only conclusion that I could reach when I first saw the laughably stereotypical and overly "macho" cast of characters. People, especially gamers, tend to be cynical, especially when they see noticeable attempts to be "catered to." From the start this was a stumbling block with Binary Domain and though I definitely don't believe that the West should have any input on games being developed for Japan, or a large amount of input on Japanese-developed games in general, a game being made for Western audiences I feel should have been graced with a little bit of at least, "hey, I don't think these characters will go over well with the audience you're trying to attract." The second your potential fanbase thinks "there's a 3rd rate Gears of War," then your game's in trouble.

Delay and no follow-up

What I found so strange about Binary Domain was that the amount of media coverage it was receiving didn't increase as it neared release. You wouldn't have known, from Sega's and the media's treatment of the game, that this was a major title. Instead, I'd compare its handling to that of a small Japanese title coming from a company like Xseed. When a game hits its release date and arrives in the marketplace, that's when the publisher is expected to follow its hype up with a marketing blitz, or at least a moderate bit of awareness raised. Binary Domain didn't have this, and in fact, its situation was complicated by a last minute delay from January to February, which made the little ad campaign it did have (which was mainly focused on internet ads) completely worthless. Internet advertisements are booked far in advance, and I remember being surprised when I began seeing Binary Domain advertisements with relative frequency on game sites like IGN and even movie sites like in January, after the game had been announced as delayed until the next month. February then rolled around, and at that point, nothing.

Delaying a game at the last minute is rarely a good business move, especially when it's moved into a month where it then finds itself in competition with the highly-anticipated Mass Effect 3, which likely stole a good portion of its potential audience, myself included, I have to say. Not a great move.

TV campaign

Television is of course an expensive brand of advertising and not one that works for all types of games. There is a demographic, though, that TV advertising has done very well with, and that's with games like Gears of War; who doesn't remember those chilling commercials? Certainly action game fans did, and that new franchise did incredibly well.

Marketing's important, there's no doubt about it. By their nature, people cling to what they know. If they enter a store to buy a video game, it's likely going to either be a franchise that's proven itself with them in the past, or a game that "they've heard of." If they haven't "heard of" Binary Domain, why buy it? Commercials are a big way people "hear of" video games, in my experience, and while Binary Domain may not have deserved a gigantic advertising campaign, at least something to get its name out there would have helped. Bayonetta had a North American TV commercial and that game did fairly well here for such a Japanese title. It helps, more often than not.

To sum up

It's never easy to guarantee success with new IP. It's entirely possible that Binary Domain could have had all these things and still flopped majorly on these shores, we don't know. Some things, like its decidedly less-than-great Metacritic average, are areas that the game's actual developers over in Japan bear the bulk of the responsibility for. But these general failings on the part of Western publishers to know how to market or to understand Japanese-developed IP are very common. But it's my opinion anyway that you never know unless you try, and when a company like Sega has Sonic to fall back on financially, it would have been nice if they had tried a little harder with Binary Domain.


  1. Those are some good thoughts. I don't know. I just think a Sega developed dudebro tps has no inherent appeal with the intended audience. As a huge Sega fan I'm thrilled at its failure. Give us NiGHTS PS3/360 now.

  2. Thanks for the comment!

    It's not exactly my type of game either, but I'm still sad that it failed, only because it's a new IP from in-house Sega, which I think we need to see a lot more of. They can't live on Sonic forever. :/

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  5. What? I'm saddened to see spam ads on the comments here. I'm also saddened to hear that you were thrilled that it was a failure east side. I'm no Sega fan, but I do like and appreciate Sega very much. Despite the fact that its not exactly my type of game either, I find it to be quite an enjoyable title. I'm very happy that I got this for free on PlayStation plus and I didn't really know why to expect from it. Honestly, I flat out never heard about the game until I saw it in PSN. I think it deserves a chance and I agree with this article that some major managerial mistakes were made. To me, this game deserved a better fate and outcome than it got. I think its a decent game worth playing, but I admit it would be a hard sell for me over $30 or $40. I just hope most game developers and companies can be successful and feel happy about their time and effort put into their work. Its just better that way.