Understanding Video Gaming’s PR Machine with ‘The Witcher 3’ and ‘World of Tanks’
Free DLC? Whoever heard of such a thing? But after 'The Witcher 3' gave players some <i>things</i> for nothing, other games are following its lead.
Above: a screenshot from 'The Witcher 3: Hearts of Stone'
Although it came out back in May, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt remains a much-played game amongst fans of both fantasy RPGs and action adventures alike. And Polish developer CD Projekt RED's acclaimed work has only expanded since its release, too – today, October 13th, sees its first expansion pack proper, Hearts of Stone, become available, offering ten hours of story and accompanying content (mostly) unconnected to the main game's plot. A second, grander package, Blood and Wine, is scheduled for early 2016.
But the ripples carry further than just downloadable content (DLC) – every day, new fan art based on the Witcher series appears online, cosplayers take up the call to dress as its most important characters, and it can surely only be a matter of time before some sensible soul in the television world decides that the moment's right to turn the fiction of author Andrezj Sapkowski into a Game of Thrones-rivalling TV franchise. (Yes, we know they did that once already, but The Hexer was hardly an international hit.) Wild Hunt has introduced The Witcher, the interwoven stories of Geralt and Ciri and Yennefer and more, to hundreds of thousands of new admirers. And right from the very beginning, CD Projekt was doing everything it could to ensure that those buying their latest game were getting tremendous value for money.
The Witcher 3 rolled out alongside the timed release of 16 pieces of free DLC: a handful of new quests, some fancy outfits, more hairstyle options for the witcher himself. A lot of the time, gamers hear DLC and baulk (or worse), outraged at the very suggestion that they should be made to pay more to get the most out of what is already a substantial investment of both money and time. DLC, though, is part and parcel of all major game releases in the present day, be it a case of different skins for your character of choice of additional missions that the completist player can't do without. The Witcher 3's mini downloads represented a new way of doing things, effectively representing a thank you from CD Projekt RED. Marcin Iwiński, co-founder of the studio, wrote a few words about the scheme in an open letter included inside every physical copy of the game.
That "continuous, free support" hasn't stalled since May, with new patches to the vanilla game adding better blood effects, quest fixes, visual tweaks and additional romance dialogue options. The DLC that you do have to pay for is like Hearts of Stone: deep and weighty, practically a new game in itself. The cynical may scoff that The Witcher 3's freebies are pretty meaningless beside the DLC proper, but when you've spent 20 minutes saving a village of idiots from a curse that's turned the lot of them, except the actual village idiot, into swine, try telling me that CD Projekt's gratis extras aren't worth a pop. And they've had an effect on other big games: all of Halo 5: Guardians' downloadable maps will be free, and all DLC connected to next year's Hitman will be made available for no cost.
The Witcher 3's free DLC was, basically, fantastic PR. The game was ginormous before adding any extras into the mix, and the reviews sang an exclusively celebratory song; but what a sweetener to have in the marketing of a game that needed to reach more players than the series' prior instalments had. (And it did, and some.) Looking for an industry opinion from someone not connected with CD Projekt, we asked Wargaming PR manager Konrad Rawiński, responsible for working titles such as World of Tanks, for his thoughts on the sales tactic employed by The Witcher 3, and the importance of great PR in connecting a new game with its target audience.
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VICE: How important is PR in terms of selling a new game, today?
Konrad Rawiński: Replying from my own perspective and the perspective of company I work for, an international producer and game publisher, it's really significant. We have a special department focused only on public relations. At a time of flowing promotional materials, the role of communication between PR and the media is crucial. Due to various kinds of coverage in the media, ranging from announcements to first impressions, reviews and so on, gamers are constantly introduced to independent views about a particular title, about its pros and cons. As for people who haven't already had a contact with particular production, thanks to media publications they have the chance to know it, and potentially become interested.
How have the relationships between producers and gamers themselves changed over recent years?
New devices and capabilities of communication have made the distance between makers and players shorter. At present, creators using websites, social media, YouTube or streams can communicate with players in a very direct way. Nevertheless, we should remember that these are promotional materials, deliberately trying to attract attention, and will therefore always present the particular production in a favourable light.
Do smaller productions, albeit ones bigger than your average indie game, have a chance to compete with triple-A productions?
Obviously, yes, and there are couple of examples that prove it. I think World of Tanks is one of them. It's a relatively niche game given its subject area and special mechanics. The way we communicated the game to the media helped it break through, and from there it entered gamers' awareness. The problem, such as it is, is finding a unique, or simply a juicy idea – in terms of what we want to say, and also how and when. It all has to connect together with meaning, and it's the role of PR to ensure that.
Do you think The Witcher 3 launching with free DLC will significantly change the way that DLC is included with other big games?
I hope so, because the idea of a "season pass" is very often overused by game publishers. When we pay X for the "full" product, many times it seems that we then must pay extra, maybe half that original cost, for completing content, when really this should be available for free after the game's release. What The Witcher 3 did is perhaps the proper approach to take towards gamers: the costless additions varied in size, but they all found a place in the game's world, without putting anyone who didn't get them at a loss. Season passes are different and can have this alienating effect. When it comes to free-to-play titles, like World of Tanks, it's important to regularly update the content. I think that's fair play, and only an honest approach is legitimate in today's games industry, where it's simply impossible to play everything that's out there.
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The Witcher 3 could have chosen to charge for its smaller items of DLC. It's not like other companies don't get away with doing just that, even on highly acclaimed games – would the silently sneaking Big Boss prefer a tuxedo? They didn't, telling players instead to have fun with their new game. In PR terms, the freebies were a masterstroke of modesty that ultimately led to the impression that these makers were Just Like Us, and weren't exclusively in it for the money. And the happier that players are, the better developers are going to feel, which can only lead to more excellent games.
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