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How Blizzard Weaponised Hype for the Launch of ‘Overwatch’

'Overwatch' is the most-hyped game of 2016 so far, with seven million playing right now, and its makers really did leave nothing to chance.

by Ian Stokes
03 June 2016, 9:35am

Hype is the most powerful tool in a video game publisher's arsenal when it comes to selling a game to the masses, and it has been used to an enormously successful degree this generation. Games like Titanfall and Destiny have sold gangbusters primarily based on the hype machines that Microsoft and Activision respectively created. But how do you build hype? What even is hype, and how do you quantify it? How do you replicate it? Publishers have struggled with this conundrum eternally, and for every Titanfall we get an Evolve, for every Dishonored we get a Brink, and for every Overwatch we get a Battleborn. (Too soon? Nah.)

But after all the struggling we've finally cracked it. Well, Blizzard has cracked it, because the hype has never been higher than it is for Overwatch. Buzz for the World of Warcraft studio's new team-based shooter has been boiled down, distilled and ultimately weaponised. And here is how they did it.

The initial reveal of the game was the first hurdle to overcome, and when deciding to reveal their new franchise to the world, Blizzard did what Blizzard does best; a sweet CGI trailer only tangentially related to the actual game, which introduces a few of the key characters.

The Overwatch cinematic reveal trailer of late 2014 had it all: Gorilla Grodd fighting Shade with shotguns whilst two sexy ladies performed some unnecessary acrobatics and fired at each other a bunch, all framed around two kids watching the brawl unfold, acting as our grounding point in the action. "That was awesome," exclaims the younger kid at the end, echoing the sentiment that Blizzard hopes the trailer imparted on you. Yes, it was awesome. Well played.

'Overwatch' cinematic trailer from November 2014

Fairly balls-to-the-wall amazing, but despite what Dead Island might have suggested, a single (albeit very fancy) CGI trailer only rarely really kick-starts the hype machine. In the lead up to Overwatch's launch on May the 24th, Blizzard released several animated shorts which focused on one or two characters per clip. We saw gorilla scientist Winston reactivating Overwatch (the international task force), to combat a new threat headed up by the wraith-like Reaper; we saw the time-rewinding Tracer go up against the assassin Widowmaker in a competition to see whose fake accent is the worst; and we even witnessed a death match between a bow-wielding Japanese mercenary who can control spirit dragons and the only thing cooler than that: a cyborg ninja.

Tracer and Widowmaker square off

The production values on these shorts have been top notch, to the point that people are screaming out for Blizzard to make an Overwatch feature film and delve into the lore a bit more, given the how light on story the game itself is. Players are becoming insanely invested in characters that they barely know anything about, with copious amounts of Overwatch fan art circling the web – most of which is safe for work, and some of which, not so much. Ever wanted to see Roadhog banging Tracer? No, me neither. But if you do, the Overwatch community almost certainly has you covered. (Sure, this is VICE, but there's no way we're linking you out to that. Go root around for the smut on your own time.)

All of the trailers and marketing stunts certainly helped with creating a buzz around Overwatch, but Blizzard saved their big gun until right before launch with their open beta: a week-long preview of the main game that actually contained everything that would be in the retail version. That's every map, every character, every unlockable perk.

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We've been stretching the meaning of the word "beta", in gaming terms, pretty significantly in the past year or so. Most offer nothing more than a demo of the finished game, a slice of what to expect in a few weeks or months. Overwatch took things a step further though and offered players the full experience for a whole week, and that was a masterful move on its makers' part. Talk about having confidence in your product. Blizzard was certain that after just a week's exposure, players (and over nine million of them took part in the beta) would be thirsty for more – and they were right. This is anecdotal so take it with whatever sized pinch of salt you feel is appropriate, but I don't know a single person who played in that beta who hasn't since bought the game. This was the video gaming equivalent of a drug dealer offering you that first sweet hit for free, and so far seven million people have signed up for a habit they just can't quit.

As an amusing aside – unless your name is Randy Pitchford, I guess – the Overwatch beta launched the day after Battleborn came out in stores, on May the 3rd, which flattened what little momentum Gearbox's stylised squad-based shooter had going for it. Right now, Battleborn is discounted across its platforms, retailers doing whatever they can to shift copies of what isn't a bad game by any means, but a foolishly timed one. The lesson here is clear: never commit the cardinal sin of trying to mess with Blizzard.

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But of course, no amount of hype really matters if your game turns out to be a pile of shit. Great expectations will always bring with them decent day one sales, but word of (reddit/NeoGAF) mouth spreads quickly amongst gamers, especially if a publisher's let out a stinker. But a cursory glace at the review scores for Overwatch – it's rocking a 92/100 on Metacritic right now, on PC and Xbox One (the PS4 version sits two points lower) – suggests that Blizzard has knocked it out of the park on this one. Which is a lot more than can be said for Battleborn, which launched to a mixed reception.

Just how can a studio, any studio, "do an Overwatch", then? It's simple, really: all you need to push a brand-new IP into the attentions of a forever-wary audience is a few million quid to splash on swanky CGI trailers; a cast of carefully crafted by hugely likeable and individual characters, conforming to traditional play classes without ever looking clichéd; and easy-to-pick-up gameplay that's evidently been refined over months and months of delicate iterating at a cost of lord knows how much. If you, like Blizzard, want to begin your own Overwatch from a position of having another game fail – in this case, the aborted MMO Titan – well, that's optional, and not necessarily recommended. But really, this is simple, isn't it? Next stop: the sequel. And the movie. And the branded lunchboxes, figurines, plushies, novelty boxers and compacts. And everything else we see when a brand, when a franchise, becomes more than the product that launched it.

@IanVanCheese

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