July 12, 2008


As the writer Richard Price is fond of quoting, God is not a second-rate novelist. A seemingly chaotic chain of events can easily best the manufactured story in a contest of who can hold the audience's attention. There are plenty of off-the-record moments and incidental vignettes in the history of video games that capture the story to an impossibly better degree than press releases and post-mortems, which reign nonetheless as official historical record. At the rate that video game reportage is progressing, it's going to be a long time before anyone compiles these stories in a work of actual journalism. They are there for the taking, though, buried in fan interviews and forums like NeoGAF and Quarter to Three.

Of these moments, a recent highlight is BioWare's press campaign for Dragon Age. The project is symbolic; it reaffirms BioWare's commitment to PC gaming and PC gamers with an epic adventure very much in the classic style of Baldur's Gate, and drawing on the likes of George R. R. Martin for inspiration. Since the game was originally announced, Jade Empire and Mass Effect came and went, and other than reiterating Dragon Age's Q1 2009 ship date, BioWare released no new information after a preview that appeared in the December 2006 issue of Games for Windows magazine.

Last Monday, BioWare put up a teaser image for Dragon Age on the game's website. Finally, it hinted, on July 9th, a Wednesday, the curtain will be lifted. The style of the announcement was highly reminiscent of when Blizzard, two weeks prior, teased a mystery game for one week, gradually releasing more clues and counting down to the date of Blizzard's Worldwide Invitational in Paris, where they announced, to physical and virtual crowds of pent-up and antsy fans, the next Diablo game. This was accompanied by a CG trailer and a twenty-minute reel of annotated gameplay footage.

It may have been an unwise strategy for BioWare to invite direct comparisons by initiating their PR campaign exactly as Blizzard had, especially when their games were so similar. Dragon Age and Diablo III are the major PC RPGs, made by developers trading on their legacy as masters in the field. It was an attempt to control the media narrative and wrest the spotlight from Diablo. This is how it failed.

Blizzard revised their teaser image in a timely manner over the course of the week. BioWare's image did not change, although it promised the announcement within a shorter timespan. On July 9th, it intimated, Dragon Age would come back in focus. At the exact moment of midnight, July 9th, in Edmonton, Alberta, nothing happened. The image didn't change. Fans hit refresh while BioWare employees drove to work, sat in meetings, went to lunch and nothing happened. The image stayed the same, and every time zone in the world inched ever closer to the 10th.

On BioWare's forums, posters complained how they stayed up all night and weren't even rewarded with an underwhelming announcement. Community coordinator Chris Priestly, deftly coordinating the community against himself, threatened that "if" the update was even to happen, they would have to wait. Responding to what he apparently saw as fan impatience, he later posted: "So we can stop working on this then? Cool, thanks. That makes it much easier. Please let me know who else gives up, if enough of you have no patience I can send everyone home."

At around 5:00 PM EST, the update hit.

Dragon Age™: Origins, the highly anticipated dark fantasy epic from leading video game developer BioWare is set to be shown during E3 2008! Beginning with a world exclusive trailer on GameTrailers TV, airing this Friday night at 1:00 AM on Spike TV and Spike HD, fans will get their first look at Dragon Age™: Origins before it is shown to media during E3 2008, July 15-17. The trailer will be available in high definition after it airs on TV at www.gametrailers.com.

After eighteen months, this was how BioWare reintroduced Dragon Age to the public; as an hurried parent pushing their child out on stage with a cardboard sign reading "Origins" tied around their neck. The subtitle was an odd addition, possibly indicating that the game had been repackaged as episodic content or the first installment in a trilogy. Either way, it was a generic subtitle added to a generic title that, less than a year away from release, gamers had no reason to believe was anything but generic.

Impatience became irateness, and Priestly responded as if he had just pulled off a magic trick: "If there was no teaser page, would you be here now?" he added. "Sure, you're complaining, but you're here. And, since you are here, I consider that a success."

Priestly commented later: "Sorry you got your expectations up too high. Personally, after almost 4 years of no news at all, I think that revealing the name, the logo and having a video coming out shortly is a darned fine way to kick off the game." Lead designer David Gaider joined in, defending the amount of content that BioWare had chosen to release: "To me, this seems like a lot-- but apparently people were expecting some kind of dog and pony show, with big tops. Who knew?" Before the announcement, Priestly had been taunting the community by rick-rolling them. Gaider recommended that posters "untwist the panties". They stopped before resorting to other popular internet tactics like the "Internet. Serious Business" image and calling their forum members fags.

With diminished enthusiasm, gamers waited until Friday for the debut trailer, again, staying up past midnight to do so. Promoting their "world exclusive" (after it aired on television) GameTrailers' Geoff Keighley touted that the trailer was rendered entirely in-engine. At 1:00 AM, BioWare, with the cinematic Mass Effect under their belt, continued to "kick off the game" with the following:

An enthused Keighley then reminded gamers to look for the second trailer on Sunday, which, apparently, is merely a different cut of the above.

When it comes to PR, BioWare, unfortunately, are second-rate novelists. In trying to write an engaging media narrative, the mistakes and fumbled opportunities along the way simply made for a better story: the story of how they were so dramatically unable to hype their game and to control fan response. Compared to Blizzard's orgasm, they instead let out a wet fart. When the story of Dragon Age is written, that will not be a prominently-featured anecdote. It won't change the world and in the long term it probably won't change how people think about Dragon Age or BioWare. This is the most recent chapter in their biographies, but that book will be revised again and again with new information until it tells a story that's slight and stand-alone and -- if they don't support the theme of the narrative -- free of aberrations like this one. But it's too good to forget. It deserves to be told.


qrter said...

Wow, I completely missed this. But that might be because I make a conscious effort to avoid previews - I just can't stand the endless cocktease of information 2 or more years before there's anything to play, information that will probably change completely or become completely irrelevant during those years, anyway.

I can't stand hype as much as the next man but this is even more disheartening, in a way - when companies themselves can't even take hyping seriously ("FUCK YOU for showing an interest!!"), where does that leave us!?

Steve gaynor said...

That logo is an abomination.

Anonymous said...

I hope you will write something about the abomination named Fallout 3, justice must be done :<

Savid Daunders said...

Wow, I'm AGHAST at the way Priestly handled the situation.

Compared to Blizzard's orgasm, they instead let out a wet fart

You, my friend, are a master linguist; I couldn't have said it better myself.

Keep up the good work