How Do You Sell An Immersive Sim?

prey

Don’t treat this blog post by itself as an iron-clad source on the sales of these games, but the general feeling I’ve gotten from reports on Steamspy numbers, NPD data, and other sales reports is that the singleplayer games Bethesda published in the last couple years haven’t met expectations. Mainly right now I’m talking about PreyDishonored 2, and Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus. Coming on top of news about lootboxes and multiplayer taking over AAA games along with uncertainty about the future of Deus Ex, this just paints more bad news about singleplayer-only AAA games that aren’t open-world. In particular it seems to be bad news for immersive sims.

PreyDishonored 2, and the expansion Dishonored: Death of the Outsider are praised largely because they’re the best blockbuster attempts yet to recapture the soul of classics like Thief, the original Deus Ex, and System Shock 2. That by itself doesn’t translate into commercial success though. Some people blame the technical problems surrounding Dishonored 2’s launch (particularly on PC) for that franchise’s current problems. Some are saying not enough people like linear singleplayer games anymore. I’m one of the people holding the opinion that the main problem with most of these games was one of marketing.

When you think about it, selling the ideas behind Dishonored and Prey in particular to people who don’t know the histories behind those games isn’t as straightforward as selling the idea of a Star Wars shooter or another Call of DutyWolfenstein II’s marketing leaned heavily into its connections with current politics but maybe that was an issue of exposure rather than message. The immersive sims however aren’t just about shooting — their fans like them because of their open-ended level design and the possibilities they reveal to players.

Prey in particular I was worried about because after it was first announced I couldn’t find a singular selling point to the game. I was personally into it simply for being a proper successor to System Shock, but that means nothing to someone who hasn’t played System Shock. What’s the elevator pitch then? There are a lot of amazing things about Prey but I’m not sure I could describe any of them succinctly: The way its setting — the Talos 1 space station, functions and how players explore it gives it a sense of believability as a real place. Its weapons, alien powers, light RPG mechanics, and environmental elements give players the freedom to solve problems however they want. The most interesting anecdote I’ve read is from someone who arranged a bunch of furniture to heard enemies into a choke point, at the end of which they transformed into a turret (or simply carried one) to mow them down.

A common comment is that Prey is “BioShock in space,” but BioShock sold largely on how much its setting and story stood out from the rest of the pack. You simply couldn’t ignore a game that told a story about a failed mid-20th-century objectivist society through its environment alone. To most BioShock fans Prey at first glance is just… a space station. From a pure gamepaly standpoint I believe Prey is what BioShock should have been, but I can’t deny that BioShock’s style and setting more effectively turned heads.

Dishonored has a very similar problem. Its setting feels very deep once you get into it, but I only started paying attention to it in the first place because I’d played Thief and Thief II before. I guess you could simply describe it as a stealth game where you have superpowers, but it’s the nature of the use of those powers that sets it apart, along with ingenious level design. The most effective advertising I can think of for Dishonored are those high-skill videos where ordinary players do crazy things in the game. Maybe for both it and Prey Bethesda should’ve just let beta testers run wild with the game and then put that footage in commercials.

The most effective way to advertise game about player choice might simply be brief videos describing what you can do in the game, like this launch trailer for Heat Signature. While not quite the same as Bethesda’s games, Heat Signature is still a game that gives players tools and the freedom to use those tools however they wish. That’s probably the quick-and-dirty though. It wouldn’t touch on the appeal of the storytelling style or level design of games like Prey and Dishonored.

While I do think these kinds of games could probably be advertised better, it could also be apparent that by and large they aren’t meant to be as big as a game like Skyrim. Their inherent appeal may be so limited that making them with massive production budgets might be becoming increasingly implausible.

BULLETS:

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