Under normal circumstances, the marketing campaign of Rock Band Blitz would have been seen as risky. Fortunately for Harmonix, the illusion of normalcy was lost long ago. With the Rock Band franchise’s biggest competitor being taken out of the equation, and any external pressure from big-name publishers to iterate its franchise was stripped away the moment Viacom sold the Boston-based studio in 2010, Harmonix has been able to get creative not only with the way it makes games, but also the way it supports those games.
With its first self-published title, Rock Band Blitz, Harmonix decided to take full-advantage of the independence through the way they marketed it. With Rock Band Blitz being a digital release, the approach was slightly different from that of a full-fledged retail release, but that didn’t cause the developer from straying from its gameplan. “Though we’ve been behind some of the biggest video game franchises in the past 8 years, we’re still a relatively small, independent company,” said John Drake, director of communications and brand management at Harmonix. “With that in mind, we’ve done our best to make our marketing dollars go as far as they can. […] We made a really killer launch commercial that’s a slick 3D look at the crazy world of Rock City, but we’ve also gone beyond that to produce videos in house, including Power-Up walkthroughs, live-streams of charts, and how-to/helpful tip videos. The game looks great and really features that fast-paced action best told through moving images, so when we can make a video, we try to take our community and media team’s time to do so. We hope they’re hitting the mark!”
“The marketing plan is shaped by the game, the audience and how we can bring those two things together in the smartest way.”
– John Drake
The evolution of the music gaming genre has been largely reactive to the changing climate of the genre’s popularity. Because of this, Harmonix decided to focus mainly on community-driven websites with their advertising, rather than the bigger venues that would inevitably reach a less-enthused, albeit much larger, audience. “Digital titles are different than big-box retail titles in a lot of other ways, of course,” Drake said. “I think the approach our team and our marketing director, Nikki Lewis, put together is a smart approach to get Rock Band Blitz in front of fans of rhythm gaming and fans of arcade-sized games with fast-paced competitive action. This means focusing advertising on enthusiast sites, in-console, search, social and community outlets, and not on the less targeted and more expensive TV, outdoor and retail.”
“I’m encouraged that these communities are still excited to talk about games in this genre – they, like Harmonix ourselves, are fans of the genre at their heart. It makes sense that we’d ensure that core audience would know about the game before we shot for a broader audience that wasn’t predisposed to be engaged.”
– John Drake
In an effort to market the title further, Harmonix provided hundreds of Rock Band Blitz early-access codes to members of the community. Considering those receiving the codes were likely the ones who were guaranteed to purchase the game when it was made available, the move may sound risky from a revenue standpoint, but John Drake likes to look at it as an investment from the community-growth perspective.
“[T]hose enthusiasts that got codes are often right at the heart of the rhythm gaming community – that means in addition to being great evangelists for rhythm gaming in general, they’re also likely to have a lot of DLC,” Drake said. “These are some of the most dedicated fans, so it’s a win if we can reward those rhythm loyalists with a segment of the codes we need to provide to reviewers and partners in advance of launch. Blitz has an addictive loop that encourages social and competitive play. Once you get into the strategy and fun of the game, it’s hard to get out of it! So while some of these folks are redeeming codes, a big hope is that they’ll encourage their fellow fans and friends to get in there and compete. Growing that snowballing audience helps build the strong communities that have defined rhythm gaming up to this point.”
The notion of the targeted marketing campaign was carried over into Twitter, where members of the Harmonix team could be found tweeting back and forth about Score Wars and other features that Rock Band Blitz houses. This inevitably generated massive amounts of hype within the dedicated rhythm gaming community, and proved to be one of the most effective methods of promoting the game. “This public use of our feature is partly a symptom of us all being jerks to each other, though it’s mostly just an indication of an inherent competitive awesomeness born out of Rock Band Blitz,” Drake said. “It was certainly not formally coordinated or planned to be that way. In fact, I was a little nervous that folks waiting on our review embargo would be steamed that we were publicly talking about the game ahead of that date! Additionally, with all the work we had to do, I really didn’t want to get roped into Score Wars until we were closer to launch! There weren’t enough hours in the day! But there I was, playing songs at 8am in my office because [Harmonix community team member, Eric] Pope was being a dick and challenging me to “I’m Still Standing” by Elton John. And there I was at 2am after work playing it again and again still trying to beat his score.”
“Some of it has to do with our general approach to community and social media on the Rock Band franchise – we try to engage openly and honestly with the community whenever we can and there’s not a lot of pretense there. We’re doing marketing and PR and customer service, for sure, but a lot of what we do is fan service from the perspective of fans. We want to play these games with folks and share our love for what we help, in some small way, to make alongside the really amazing dev team at Harmonix. We’re fans inside the studio, so when we get the chance to play a game early and get stupidly competitive, we take it!”
– John Drake
The success of the Rock Band Blitz marketing campaign speaks volumes to Harmonix’s ability to cater to an ever-changing community. “I think gamers have gone from ‘audience’ to ‘participants’ and that social [media] has erased that distinction even further than before,” Drake said. “Studios (and even some publishers) are allowing employees like our team (community managers, brand strategists…whatever) to be accessible to fans because the audience demands that kind of personal connection to the product and development process. I hope more developers choose to engage directly with their fans – I think it empowers us to make more informed and smarter design decisions and appropriate calls for how to best serve our audience, and I think it gives folks in the community a path to escalate their requests and concerns and hear about cool stuff that’s coming out.”
Going forward, the team at Harmonix will apply lessons learned in the Rock Band Blitz campaign to future marketing efforts so that they may innovate even further. “I think we’ve realized how ambitious it was to try to do all of this publishing work ourselves, but I think we’ve managed to pull a great campaign off,” said Drake. “The crew working in publishing at Harmonix really are tireless pros who hustle until it all gets done – in every area from PR, Community, Marketing, Creative Services, Business Development, Web Development…it’s a small group of folks cranking really hard. […] We’ll have to see how it all goes, but we hope people are excited for Rock Band Blitz, excited for rhythm gaming and optimistic for what we’re going to do next at Harmonix!”