Marketing Lessons From Dead Island

Veteran botherers of the undead will find that Dead Island plays a bit like the greatest hits collection of zombie games, combining the co-op of Left 4 Dead, the open-world gameplay and custom weapon building of Dead Rising 2, even the hammy voice acting and casual racism of the Resident Evil franchise. Dead Island, despite its schlocky heart, is actually really fun, and at the end of the day, hacking the limbs off a zombie with a machete wired to an electrical charge is something that bypasses all my critical faculties and hits a pleasure centre in my brain. It’s just fun, and for that you’d be happy to forgive Dead Island for being a buggy, broken mess.

That said, how many of you bought Dead Island because you saw this?

Yes, that trailer. The one that set tongues wagging across t’interwebs. It was powerful and haunting. The whole Memento story-in-reverse conceit was used really effectively, and ended up being very moving. It was more like a short film than a trailer, a bold and mature piece of marketing that helped me regain the hope for videogame advertising I’d lost after the whole “your mum hates Dead Space 2” debacle

The trailer was remarkable. It stood as a stark counterpoint to film trailers, which are almost universally patronising and reductive in equal measure. The next time I see a film trailer and there’s a record scratch on the soundtrack as a HILARIOUS PUNCHLINE is delivered, I swear I’m going to have to resort to tearing both my eyeballs out and ramming them into my ears so I never have to see or hear anything ever again.


But then, I’m what you might call ideologically opposed to the concept of trailers in the first place. The best way to experience a game or a film is to come into it with as few preconceptions as possible, and trailers seem designed to spoil every possible surprise that could be in store. Like showing all the kick-ass levels in a game. The worst moments are when you’re playing a game and you think, “well, it can’t be over yet, because we haven’t done the subway tunnel level that looked so awesome in the trailer yet.” It destroys any kind of dramatic tension a game can hope to have.

One of the joys of games should be being surprised by them, when a plot delights you in going somewhere you hadn’t anticipated, or showing you something you couldn’t have imagined. That’s why trailers are so patronising, because they imply that audiences don’t like to be shocked or surprised or taken somewhere they didn’t expect. God forbid someone should play a game and not get what they expected. As if that’s somehow a bad thing.


I understand why trailers have to exist from a marketing perspective, because that’s how you build buzz and excitement for a game. But can we not have trailers that make you excited to play something without giving the whole damn plot away and accurately capture the tone or mood of the game? Which brings us back to the Dead Island trailer. It gave little away about the game or its plot (I think it was safe to assume that the family depicted in the trailer wouldn’t be a major part of the finished game). But if you saw the trailer and bought the game under the assumption that it would be a mature zombie drama, you’d be sorely disappointed with the ham sandwich schlock-fest that you got. For anyone who’s sampled the meat carnival of Dead Island will know,  the game and its trailer are about as alike as a cat and another cat that is also on fire.

Not pictured: a cat on fire.

There’s probably not any conclusion to be drawn then, except maybe we should abandon game trailers completely and replace them with crayon drawings of how much fun you’ll have playing the first level. Look, I’ve already done one for the next Halo game:


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