The Art of the Stealth Release

Originally published on Trevor Trove on March 23, 2016

Yesterday, during the weekly PlayStation Store update, Sony snuck in three games that had not previously been announced on the Drop, the weekly PlayStation Blog post announcing which games will be released in the following week. Prior to the official blog post announcing the formal PlayStation Store Update, people were tweeting about (and websites starting reporting on) the fact that Bully and Manhunt had been released as two more PlayStation 2 games on the PlayStation 4 and XCOM: Enemy Unknown Plus had been released on the PlayStation Vita.

While some people started wondering why Sony would go ahead and release these games with no fanfare, I started thinking about how they were probably actually getting more attention thanks to the nature of their release.

One of the more prominent theories in gaming in recent years has been the notion that if Half-Life 3 were ever released, Valve would just subtle put it on Steam and watch all of the money come in without ever spending a cent on marketing. The complete antithesis to the typical long and drawn up marketing cycle that most Triple-A titles. Very few new games could actually get away with pulling a stunt like this without negatively affecting sales. Half-Life 3, Grand Theft Auto VIMinecraft 2, and the next Elder Scrolls game are some of the only titles that have a high enough brand recognition to sell themselves through sheer word-of-mouth.

But on the flip side, the recent generations of gaming have started to cash in on reselling updated versions of old games. PlayStation and Nintendo have been cashing in on this trend for years with the PlayStation Classics and Virtual Console. Xbox hasn’t had the same success because Microsoft doesn’t have quite the same console legacy as the 20 years of PlayStation and 30-plus years since the NES but XBLA managed to acquire some notable titles from the past: most notably last year’s surprise hit Rare Replay Collection.

Nintendo recently started selling Super Nintendo classics on the New 3DS eShop, PlayStation launched their PlayStation 2 emulation program in December, and Microsoft had one of the biggest announcements of E3 last year when they announced they had identified how to emulate Xbox 360 titles on the Xbox One. And with the latest Xbox One update, people are able to purchase any of those backwards compatible titles directly from the console now. With the ever-increasing digital revolution of media behemoths like Spotify, Netflix, and Steam, console gamers have been clamoring for a similar one-stop-shop solution where they can just get one device to play their entire catalog of games. I’m certainly willing to re-purchase some of these titles for the sheer simplicity of only having to keep from having to pull out my PlayStation 2 or 3 if I ever get the nostalgic itch.

So when games like Manhunt or Bully are released onto the system, fans of those games and the Rockstar pedigree might very well just purchase them from the store without worrying about playing them right now; they’ll be there when they’re needed. That was pretty much what I did with the Grand Theft Auto Trilogy, having picked them up on sale despite the ever-growing backlog. If Manhunt or Bully had been announced in the Drop, that gives the most hardcore audience (and I would argue the most likely audience for these blasts from the past) two days to debate with themselves and the rest of the internet on whether they should pick them up or not. By stealth releasing them, Sony triggers the impulse-buy mentality of the most well-informed buyers who are keeping their finger on the pulse of the industry.

Meanwhile, XCOM: Enemy Unknown Plus has the added marketing-by-association boost from XCOM 2‘s recent success on PC. And the fervent Vita audience is almost always ready to latch onto a Triple-A caliber title on the system. Between not having a PC strong enough to run XCOM 2 and being somewhat let down by my experience with Fire Emblem Fates, I hesitated just long enough to make sure the game was running well on the Vita before picking it up myself.

All three titles will likely end up making far more than it cost to port them. All three games are well-regarded but didn’t have a huge audience clamoring for a port so marketing a couple of 10-year-old-plus games and a Vita title wasn’t likely going to do all that much to boost these sales numbers. So why invest the time and resources toward doing so?

I imagine whoever answered that question with “we shouldn’t” has a smug grin on their face at the office this week.

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