SXSW – Dead Space a Deep Media Case Study

This in-depth case-study reveals the method and the madness behind Electronic Arts use of cross platform marketing to communicate separate, self-contained elements of the much anticipated release of their first survival horror game, Dead Space. For this release, EA packaged a comic book, a prequel DVD, and an online experience in order to build, create, and cultivate an audience around the Dead Space brand prior to the official ‘street date’ launch.

Ian Schafer CEO, Deep Focus
Chuck Beaver Sr Producer, Electronic Arts
Andrew Green Online Mktg Mgr, Electronic Arts
Frank Rose Contributing Editor, Wired Magazine
Ben Templesmith Dir, Singularity7

Some live blogging from the panel

  • FR: it’s a successful video game but more than that – Deep Media, (deepmedia blog). we’ve had linear story telling and now the web is encouraging a new story telling. To watch and participate.  these are entertaining and immersive. eg BSG, Dark Knight. EA entered this wih Dead Space – allowing stories to be told elsewhere.  It’s not about doing spin-offs. It’s the same story told across a panoply of different media.
  • CB: it’s a 3rd person scifi survival horror. In the future, a lone protagonist. Similar to Alien, isolated, alone. Isaac has been sent out to correct a communication blackout on a ship.   It’s not a blackout.  It’s not licensed, we did it ourselves.   When we started, we were steeped in licenced games. We were interesting in doing new IP, to own the properties.   It took about 18month to get greenlit.   The dismemberment was from Glen Schofield, our exec producer, we had to rein it back a little. It fits with zombie law.  Some games don’t consider story as essential, we thought it was. We wanted to have a natural story, took it very seriously. We watned to dev a frnachsie so did a whole canon. 
  • AG: it was not just a marketing tool ,We got involved early on, about 16months before. It was the first timeas a marketing team when we got involved with passionate devs. We got 500yrs of back story, a comic book etc. We had to figure out what to do with the great assets, create a strategy around it to build an audience that would be with us to game launch.  It’s a new ‘paradigm’. We wanted to make sure all the products lived on their own. The customer decides what they want to do, you have to give them a reason to come through the door.
  • BT: I got a strange email, I replied that this sounded interesting.   I said that I’d do a comic to do with the game.   I expected it to be like previous ones, a sideline, or just the game story. But as I got further in, they wanted to tell the story from the beginning, this really appealed to me. Usually I get told what to do, it’s restricted. But here, I had tremendous free rein within our part. It can stand on its own or you can follow to other parts.  The visual style was ‘me’ I’m known as the horror guy in comics.  That they got me, with my reputation, meant they were taking the comic side seriously.  Feedback is great, that they did a complete story.
  • CB: we had enough story to allocate bits to different media, the comic, the animation and hte game. Then on the web we had other stories we needed to propagate.  This was driven from Glen; I was in charge of the production.  These were rolled out over a period of months.  We worked with the structure of each media; eg comic books can have a 6 month run, 1 per month, others driven from timing.   How did we keep the story straight? We had a big master timeline, we segmented the story so they would not overlap too much.  A lot of co-ordination.  We had to make the universe.
  • FR: how do you know the property will support all of this stuff?  Did you seed it with takeoff points?
  • CB: yes. We tried to focus on not having a one time event story. We established the canon document, with a centralised universe story.
  • AG: the document had lots of stuff that was nothing to do with the story, but lots of details about the world. We could create new stories and characters from the details.
  • FR: How did you draw the line between defining the canon and overdefining?
  • CB: we did not want the team to feel they were just filling in blanks. We gave the story and feeling. they did all the story development.  We had little to show BT, just concepts.
  • BT: there was a lot of art, I had to extrapolate from that, had to make it work in the civilian setting.  Got to create own assets. Got a little disappointed that I could not draw all the cool stuff?
  • AG: accessibility was a big thing for us on the web, so you would not have to buy a book. We created new assets, which could spin off new stories. We took print assets and created comic book videos, pulled the images together and added VO.  We got lots of views in these.
  • FR: So how do you build something like this in the web.
  • IS: the previous story were linear, on the web we launched noknownsuvivors.com, it was far more fractured. you had a different experience depending on the decisions.  Based on original scripts and then extended. We had to keep aesthetic similarity, we had to ensure it went well in the flash environment.  We had to go to studio and get all the assets, 3d renderings etc.  It was not just tech, the tech served the story.   It was to facilitate a connection between the brand and the people who wanted to play. To share the experience, to take the content onto their own spaces.   It was a  week experience, each week another chapter. We had to roll it out slowly., About 500k, site visit 10min on average.  A fair few said it was a key driving factor in the game.
  • CB: the animated feature, it was sort of between comic and game in the story. 
  • FR: how did Deep media benefit the game?
  • AG: you got a lot of people engaging with the world, they came and asked questions, it generated excitement. It gives people a reason to want to interact with brand.
  • IS: it’s how people want to interact; we did some research about a tv show – the brand of the tc show is more than the show on TV –  it’s about what you share with others.   I did film marketing before, you can’t market too early as by the film comes along they think they have seen it. With this, you got people into the storyline, deeper an deeper.
  • AG: I think the comic book/videos were the most successful.  The web was deep and rewarding but the comics took advantage of dissemination, easier to port videos everywhere.  the liner narrative is only one type of content, you will only get so much punch. But it was only one part of a stockpile of ammunition.  Each played for a different audience.
  • FR: what was the biggest surprise?
  • CB: we were surprised at how difficult – we’re a game maker, not a comic publisher.  It was new, we were making up the rules and trying to hit the quality bar.
  • AG: an observation but could have been why it was successful. It was team of people wanting do something well. Everyone interacting, pushing through the late nights, like it was the own pet project.
  • IS: it was visible to end user that it was telling not selling, people respected the credibility of a good story.
  • CB: with EA, for them to treat these not just as marketing one-offs, not just as selling channels, they understood that they were valid in of themselves. We established quality throughout
  • AG: that is the test of deep media, that it’s not just marketing.   It has to be about the passion, give the story tellers the freedom.
  • IS: in context of advertising. When money spent on impression, it could not compare to the hours spent interacting with the content. It’s not impressions you can buy, it’s about creating lasting impressions.  Allow you to spend less on paid media, more on earning respect.
  • FR: what next?
  • CB: it would be great to be able to produce a live action movie, nothing is in the works yet.  We have a new story line for ‘Extraction’ out this fall.  New story, in the world.
  • Q: do you need a lot of budget? Do you need all these pieces to do it well?  What resources are required?
  • AG: You need a passionate creative centre and give it to the community, you can create a deep media experience that could grow. It is all about starting. You have to create.
  • IS: it’s about the expectations of the sale. if you are launching  product, budget accordingly.
  • Q: Would you do the website again?
  • AG: yes. from an ROI the engagement was huge.  You also got analytics (which you can’t necessarily get from other networks. The data set is taken away on ning etc.  I could change content on the microsite based on analytics.
  • IS: from a world of mouth it helped to have something people could be worked through.  it build buzz etc.
  • AG: Deep Focus drive a lot of editorial hits etc.  Got people viewing it.
  • Q: for web site what were the biggest traffic sources?  What was traffic after 6 weeks?
  • IS: Many by editorial mentions, from blog mentions. 
  • AG: getting hits from right blogs, eg Kotaku, Wikipedia was the biggest one.  We have a link on official site, tht gets 100k/200k. upwards of 10k new a week.  they can jump in many places.
  • IS: a fifth is after the game release
  • Q: Dead Space came to me via PS3, all the downloads. I slowly got into it, even though can’t stand horror. We played the game…we got to the end and thought ‘what did that mean’. So was there any plan around the ending
  • CB: that’s a fairly delicate thing for me to talk about. The ending does have a structure, has meaning, and I hope to be able to explain in the future.
  • Q: how important is premium downloadable content after the game?
  • CB: it’s a consumer expectation, so you have to do it or it’s a negative. we have to figure out how to make it happen as it is a drain on dev team
  • AG: the economy and expectation of it is driving a new way of selling games.  Expansions are good. Stprytelling is about blocks of content I guess game makers are going to be planning and budgeting for this.
  • Q: you talked about dolling stories in bite sized..did you give away too much? how did you recover?
  • CB: the final trailer…the marketing wanted to show the final boss.  The devs did not want to this. The PR team wanted this…the rest of the story was fine
  • Q: what did theis process show you about new IP?
  • CB: it is so risky, that is why EA did licensed IP, it’s a safer model. We have been critically rewarded from this, I think you will see more from this.
  • AG: Ben you create new IP all the time
  • BT: putting on paper is easy.  But in this, it was good as they did not drive changes, I’ve had more control on others, eg Marvel and DC. there is more that you cannot mess with. So Dead Space was part of a larger thing, but free rein.
  • IS: it was pretty ballsy, about placing control in other hands about telling the story.  It was amazing, eg bringing in Ben.
  • AG: budget levels, for games etc, it is a sequel business. When you are up against sequels, it is a difficult game. The deep media elements all helped, bridged the value over to us.
  • Q: Where is this going, what is the potential
  • BT: for me, it’s animation. Comic books should stay static, but will turn online as well.
  • AG: you’re going to see every kind of media feeding the other media, based on resources, ability around it.  It is easy to get seduced by idea of your creativity becoming something else. Trying to create something for a commercial reason is the best to make it fail.

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