Marketing Products with Spoilers

1 May 2017 | 24 Comments

I recently began an extremely difficult 8-month process of not watching the trailer for Star Wars: Episode VIII. There’s a long road ahead, and I’m not sure I’ll make it, but I’ll do my best.

The reason? Spoilers!

We all have different definitions, tolerance levels, and grace periods for spoilers. For me, it depends on the movie, book, TV show, game, etc. Star Wars is really special to me, and I genuinely don’t want to know anything before I experience it on screen. I don’t even want to look at the movie poster.

It’s going to be a long 8 months.

***

Spoilers have been on my mind a lot lately because I’ve been talking more about my upcoming legacy game, Charterstone, on its Facebook group. Marketing is a challenge for Charterstone because everything inside the box is a spoiler. I’ve already shared images of the front and back of the box, and I still have 6 months before its release!

It’s also made it difficult to answer questions about the game. My modus operandi is to answer any question someone asks about anything (especially in public), but I can’t help but feel cagey whenever I’m asked a question. I can (a) be honest and give a spoiler, (b) lie and not give away anything, or (c) ignore the question and look inattentive. It’s an odd situation.

So today, perhaps for my benefit as much as yours, I thought I’d map out a chronological marketing strategy for a spoiler-driven product.

Playtesting: During the blind playtesting process, I ask playtesters not to share any content relating to the game on social media. I prefer to have control over that information. However, I think sometimes I get hung up on that level of control, as I’ve reacted unprofessionally when a playtester has leaked information. So in the future, I think I’m just going to not react when someone spoils something. Just because 10 people in some corner of the internet know about something doesn’t mean the whole world does.

Pre-Marketing: This is where I am right now for Charterstone. I’ve shared a few images and will continue to do so selectively, and right now I’m focusing on weekly “designer diaries,” in which I talk about very specific elements of the design. At some point I’ll release a cinematic trailer (which won’t have any spoilers) and the slim starting rulebook. At one point there was no starting rulebook at all, but the last two stages of blind playtesting revealed that it’s probably better for players to start the first game with some knowledge of how the game works.

Packaging: Packaging is a key part of marketing, both for brick-and-mortar and online shelf presence. The hardest part about a spoiler-driven product (particularly a game) is that you can’t provide a detailed list of components on the back of the box, even though that can be a key selling point for people who want to know how much stuff they’re getting. So I’ve settled on a vague list: “36 metal coins, 350+ unique cards, and 230+ wooden tokens”, with the description also mentioning that there’s a game board.

Reviewers: I really value the roles that reviewers play in marketing a game. They’re the first part of this process that provides customers with an unbiased perspective to help inform their purchase decision. But it’s also an area where I really have no control over what the reviewers will say, so it’s up to them to clearly delineate spoiler content from non-spoiler content in their reviews. My plan is to communicate to reviewers that there are light spoilers (the types of things players will see in Game 1) and heavy story-driven spoilers so they can effectively convey the difference to their audiences.

Conventions and Events: A big part of our typical marketing strategy is to send games to play-and-win sections at conventions, as they encourage lots of people can learn play a game in a short amount of time. I actually think games with spoilers are fine for play-and-win sections; however, they don’t work for legacy games, which feature permanent changes. However, I’m working on another game with spoilers that isn’t a legacy game, and I think it would work fine for play-and-win or convention demos.

Organic Sharing: I’m fascinated by the techniques utilized in recent video game releases like Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Horizon: Zero Dawn. Both are games that are full of spoilers, but their publishers actually encourage organic sharing of the various places, skills, and puzzle-solving methods in Zelda and picturesque screenshots of Horizon. I’d like to do the same with Charterstone, but I worry that it could alienate people who want to avoid spoilers at all costs (particularly those in the Facebook group). Perhaps the best way is for me to serve as a moderator in asking people to put “(SPOILER)” at the beginning of their posts.

Community Engagement: I alluded to this above when I talked about people asking me direct questions. This will grow exponentially when the game is released, as people will have rules questions. The method I’ve used so far is to write “(minor spoiler)” and then proceed with the answer. BoardGameGeek also has a special code for spoiler text that people can expand and contract.

***

How do you like spoiler-driven products (games, books, movies, etc) to be marketed to you? Do you prefer for the publisher to release lots of information, and it’s up to you to decide how much you want to know? Or do you get more excited when there’s an air of mystery about it?

24 Comments on “Marketing Products with Spoilers

  1. I’ve started to not watch anything beyond the first teaser trailer. That little bit that shows me just enough to get me interested but not reveal anything really important. This came up recently with the movie Colossal. I watched the teaser to find out that Anne Hathaway’s character is down on her luck and moves back home. There she suddenly realizes she’s controlling the actions of a giant monster attacking Seoul. I knew nothing else going in, and was really rewarded with a fantastic movie that exceeded all expectations. If you haven’t seen it yet, you really should. It’s a great movie and one that you shouldn’t know anything else about other than what I just told you there.

  2. Hi Jamey,

    I`m in the same “boat” – I haven`t watched the Star Wars trailer yet and I`m sure I can do it all the way to xmas.

    But back to the Charterstone topic. Pre-Marketing and Packaging looks “solved” on your end and I think both is working very good for Charterstone. Playtesting is “already” done (in terms of that already happend) – simply dont use that playtesting group anymore in the future for any games.

    For Conventions and Reviewers I might have an idea – why not “preparing and presetting” (i dont know if that is possible) a “beginner scenario” or the “1st game” and that could be “re packed” so people can play THAT 1st game over and over again?

    For play and win you ask the convention team to put ONLY that 1st game “set up box” on the play to win rack and take the other boxes / pieces / chapters away? That would work for normal conventions as well – people at GenCon, Origins etc. can play only the 1st stage! In that case you can “control” the spoilers at least a little bit.

    For Reviewers it is very “critical” – in my opinion they should play at least 3-5 games before they really can “judge” on a game and the gameplay – and the really good reviewers using “different playgroups”. However I know that is only the theory – some of the reviewer trying to be the “1st” to publish their opinion – and some try to give “more” information that they should. The only control you have for that is working with reviewer you trust and send them a package “in advance” – if they want to publish video or photo material they are allowed to publish some from the 1st game – but after that they should NOT publish or post anything from the story beyond that point ….

    If it is possible to pack a “1st game box” I assume that is the best way to handle the convention, play to win and review process.

    Best
    Nils

    1. Nils: Thanks for your detailed comment! I did consider doing something like that at Gen Con, but then when we couldn’t get our conference room and we reverted to a different strategy for this year, it ended up not mattering. As for play-and-win, it would be very expensive to try that strategy. :)

      I completely agree that for a legacy game, the more a reviewer can play it, the better they can inform potential customers. I like the idea of finding reviewers we trust.

  3. Hi Jamey,

    Great post! We ran into this problem trying to explain the rules to Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle. While our rules video conveys the mechanics of the very-simple Year 1, we wanted to communicate to veteran players that later years were going to ramp up the difficulty and complexity. We settled on showing spoiler cards from future years, but with the specific text and abilities blurred out. The blur was enough to obfuscate the text, but also show that the card clearly had a long, complex effect. The actual cards we chose to tease from future years were the obvious picks, so as not to seriously spoil anything (“Oh man, Voldemort’s going to be a Villain in the game eventually? What a surprise!”).

    We had it easy with HP though. I don’t think that same approach would work with Charterstone since both the mechanics and the theme need to be completely spoiler-free. Curious to watch your marketing plan unfold other the next few months.

    Best,
    Luiza

  4. For questions that you can’t answer without giving spoilers, I actually quite enjoy the “Can you tell us anything about what happens in Season 2” ‘I could, but I’m not going to.’ or ‘If I did they’d kill off my character.’ stuff you sometimes get in television interviews. Cheeky chase. But that’s for television.

    For board games, where spoilers are a pretty darn new territory, there isn’t this tacit understanding that some of the questions people have aren’t ones they actually want to know the answer to until playing the game. I still think the ‘I can’t tell you that because it would be a spoiler’ is a valid answer to a question – Part of the fun of a Legacy game is that sense of discovery from a mechanical perspective, to say nothing of plot spoilers – but I think at this point in board games that needs to be explicitly explained – Stuff along the lines of “I’m looking forward to discussing that question in more detail in 6-12 months after the game comes out, and hearing people discuss the element of the game my answer would spoil, but at this point I don’t want to spoil the experience of discovery for people playing the game.” – Though that’s publicity questions rather than rules questions on BGG or Facebook.

    Using spoiler text for anything with spoilers should work fine. If you can figure out how to trick facebook’s ‘read more’ cut off so before clicking read more people only see “Spoilers below cut” that might help as well, similar to the old e-mail group ‘S . . . P . . . O . . .’ vertically alligned to give people who didn’t want spoilers a chance to back out but less… Annoying, with any luck, you might be able to apply such a process to Facebook as well.

  5. I think between Seafall and Pandemic Legacy we have some good examples to go off of. Reviewers generally held back or gave fair warning in order to not spoil it for people. In addition I think that reviewers were where the hype for both games was coming from.

    The Seafall Designer diaries over the basics of the game and rules I think helped a ton to bring out the hype and get people wanting the game. On top of the idea that Rob is a good designer and people were willing to give his game the benefit of the doubt so they could experience his legacy game.

    I think Charterstone is in the same boat. If you get reviews going it should help with getting the word out, moreso then your traditional ways.

    1. Sean: That’s a great point that there’s a precedent for reviews of games that can be spoiled. We’ll definitely be sending out quite a few review copies–probably around 6 advance copies and then 20-30 copies upon release.

    2. Mm. So far, reviews for Legacy games, and other spoiler-centric stuff, have been really good at marking their spoilers and keeping the unmarked stuff mostly spoiler free. As things go forward there might start to be a need to explicitly state what you would consider a spoiler, but at the moment board game media seems to be pretty good at self regulating.

  6. Hi Jamey. Thanks for the post.

    I know that some people can get very annoyed about seeing spoilers, but in my experience I tend to not find spoilers unless I look for them. Most reviewers and vloggers I follow are very good at providing warnings so I know if I should stop reading/watching or not.

    I also like getting some spoilers on a game. I tend to not want to buy a game, especially an expensive game (which legacy/campaign games usually are) unless I really know what I’m getting myself into. And that usually means seeing a couple of scenarios or whatever played through. I’m really intrigued by Charterstone, but know that it’s not something I would buy unless I could see at least a half hour game play of. For me the enjoyment of a game is rarely ‘spoiled’ by doing this.

    Best of luck with the difficult decisions and thanks again for writing such an inspiring blog!

    Ollie
    Turnstone Games

    1. Ollie: Thanks for sharing your perspective! I think there are a significant number of people like you who want to see a game played a bit before they try it. While that’s not the intended experience with Charterstone (I want players to open the board and tuckboxes for the first time together, as if they’re really arriving together at the new village), I’m sure some reviewers will offer that experience for those who want it.

  7. Speaking as both a writer and reader of reviews I can say that spoiler filled are very challenging to approach. I think it’s important for a general review to avoid spoilers entirely as they are only going upset those that are sensitive to them.

    When an example is necessary for discussion of some point, then I think Shut Up & Sit Down have a good approach. They make up an example that isn’t in the game, but illustrates the point they are trying to make. It’s not perfect but it is a good solution to the problem.

    I think in general board game media and the community have been pretty good about spoilers with other games. I’m kind of amazed that Pandemic Legacy’s story hasn’t been more widely spoiled and that’s been out 18 months! So I’m sure Charterstone will be just fine :D

    1. Matt: I really like the SUSD solution you mentioned! I hadn’t noticed that they did that, but you’re right–you can explain a lot by using a completely hypothetical/fictional answer.

  8. Hi Jamey,
    Having read the rules to Charterstone, I know you’re in a bit of a pickle here (and it’s definitely going to be better to remain unspoiled)!

    I don’t watch trailers for Star Wars or Marvel movies. I saw the first 5 seconds of the Thor:Ragnarok trailer while watching GotG2 on Sunday night (before I blocked my eyes and ears to the rest of it). I only knew a few tiny things about GotG2, but even those bugged me!

    A question about Charterstone’s component list – is this an issue for customs when you send the game around the world? I know you had some fun with wooden pieces for Tuscany (I think it was) coming into Australia. Do you need to specify exactly what’s in the box in this regard?

    Cheers,
    -Ian

    1. Ian: Indeed, that’s the bane of being a proofreader. :) Hopefully it didn’t ruin the full Charterstone experience for you.

      The wooden pieces for Australia will still need to be fumigated, but otherwise there isn’t a customs issue. There is one component that requires some specific markings, but not on the outside of the game box.

  9. I will add myself to the list of those who watch film teasers and then go out of my way to avoid everything else related to the film. Full-length trailers are often filled with spoilers and the film’s best parts (looking at you, Age of Ultron) because (a) it is relatively easy to craft an exciting trailer that way; and (b) such trailers seem to be effective at filling cinema seats (i.e majority of people pay money anyway despite spoilers). It is a skill, IMO, to create trailers that are evocative and STILL keep the film’s mysteries.

    A key component here is the hype machine surrounding the trailer releases, with multitudes of press rumours and speculative blogs guessing at what may or may not be in the movie based on what is shown in the trailer (e.g the buzz surrounding the recent Last Jedi trailer). It is not something entirely alien to gaming either – the video gaming industry works along similar lines especially for AAA titles like Call of Duty and Mass Effect. The closest parallel in tabletop games may be the Warhammer community (case in point: the recently-announced 8th edition of Warhammer 40K). Perhaps the viability of such marketing will slowly increase as the wider board games industry continues to grow!

    And just a food for thought: movie posters – I am not sure if it is something that can be brought into the board games world? We often see box art and some game board screenshots, but nothing on the scale of theatrical-style posters aiming to ‘tease’ at the story being sold (I understand of course that additional art is expensive, plus most games still do not aim to sell a ‘story’).

  10. Maybe I am the only one advocating for this, but I don´t think a good marketing campaign can be spoiler-free. Rather than PREVENTING spoilers at all cost, you should spend a lot of time SELECTING them, unraveling a tiny part of the mystery. And then use them without bad conscience.

    From a consumer perspective, I agree with what you and others here say: we HATE spoilers of movies or series. However, if we are honest, this is not the full truth. The full truth is, we hate spoilers of movies we ALREADY KNOW BEFOREHAND we want to see. For anything else (which is 80% of the movies/series being released) we actually don’t mind spoilers all that much, because we don’t even recognize them as such. In fact, we probably NEED them to judge whether we might be interested in seeing the movie.

    So the analogies of Star Wars, Marvel Movies, Game of Thrones, etc. are not generally applicable, I think. These are all movies/series we are already SOLD on, that’s why we dislike spoilers all that much. For these movies, we would not need ANY marketing campaign at all, spoiler-free or not.

    Does your game fall into this category of pre-sold games? If so (because you have a big name like Pandemic, or are a followed author like Jamey) you may get away with a spoiler-free campaign and everyone will love you for it.

    If not, I think you HAVE to use selected spoilers to show how great your game is…

    1. Daniel: That’s a really interesting perspective. I’ve certainly experienced that with trailers, though I think there’s a way to convey what a movie/book/game is without spoilers.

      I’ll use the example of Arrival. I had no idea what Arrival was until I saw the trailer, and the trailer convinced me that I needed to see the movie. However, the trailer also revealed a number of pivotal moments in the film that could have been omitted and I still would have been convinced to see the movie.

  11. I’ve given up on the idea of avoiding spoilers for big, exciting new media. I’ve had to come to appreciate how the end of a story is reached instead of just the end itself. This is not a perfect personal solution and I completely understand wanting to avoiding spoilers. It’s like using Spark Notes before reading a book.

    That said, I think you’re following good practices with Charterstone and spoilers so far. Revealing just enough to intrigue without giving away the story! I think the trickiest part will be getting reviewers to respect the spoilers, but I doubt the ones who garner the most attention will spoil much of the game.

  12. I usually research my games like crazy before I buy them. I like to know the theme and ask the cool (or uncool) mechanics before I make up my mind. It took me forever to get into Pandemic Legacy as I didn’t feel I had enough to go on. I was cursing the reviewers who held good on their promise not to spoil the game. Given all the hype, I eventually gave in and purchased it. Boy, am i glad it wasn’t spoiled. The one thing I was happy to know was that it was a four player game and best if you played all games with the same players. That way I could get a group together and make sure that we’d find the time to get through the experience with monthly sessions dedicated to the game. Charterstone brings up the same questions: do I have to find six people on a regular basis to enjoy the game? Is it easy for new players to get in later? If you take some time to discuss the meta game, you’ll surely find lots to talk about without spoiling the story.

    1. Philippe: Thanks for sharing your experience with Pandemic Legacy. You can play each game of Charterstone with any number of players, but the best experience will be had if you play with the same people over the 12-game campaign. New players can be added, but they will be subject to an increasing number of rules.

Leave a Comment

© 2019 Stonemaier Games