What happens when PR goes awry? Not slightly sideways, as we saw recently with the leak of Rage 2 (which is probably the best thing that could have happened to it anyway) but completely, irretrievably wrong, in a way that inspires conversation and funny stories for years to come? Game publishers do their level best to keep the hype machine running along smoothly and inoffensively—that may be the most important part of all—but sometimes, out of malice or greed or plain old good intentions, the bus goes off the cliff and there’s nothing to do but hold on and ride it to the bottom.
That’s when legends are born.
Daikatana: John Romero's famous bitch-botch
Back before the turn of the millennium, John Romero proclaimed that he was going to make you his bitch. "Suck it down," he added, presumably to ensure that we were all on the same edgy page. Three years later, Daikatana finally came out, and... well, there was some bitching, alright, but it wasn't quite what the ad had promised. The infamous FPS wasn't as bad as people sometimes like to pretend, but the pre-release hype (which was also wildly premature—the ad was followed by multiple delays) set the bar so high that anything short of perfection would have seemed a letdown. And the final product, while far from a disaster, was also far from perfection: Reviews weren't great, but the reaction from gamers was absolutely savage.
Romero ultimately apologized for the ad, acknowledging that it soured his relationship with the gaming community. Ion Storm Dallas closed less than a year after Daikatana's release.
Aliens: Colonial Marines - The actual gameplay demo that was not, actually
Pre-release press demos for Aliens: Colonial Marines promised a game of impressive—some might say cinematic—visual fidelity, but the final release left players squinting and scratching their heads. Opinions varied on the degree, but the general consensus was that the visual quality of the released game fell well short of what was promised in those "actual gameplay" demos. The difference was enough that the UK's Advertising Standards Agency forced Sega to add an after-the-fact disclaimer to Colonial Marines promotional videos, shortly after which a lawsuit was filed over claims of false advertising.
It eventually fizzled out but not before Sega and Gearbox pointed accusing fingers at one another ("It's Randy doing whatever the fuck he likes" remains one of my favorite lines from a leaked internal email) and while Gearbox was ultimately absolved of legal responsibility, the stench of that swim through a swamp of ugly recriminations lingers.
Dead Space 2 - EA pulls a “How do you do, fellow kids?”
For some reason, Electronic Arts decided that what Dead Space 2 marketing really needed was a literal "your mom" joke. The company released a series of videos in which middle-aged women were given an eyeful of interstellar trauma victim Isaac Clarke hacking and blasting at hordes of sticky space zombies. Clips of gameplay were mixed with shots of their horrified reactions: One participant described the game as "purely crap" at the end of her session and predicted that such games would leave us at the mercy of "a society of criminals."
The campaign was built on a framework of all the worst gamer stereotypes—Women! Old people! Games cause violence!—and didn't even attempt to make a save with an ironic twist at the end. It was embarrassing, and frustrating: Dead Space was a splattery mess, but it was also a top-notch survival-horror game with a dark psychological edge, and the juvenile focus on the worst excesses of guts and gore did the sequel a real disservice. (Also, your mom told me she actually loved Dead Space 2.)
Homefront - 9999 red balloons go into the bay
I liked Homefront, the Red-Dawn-but-North-Korea shooter that THQ pushed out in 2011. It was monumentally stupid and overwrought but so was Red Dawn, and the shooting bits were good enough to make it a “forgettable fun” kind of 6.5/10 shooter. (Interestingly, our reviewer, the redoubtable Norman Chan, saw it the opposite way: Intense story, “ho-hum” combat.)
Speaking of monumentally stupid, THQ released 10,000 red balloons as a Homefront publicity stunt during GDC 2011. The balloons rose majestically into the sky over San Francisco, but instead of rising high enough to break apart (or at least go away), crappy weather conditions brought them down prematurely in the San Francisco Bay. It was a hell of a mess. THQ claimed the balloons were biodegradable but city officials didn't care: The publisher had to pay to clean the mess up and ate a $7000 fine on top. Homefront tanked, too.