Promotional Adventures: Thoughts on the Subway 'Uncharted 3' Campaign

Thanks to corporate sponsorship and a nominal fee, we got early access to Uncharted 3's multiplayer. It seems like a bargain, but this deal may have more far reaching costs.

A couple weeks ago, Jorge and I embarked on a journey. With full wallets, empty bellies, and half-tucked shirts, we journeyed to Subway. Purchasing some food allowed us to stave off hunger and gain early access to Uncharted 3's multiplayer. I was particularly fond of the beta, so this was an opportunity to get another chance to check out the full mode as well as to test a relatively new means of promoting and marketing a game. Now that I've had the time to play the game a bit more and to reflect on the promotion itself, I feel like my opinion regarding fast food sums up the Uncharted 3 multiplayer early access experience. It was immediately satisfying, but I fear it's ultimately unhealthy.

First, the encouraging aspects:

Economic flexibility

Depending on how you look at it, the Subway Uncharted 3 promotion is a fairly good deal. For around $6, you're getting (what I think -- food snobs be damned!) is pretty good fast food and a month's worth of access to a major video game's multiplayer. It's a deal I would gladly welcome for titles like Modern Warfare. I like being up on the most recent games, and I can realistically only devote a limited amount of time to each one, so being able to buy discrete periods of access to ongoing experiences like multiplayer modes is appealing. The early months of multiplayer shooters are more enjoyable to me anyway, as it often takes a month or so before I find myself at the miserable bottom of a ridiculously harsh skill pyramid.

More Data for Developers

I imagine this is a nice way for Naughty Dog to conduct what is essentially a second beta for their most ambitions multiplayer game to date. I have already seen changes to the UI and experience trees since I played the game last summer. The inclusion of new maps also allows the developers to conduct a last minute trial by fire on the entire mode before a broad release. Judging by the number of network issues that I have encountered while trying to connect, there are still things to be done. A widespread program like this will hopefully allow Naughty Dog to prepare for the onslaught that their servers will face on release day.

Smart, Minimally-Sleazy Marketing

I'm very interested to know what kind of money exchanged hands to put this promotion together. Regardless of who is getting paid for what, the whole deal strikes me as savvy. Uncharted 3 is attracting infrequent Subway customers like myself, while Subway is pointing potential players in Sony's direction. To the best of my recollection, this has been the most valuable corporate promotion that I've ever participated in (although I'm sure I'll find that "Park Place" McDonald's Monopoly piece any day now).

Additionally, although I find the televised commercials somewhat cringe worthy (for reasons I'll discuss later), the medium could have a worse public face. Nathan Drake and the Uncharted series showcase some of the most impressive visual effects and acting talent video games have to offer. Drake isn't a 'roided-out space marine and Uncharted fits comfortably alongside accessible action films like Indiana Jones or The Mummy. Video games don't have the greatest track record regarding respectable public images, so seeing a promotion that isn't beholden to in jokes, inaccessible fantasy/sci-fi cliches, or overt sexism is refreshing.

All this being said, I find some aspects of the promotion troubling:

Paying to Win

Remember that ridiculously harsh skill pyramid I mentioned? Well, Uncharted 3's multiplayer beta is starting to look like Giza, and the game's not even out yet. After a couple of weeks, it is already common to see maxed out level caps and players who have memorized the maps. Thanks to the nature of modern shooters, logging more hours into a game can give you systemic advantages over other players, and the experience accrued in the Subway promotion, along with all of the upgraded guns and perks it affords, will carry over into the retail release. The infinitesimally small time period in which all players are on a level playing field has shrunk once again.

In a larger sense, the Subway Uncharted 3 campaign raises ethical questions about the ways in which games are sold. Getting early access for the price of a fast food meal isn't a burden to many people, but where should we draw the line? Would people pay $10 for early access to a popular multiplayer game? I'd bet that some people would pay three times that for one month's head start on Modern Warfare 3, and they wouldn't even ask for sandwiches in return. Video games are unquestionably an expensive past time but at least a flat $60 and a single release date ensures that people will enter a competitive game with relative equality.

Creepy Consumerism

Even though I'm not Nathan Drake's biggest fan, my heart sank a little after watching him shill for Subway. Perhaps the first two Uncharted games were too successful in establishing Drake as an iconic character: Seeing him with a branded Subway cup in his hand and hearing him explain that Subway is "where winners eat" was jarring. Drake's personality swings between self-serious and irreverent, but you always get the sense that he is a part of the rich world that Naughty Dog created. Now, our reality has been crudely inserted into this world, and it seems that Drake is less of a character than some weird digital celebrity who gets hired to do gigs.

The corporate tie-in also has in-game effects. Certain bonuses and equipment can be won by buying more subway food. Earn enough in-game money and you can buy a Subway themed shirt for your avatar. Being killed three times in a row in quick succession by a player whose guy was wearing a Subway shirt and hat gave me plenty of time to think: why is he wearing that stuff? It doesn't provide any mechanical benefits, so he's basically a walking advertisement for Subway. Even the most subtle ads have an insidious habit of coloring our economic and cultural habits, and I'm wary of trading my impressionable subconscious for a couple weeks of access to a game.

Consumer Goods or Cultural Works?

It's difficult to articulate the cultural position of video games, especially those sold commercially. Sometimes, we talk about them like we would a tool or a piece of productivity software. We comment on load times, feature lists, and pricing. Other times, we speak of the stories that they tell, how the mechanics convey themes, what a particular narrative says about our society, and how their designers affect our world. The Subway Uncharted 3 promotion seems to come from the commodification end of the spectrum. By essentially selling bits of the game early and separately, it implies that the game should be thought of as an aggregation of its features rather than as a single work.

I tend to think of video games as a more artistic product, but I am hard pressed to find an example from any other medium that resembles what the Subway Uncharted 3 promotion does. True, movie and TV merchandise is a huge business, but I doubt I'll be able to see the first half hour of the new Batman movie by eating at Taco Bell. I can donate to my local theater and be invited to preview nights, but this involves giving them the money directly rather than laundering through a business. Shopping for clothes at Macy's will never get me any closer to previewing the first pages of the next A Song of Ice and Fire book. All art is intertwined with economics, but the ease by which games are portioned out as commodities sets them apart from other media. Commercialization may not be inherently bad, but I fear what it may do to the games that are strongest as unified works.

Ultimately, the Subway Uncharted 3 promotion is a preview of a complex future of variable pricing, corporate tie-ins, and design philosophy. It raises novel questions as to how games are best promoted and distributed. It previews a possible future of paying for early access and commercial sponsorship. As digital distribution grows, similar promotions will become increasingly viable.

I've enjoyed my early access to Uncharted 3. The early access satiated my desire to play the game, much as the Italian B.M.T. sandwich satisfied my hunger. However, my enjoyment of the game is tempered by my ambivalence about the economic and artistic implications of premium, corporate sponsored, early access. I was left feeling a little queasy while playing the early Uncharted 3 multiplayer, and it wasn't because of the sandwich.


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