Earlier this week, Sony announced the Death Stranding release date via a nearly day-long Twitch stream that mostly just showed handprints appearing on a black screen. The reasons why fans would watch this is obvious: Anticipation is exciting, and infectious. The reasons why it is encouraged by publishers is also obvious. Marketing on the internet has always sought to use fan enthusiasm to some corporate benefit, and anticipation is often the easiest way to do that. Countdown clocks, trailers, alternate-reality games and puzzles are all ways to excite fans and get them talking about a game.
Twitch has become so central to video games that publishers have made it a vital part of their marketing efforts. Twitch streams can be watched in places and times where games aren’t an option; they can also be watched as games are played. It’s a locus of attention that’s irresistible to a company with games to sell, which then makes it beneficial for these companies to find ways to get fans to spend even more time on Twitch. They don’t even have to engage with a game that’s out now. Which is how we get to Death Stranding.
The Death Stranding effort was confusing, as a lot of Kojima hype tends to be. The stream was mostly a black image, with a few outlines of handprints and eerie music. At noon, the full video was released, a nearly nine-minute trailer for Death Stranding. The plan seems to have worked, and the Death Stranding trailer racked up nearly five million views in a day’s time.
There was no real reason to watch the livestream—no mystery to solve, no real audience participation beyond showing up. What’s more, anyone who is online enough to watch a stream is also arguably online enough to know when the stream’s end result is achieved without bothering to tune in. The stream recalls another absurd livestream marketing moment, when HBO decided to reveal the premiere date for Game of Thrones’ seventh season by hiding it in a block of ice, which would eventually melt and show the world a date. A date fans would’ve eventually learned anyway, and posted about anyway.
Twitch is already something of a closed loop, integrated into the machines we play games on, so we can stream games and watch games that are streamed. But publishers have increasingly made an effort to control the contours of that loop, using their resources to tip the odds in their favor.
If you watched the Borderlands 3 reveal stream on Twitch last month, you had the chance to win in-game loot. Last fall, watching affiliated streamers on Twitch for an hour could have netted you early access to Black Ops 4’s Blackout beta. Rocket League fans can earn exclusive customization rewards by linking their accounts and watching streams. Those rewards are offered through the Twitch Drops program, which has also been integrated by other publishers and developers. When The Division 2’s first raid went live earlier this month, fans who watched select streamers run the raid could earn items in the game. In the Twitch attention economy, publishers have vast capital that no one else does: information on highly anticipated games to disseminate, and plenty of door prizes for players of games that are out.
As big-budget games move away from static, discrete products towards a “games as a service” model, attention has become a scarce resource. There are only so many games one person can pay attention to at a time—and when said games are persistent affairs, so many future games that can be anticipated. Thus we have hype as a service, and all the things publishers will try in order to keep their audience fixated on an upcoming game, in the hopes that long-term anticipation might translate to long-term interest once that game is out. And what better place to see that unfold than on Twitch—the best place to watch and wait for games.