It’s rather odd how over the very short few months since I’ve started Ready Players that I’ve changed the way that I view games and the industry around them. Every press release I see I’ve started to take with a grain, if not a holy pillar worth of salt. I’ve shared my attention with games, both triple A and indie. But strangest of all, I’ve found myself questioning games being given significant discounts in retail stores. If it wasn’t obvious by the title of this article, the most recent discount I’ve found myself curious about is that of the First-Person MOBA (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena), Battleborn.
Developed by Gearbox and published by 2K games, Battleborn was set to have the same power behind it as the Borderlands series. At its core, it’s an incredibly well-made game that ended up carrying the same sense of comedic ridiculousness that Borderlands is known for. It’s a game in which you get to escort a wolf-tank with not only a bomb, but a lack of self-preservation instincts, which isn’t something you see in many games.
Despite its quality, however, when we cut to a good three months after the game’s release date, the initial price has dropped from $80AUD to around $50AUD. Not even a month after release did reports come in about its lack of sales and quickly diminishing player-base. In fact the only time it ever was really mentioned after that month was in answer to the question: “Hey, what was that other game that was sort of like Overwatch?”
It seems that one factor that people attributed to Battleborn’s failure was its comparison to Overwatch. They’re two very different games with release dates almost a month apart, and yet they quickly became the gaming world’s equivalent to Pepsi and Coke. It’s pretty easy to see why the comparison showed up in the minds of gamers. At first glance, they are both hero-based first-person shooters that focused on online multiplayer gameplay. But in the end, only Overwatch came out to be the huge success of the two, finding over 7 million players in its first week, a number that has only continued to grow since then.
So upon seeing its $50 price tag earlier this week, I felt inclined to ask why Battleborn, despite being remarkably different from its unintended rival, failed in comparison to Overwatch? As it turns out, the reason surprisingly isn’t the simple answer of “one was just a better game than the other”. Instead, it seems that there were quite a few factors that led to Battleborn’s failure. The first being how the two games approached their marketing.
Despite Battleborn having an entire month’s advantage to gain a player-base over Overwatch, it was safe to say that before it was even released, Battleborn was significantly overshadowed by its competitor. The reason for this was how Blizzard had advertised Overwatch since its announcement in 2014. From announcement to release, Blizzard rolled out every kind of media it could for the public to enjoy, including three betas that added new content each time.
Even beyond the game’s release date, the company continued to show off various media that focused on the game’s story and characters, including blog posts, MP3 files and comics which made new character announcements an exciting event. These served to excite players even more. The most important of these media releases in my mind, however, were the various cinematic trailers that were produced to advertise the game. They served no purpose to advertise any sort of gameplay, but rather to show off just how much love and care Blizzard had for this game, in turn getting its own audience attached to the game’s characters instead of the game itself. So by the time Battleborn had come out, Blizzard had already hyped us up to the point that most of us were looking forward to seeing the characters we had come to know and love over the previous year and a half.
Battleborn on the other hand had almost little to no advertising at all for it beyond trailers that showcased what its characters looked like rather than what kind of game it was, along with posters that were essentially just larger versions of the game’s boxart.
There wasn’t anything to hype up its audience on the same level that Overwatch had with its own. Honestly, it seemed like the only thing Gearbox gave for people to be hyped up about was reputation. It was marketed as a first person shooter made by the team who brought us Borderlands. But people were already excited for just the idea of Overwatch being Blizzard’s first new IP in 16 years. And while Gearbox is an incredibly competent studio, they didn’t have the pedigree needed to beat out Blizzard in terms of getting people excited from reputation alone. And sadly, by making the game look like another Borderlands, Gearbox didn’t properly inform players about just how different the game would play.
Because Battleborn was advertised to appear as though it had similar gameplay to that of the Borderlands games, Gearbox had accidentally made Battleborn’s gameplay incredibly daunting to its players by choosing to focus it on one of the hardest game genres to not only understand, but actually get into. While it was an interesting and fresh approach for the team to create a new IP with primarily MOBA elements, people were not expecting it from a company that, up until that point, had primarily made action-oriented first-person shooters. Battleborn prided itself on being a MOBA first and a first-person shooter second, which is by no means a bad thing, especially to MOBA veterans. But to those who didn’t like the genre or had never played a MOBA before, this design philosophy combined with is poor advertising served to be quite a turn-off for people who came into Battleborn looking for a new Borderlands experience.
Ultimately, Gearbox made a change from the fairly easy-to-understand gameplay they had become well known for, to a gameplay style that was significantly complex and incredibly daunting to its inexperienced players right off the bat. Blizzard, meanwhile, had done the exact opposite approach: changing from a complex gameplay style into one that, on the surface, was incredibly simplistic and easy to master.
While Battleborn was confusing its players, Overwatch was taking a comparatively play-friendly approach. Blizzard had presented its players with a competitive first-person shooter that had very few game modes, all of which were incredibly easy to understand and gave very little to be confused by. All of them had the exact same general objective: defend the objective or take the objective. And while, arguably, Overwatch had just as much complexity in its gameplay as Battleborn did, from the outside looking in, Overwatch was a much simpler game for players, both new and veteran to the online competitive first-person shooter genre to understand, making it much more approachable to a wider audience as a result. A testament to this I can take from my personal life considering that my partner, who hates online first-person shooters, is still primarily playing Overwatch in his free time.
But I think the most important factor that ultimately led to the failure of Battleborn: the timing of both its and Overwatch’s release dates, which essentially sparked off the comparisons in gamers’ minds. Like I said earlier, the two were almost completely different games in most aspects with no real need to be compared beyond their incredibly basic premise of being hero-based competitive online first-person shooters. However, a closer look at both games would show that Battleborn was primarily a first-person MOBA and Overwatch was a competitive team FPS in the similar vain to Team Fortress 2. But the coincidence was enough.
In the minds of many gamers the games shared basic premise and eerily close release dates was more than enough to quickly spark a debate over which one was better. Unfortunately for both companies, the general public began to unfairly compare the two games, despite being completely different. Soon the matter of gameplay and design were no longer differentiating points for either game, instead becoming pros and cons against the other, with some even going so far as to compare the box art of both games to determine which one did it better.
Ultimately, the reason why I think Battleborn failed in comparison to Overwatch didn’t come down to one game being better than the other, but rather the gaming community thought that one needed to be better than the other.