So it goes, folks. Hoaxes. Hoaxes never change. Sometimes they get better, sometimes they get more elaborate. There was no denying that thesurvivor2299.com was easily one of the most elaborate hoaxes seen in recent memory, but still, the word about same came out, and now we can take a look back at this thoroughly...well...thorough hoax and deconstruct it, and in the process, say a few words about marketing.
At last report, the mind behind thesurvivor2299.com, who took to a Reddit ask me anything (AMA) session to explain the motives and such behind his plan, dropped around $1000 for this impressively detailed punking of the gaming community. His plan, meanwhile, bought him worldwide notoriety, a lot of disappointed fans, something of a shutdown from Bethesda proper and, at last count, 14 death threats. The hoax was certainly on par with anything in terms of elaborate—a host of cryptograms, puzzles involving Morse code, vague aspersions to things we'd heard before in the Fallout universe like the still-amorphous concept of “The Institute” and “Boston”--but it was still a hoax.
But people believed this particular hoax, and very enthusiastically, for several reasons. One, it was exactly what the gamers wanted to hear: “Fallout 4” was likely to be coming soon, and possibly even getting a formal introduction at the Spike Video Game Awards show. Two, it was sufficiently complex to believe that it was a professionally-done effort—this wasn't some 12 year old's Geocities page with a ton of spelling errors and less-than-legal clip art—and even included things like the Vault-Tec logo. Third, it wasn't the first time that vague clips and trailers had been used to introduce games, so no one could tell immediately that this wasn't just more of that. That lead to no less than Pete Hines, vice president of marketing and public relations, stepping in and telling Twitter users that he was not going to VGX, and Bethesda wasn't either.
Perhaps the funny part here is that the gaming community didn't exactly believe Hines until VGX came and went, and nothing about Fallout was mentioned, officially. Then the fans somewhat turned on Hines, wondering why Bethesda didn't start saying anything about the less-than-factual nature of thesurvivor2299.com before, instead of letting it go on for the month or so that it did. This was a good question, until a Tweet exchange between Hines and user everysingletear underscored the issue. Tear noted: “I think that all you needed to do is to tell everyone that this site is fake. And everything would be OK.” Hines responded: “Maybe. Maybe not. Certainly could have helped. What about the 8 other fake sites that have popped up.”
The problem here is that Hines has simultaneously illustrated why saying nothing is so wrong and saying something is likewise wrong. But what Hines forgets here is that his company has the whip hand when it comes to disseminating information, not places like thesurvivor2299.com. I'm reminded here of “Alien 3,” in which Fiorina-161 superintendent Harold Andrews addresses the crowd of inmates with the phrase: “This is rumor control; here are the facts.” This was a measure designed to minimize the effects of rumor and scuttlebutt by making it clear just what was going on on Fiorina-161 at any given time. Granted, it doesn't always work—Andrews was killed by one of the creatures that he adamantly declared did not exist—but it certainly goes a long way toward counteracting rumor. Especially when the rumor in question is as elaborate as thesurvivor2299.com.
Basically, what Hines should know here is that the approach of “It's ready when it's ready” just doesn't hold water any more. The community will provide its own news in the lack of official news, and that doesn't help Bethesda. It certainly doesn't help that looking back at earlier this year, gamers were treated to pronouncements that this was Bethesda's year to “make a lot of noise”. It was a shame that all the noise was “delay,” as “The Evil Within” and “Wolfenstein: The New Order” both got delayed, and the Elder Scrolls MMO is still hovering in a beta so closed that getting an invitation to same almost seems like animal sacrifice is required.
Bethesda makes some of the best games out there, there's no doubt of that much. I'm still enjoying “Fallout: New Vegas” out here. But we're in a new generation of games, and that requires new games. Bethesda's less than forthright approach isn't exactly helpful, and the end result isn't likely to bode well for the company that's delivered some unbelievable titles. With the open world gaming concept catching on, and games like “Dead Island,” “Dying Light” and so on taking advantage, Bethesda's precious and unique snowflakes may not be so unique much longer. That'd be a shame, but good games change even less than hoaxes or war, and seeing Bethesda dropped out of the picture in the face of competition would never be good.