MARKET FOCUS: To the next level

David Ward finds that a few select games are getting the Hollywood treatment.

David Ward finds that a few select games are getting the Hollywood treatment.

In many ways, these are both the best and worst of times for the video game industry and for video game PR. On the positive side, the game industry continues to experience double-digit annual growth, and last year topped $10 billion in sales in North America for the first time. Those numbers are bound to attract the mainstream press. Indeed, high-profile stories have appeared not only on the covers of magazines such as Newsweek and Entertainment Weekly, but also on TV shows like 60 Minutes and Dateline. "This is no longer just about gamers," notes Greg Chiemingo of Edelman, which represents the Microsoft Xbox game system. "A lot of people who don't cover the industry still think it's all suburban teenage white kids. But in reality, it's a much broader audience." But despite the growth, the game industry has fast become a world of few "haves" and many "have nots." Nearly 600 games were released in the latter half of 2002, but only a handful became multimillion-selling hits, like Take-Two Interactive's Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. For the rest, it was back to an increasingly expensive drawing board. With the cost of making a game for the Sony PlayStation2, Microsoft Xbox, or Nintendo GameCube now at more than $6 million, a few high-profile misses have put several formerly high-flying companies, such as Acclaim Entertainment, on the edge of financial ruin. All this is having a significant impact on game PR. Instead of spreading their money evenly across an array of titles, publishers are now taking a cold-eyed look at their lineup, picking one or two games to propel. And the money is certainly there for the right game. Titles such as Lucas Arts' Star Wars Galaxies and Electronic Arts' (EA) The Sims Online are getting huge budgets for everything from junkets and tchotchkes to lavish launch parties. "We're seeing spending that we've never seen before on a single title," says Sue Bohle, president of The Bohle Company. "Many publishers don't like paying more than $5,000 a month for PR, but they realize they have to if they want more than just access to the game magazines." Pushing the celebrity connection Armed with these big budgets, PR people are borrowing from the movie industry to build some real celebrity glamour into their campaigns. Earlier this year, Infogrames hosted a Hollywood party for its Enter the Matrix game. While the party featured Matrix film star Keanu Reeves, it was Jada Pinkett Smith who attracted the interest of the game press. Although Smith has a lesser role in the upcoming film sequel The Matrix Reloaded, her character is the star of the new game. The event generated a major feature in The New York Times; Highwater Group, the agency behind the premiere, believes that's just the beginning of a flood of coverage prior to the May 15 launch. "By having Jada Pinkett Smith available to us, we can not only do the entertainment press," explains Highwater cofounder Dan Harnett, "but we can also pitch the African American and women's press." But while veteran video game writer Andy Eddy acknowledges that the promotion of Enter The Matrix demonstrates a synergy between movies and games, he does question the use of its star name. "I don't think Jada Pinkett Smith is going to tell me anything about a video game that is going to make me turn around and buy it," he says. New titles don't even need to feature star names to harness the impact of celebrities. "Games are being inserted into lifestyle titles on celebrities and athletes," says Dana Henry, newly appointed head of the video game practice at Bender/Helper Impact. "When they ask an athlete what he does during spring training, he'll tell you he spends a lot of time playing with his Xbox." EA recently invited a number of film and TV stars to a New York party celebrating the release of The Sims Online. "[The celebrities] wanted to be part of the launch because they love the game," says Shelly Eckenroth, VP with Chen PR, which represents EA. "And they helped us get coverage in all the entertainment books and on TV." While there's little doubt that movie-style PR budgets can generate more coverage, the jury is still out on whether increased coverage automatically translates into higher sales. "A book full of clips and good reviews won't necessarily create a blockbuster, especially in the environment we're in now," notes Meelad Sadat, manager of marketing communications at publisher Sammy Studios. Erica Kohnke of San Francisco-based Kohnke Communications believes there is an important difference between generating clips and generating sales. As an example, she notes that the retail executives who decide what games to bring to their stores aren't located in media capitals like Los Angeles or New York, but rather in Minneapolis (Best Buy, Target), Dallas (GameStop), and Philadelphia (Electronics Boutique). "I'd much rather be in a paper like the Minneapolis Star Tribune or Dallas Morning News, because that's the paper the store buyer opens up in the morning," says Kohnke. "I don't think there's much of a correlation between a newspaper article in Florida and a spike in game sales." Beyond game and lifestyle outlets Most publishers know that a good review or feature in a magazine like Game Informer or lifestyle outlets like FHM can influence young males. But Kirk Green, founder of Gonzo Communications, says the new challenge is figuring out where the rest of the ever-growing video game nation gets its news. "We know there's an audience that doesn't read the game magazines and doesn't read Maxim or Stuff, but still goes out and buys a handful of games each year," he says. Green has been targeting publications such as Popular Science and Discover in an effort to reach this group. Tina Vennegaard, SVP with Golin/Harris, which represents Nintendo of America, is taking a similar tack. "Increasingly, we're targeting non-traditional outlets such as teen-girl publications," she says. "It requires us to relate to teen-magazine staffers in the same way they relate to their audience, and that is with very little focus on business and a lot of teen speak." Jennifer Simonsen of Access Communications, which represents Sega of America, says it's important to remember that most reporters at mainstream outlets still have only a passing understanding of the industry. "You really need to keep it simple with those guys," she says. "With Sega's NBA 2K3, one of the new features was that sweat appeared on the players' bodies as the game went on. So we really pushed the sweat element by sending out a bottle of sweat with our press kit and game, and most of the coverage mentioned this new feature." With nearly 50 million US homes owning game consoles (and many other consumers playing games on their PCs), it's hard to see how the game industry can get much bigger. But there is already talk from both Sony and Microsoft of a new generation of game machines that will be able to play movies, record your favorite TV shows and mp3s, as well as send and receive e-mail. But veteran game PR expert Bill Linn of Linn Strategies says the business will likely go through some rough spots before getting there. "I think it's about to face a bit of a cash crunch," says Linn, who represents arguably the hottest company in gaming right now: Rockstar Games, the Take-Two Interactive division that made Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. "The equity market for game stocks is already falling, and that will affect companies' ability to raise capital," he adds. "The days of [PR agencies] getting $20,000 a month might be gone, at least from the mid-level game publishers, and those smaller boutiques that specialize in games will become project shops as opposed to retainer shops." But Henry of Bender/Helper Impact counters that any sort of slump will likely be short-lived. "What's so exciting is there's always something new coming out. That shows we're in a very healthy business overall." ----- G4: The MTV of gaming? Though it currently only reaches about 9 million households, fledgling cable-TV network G4TV has an ambitious, if unstated goal - to become the MTV of video gamers. Backed with $150 million from cable giant Comcast, G4 launched in April 2002 with an eclectic mix of 12 different game-themed programs that are repeated several times a day, including the popular review show Judgement Day. "We have an amazingly robust community of viewers," says Leslie Oren, G4's director of media relations. "We have message boards on our website, G4TV.com, and we get programming suggestions that we take seriously." G4's biggest challenge right now is getting in front of its potential audience. Although it recently signed a deal to be on Time Warner Cable within two years, reaching the other networks will likely take some time. But what's encouraging thus far is the advertising mix. While G4 has yet to reach the 20-million-household mark that warrants Nielsen ratings, it already has a healthy share of ads - and not just for games, but also snack foods, movies, and music. For the game industry, G4 is a welcome oasis in a medium that has not always been quick to recognize the impact of games on popular culture. Shelly Eckenroth of Chen PR, which represents Electronic Arts, is a supporter. "Anything that keeps the game industry in the face of consumers is good for business," she says.

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