Video games strive for attention

As the major video game publishers get ready for their busiest period of the year, Ian Hall looks at some of the new tactics they are adopting to gain coverage in what has become a viciously competitive market

It is more than a decade since the publicists behind blood'n'guts shoot-em-up video game Doom sent a promotional package of offal to journalists.

A subsequent visit from the Old Bill kiboshed that PR drive, but bagging media attention remains vital as gaming PROs bid to promote the latest releases.

The column inches dedicated to games have mushroomed since the 1990s.

Last year's top-seller - Take Two/Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas - reportedly sold one million copies in the first nine days.

Games makers such as Electronic Arts, Sega and Activision seek mainstream media coverage, which is crucial to first-week game sales. Many point to the now defunct style bible The Face's decision, eight years ago, to put Lara Croft on its cover as a watershed in the lifestyle coverage of gaming.

Lads' mags, national newspapers and broadcast outlets are targeted by gaming PROs. Around three quarters of regional papers have a journalist allocated to new-release reviews. These outlets join specialist print media plus websites such as gamesindustry.biz.

Gary Cutlack, features editor of new title Official Xbox 360 Magazine, admits: 'I sense PR people would regard 100 words in FHM as more valuable than four pages in our magazine.'

High season
This is the crucial time of year for each games publisher. The Official Xbox Magazine's reviews section is packed with 25 to 30 games in its October and November issues, in contrast to the usual 15 to 20 per issue. Lunch PR account director Kat Osman says: 'There are more games being released every year, making the battle for space even fiercer, especially in the run-up to Christmas.'

Exclusivity is vital to The Official Xbox Magazine reviews editor Andy Irving, who says he will often grant more space to a review in return for getting the game first. Indeed, exclusivity for a review of Halo 2 led to the title's decision to shift its entire production schedule last November.

As Christmas approaches, PR firm Bastion is promoting Capcom's Resident Evil 4, out in November.

Capcom's own PROs have been targeting gaming magazines 'for months already', says Bastion account director Charlotte Fox, whose approach to consumer titles began a fortnight ago.

Meanwhile, Lunch PR is promoting a Vivendi Universal Games title, Fear, out next month. Osman says it is becoming more difficult to gain coverage for games given the glut of titles publishers are turning out, a market buoyed by the number of platforms.

One consumer PRO, who prefers to remain anonymous, says: 'So many publishers want coverage to match that of Grand Theft Auto. But very few games are newsworthy or have a significant budget to allow any expansive PR. Gaming publicity might sound glamorous but it still largely involves sticking demos in jiffy bags.'

Sending journalists a code - a teaser disc with the first, say, ten levels of a game - will keep the reviewers happy. But as Osman says: 'Review coverage is a given. We try to get as many features as possible but some games have more news hooks than others - better graphics or better music are not good enough anymore.'

Hill & Knowlton is promoting Eidos's Total Overdose (PRWeek, 9 September), targeting titles such as Hip Hop Connection and non-mainstream music mags. Coverage of former H&K client Sega's Superstars, meanwhile, appeared in The Sun's health pages.

Celebrity backing - maybe as a voiceover in a game or as post-development endorsement - is a reliable route to rousing journalistic interest. Porter Novelli, for example, has launched the last two Championship Manager football games (4 and 5) for Eidos. The games were promoted by roping in Premiership managers Harry Redknapp and Sam Allardyce, while PN came up with a story on how the games' addictiveness had nudged up the divorce rate. PN consultant David Edwards says: 'You want great initial sales so the timing of your release of information to different media, with different lead times, is all-important.'

Attention grab
But without celebrities to turn to, gaming PROs have a tougher task. Fox laments: 'Film publicists would have direct access to stars. We usually have games developers who are not perceived to be as sexy media-wise.'

Celebrity backing and rare sexy games firms such as Rockstar aside, PROs find themselves launching viral campaigns, targeting bloggers or seeking to set up media competitions. As Cutlack acknowledges: 'Major releases will always get reviewed and get coverage. For the smaller releases PROs have to try harder, for example through competitions. Offering a widescreen TV and the game to a reader appears par for the course.'

Many gaming journalists are now in their early 30s, the generation who grew up with ZX Spectrum games before graduating to PlayStation and Nintendo in their teens. Lidia Stojanovic, head of comms at developer Ubisoft, says: 'As more of the gaming generation take up more senior roles in the mainstream media, gaming is likely to get ever greater coverage.'

Ubisoft is preparing to launch Prince of Persia 3 and King Kong. But Jonathan Beales, games correspondent at radio station TalkSport, warns: 'Publishers release so many products from September to November. They need to be consistent and keep new games coming all year.'

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