TECHNOLOGY FEATURE: Playtime is over

Games consoles have grown up, or so their PR teams would have us believe. Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and Wii are all reaching out beyond young male gamers to a potentially vast mainstream audience. Adam Hill meets the teams of the ‘Big Three'.

Xbox 360: launched December 2005
Xbox 360: launched December 2005

The PR war between Microsoft’s Xbox 360, Nintendo’s Wii and Sony’s PlayStation 3 (PS3) could be summed up like this: two games consoles versus an entertainment portal. But all three comms teams have a common theme – they are all positioning their own console as a device offering mainstream entertainment rather than just video gaming.

This makes sense, because a gaming audience made up mainly of young men has limited potential for growth. Tap into the hearts, minds and wallets of ‘non-traditional’ audiences, however, and the revenue opportunities ­increase dramatically.

But games are still important. After development costs have been accounted for, the margin on hardware is slim, but the potential profit from games is much larger. As well as playing games, many users now expect to be able to download music and movies.

Xbox was launched in December 2005, followed by Wii a year later and PS3 in March 2007.

According to Chart-Track, which monitors sales of hardware in the gaming sector, Wii is the fastest-selling home console in the UK, shifting one million units in the 38 weeks after launch – 11 weeks faster than PlayStation 2 (the predecessor of PS3) and 22 weeks quicker than Xbox.

Perhaps the biggest recent trend in gaming is that it is no longer perceived as, and no longer promoted as, a solitary activity. Xbox has played on the interactive dimension of Xbox LIVE, an online community of seven million gamers worldwide, while PS3’s upcoming SingStar game has a karaoke feel to it. Wii Fit, a collection of fitness activities that can measure a user’s body mass index and sense of balance, has been designed to ‘spark conversations’ among players.

Here, over the next few pages, PRWeek introduces the agency teams behind the consoles.

Sony PlayStation 3

Launched: March 2007

Key features: Blu-Ray DVD player, internet browser, multi-player gaming

Key games: Heavenly Sword, Little Big Planet, SingStar

Contacts...

In-house: David Wilson, head of UK PR, Sony Computer Entertainment Europe

Agency: Rana Reeves, creative director, Shine

PS3 is the third incarnation of Sony’s iconic PlayStation brand. While the gaming media remain a target audience for PS3, the PR team’s programme made a conscious link with the previously untapped areas of literature, design and the arts through associations with highbrow institutions, including the English National Opera and Gateshead’s Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art.

The idea was to change perceptions of PlayStation and gaming in general among people who might not think of the brand as artistic or cultured. ‘The subtext was: “we’re part of the cultural and entertainment landscape”,’ explains David Wilson, head of UK PR for Sony Computer Entertainment Europe. ‘The PlayStation proposition needs changing.’

As well as this new focus on the arts, games such as SingStar – a sophisticated karaoke-type product that lets singers know whether they are off-key – are expected to widen the PS3’s appeal beyond the traditional audience of young, male videogamers.

Additional gaming content is available through the web browser on the PlayStation network, and Sony plans to promote the upcoming Little Big Planet game as a crossover into the ubiquitous social-networking sphere. ‘Content will be a key driver,’ explains Wilson.

The PR battle, in the run-up to Christmas and beyond, will be won by ‘whoever can educate the consumer and bring out the right content’, says Rana Reeves, creative director at PS3’s agency Shine. ‘The technology is only as good as what is on it. An iPod is meaningless unless you can download music.’

Campaign timeline -

November 2006 3 Rooms project set up in Truman Brewery building, east London. Used for product demos with journalists and cultural events based around art, design, fashion and music. Partners for these events included BBC Radio 1xtra and magazines Dazed and Confused and Super Super.

November 2006 – March 2007 PlayStation Season. Five well-known cultural institutions were approached to partner with PS3. Sadler’s Wells hosted a weekend event called Sampled, showcasing different types of dance. The Baltic created an animated artwork, the V&A produced a light sculpture entitled Volume, the English National Opera offered an interactive website, Inside Out, which offered a behind-the-scenes view of the London Coliseum, and the British Film Institute hosted the Optronica festival.

What happens next?
PS3’s comms programme will focus on content and consumer awareness. ‘The £425 price tag needs to be justified,’ says Wilson. ‘It is high cost, high entry level. The brand remit is to go much broader.’ Sony is promoting PS3 as ‘future proofed’, with inclusions such as Blu-Ray. A digital TV tuner and a hard drive to record TV programmes, are expected next year.

Microsoft Xbox 360

Launched: December 2005

Key features: Xbox LIVE online gaming network, ability to download HD TV shows and movies, 120GB hard drive

Key games: Halo 3, BioShock, Project Gotham Racing 4, Forza Motorsport 2, Grand Theft Auto 4 (March 2008)

Contacts...

In-house: Paul Fox, head of PR and events, Xbox and Microsoft home and entertainment division, EMEA

Agency: Dave Bennett, senior vice president, JCPR Edelman

Promoted as the ‘lounge entertainment hub’, Xbox is aimed at: ‘ages seven to early 40s and beyond’. The product is competing for market share in a wider consumer space than merely games, says Xbox European PR boss Paul Fox. ‘It is not just the Wii and PS3, but also the latest pair of Nike shoes and the iPod.’

However, the main challenge facing PROs is that the Xbox will be two years old this Christmas, so there is limited scope for ‘new technology’ stories. The comms programme will therefore need to concentrate on games.

‘Games are a key driver in people making choices between consoles,’ argues Fox. ‘The big driver in this market is exclusive game content.’

To get a handle on how the Xbox team plans to launch its big hope for Christmas, Halo 3, don’t think videogame – think blockbuster movie along the lines of the Harry Potter or Spider-Man franchises. ‘We want to take it away from gaming reference points and position it within popular culture,’ he adds.

User-generated content is increasingly important. For a £39 annual subscription it is possible to become one of the seven million members of the Xbox LIVE community. ‘Online gaming is critical throughout the consumer base,’ says Fox. ‘We will communicate a clear gaming message to the core market, which has a limited interest in the non-gaming aspects of the console.’
Campaign timeline -

February 2007 Xbox Big Day Out, a four-day freestyle ski and snowboard competition in French resort Val d’Isere, with performances from DJs including Scratch Perverts and Fabio & Grooverider. Part of this included an online competition in which Xbox LIVE members were able to download games trailers, compose musical scores for them, and post them back on Xbox.com. Those judged to be the best will be included on a CD to be released later this year. ‘The proposition was that gaming is powerful enough to inspire people in the same way as a book, film or piece of music can,’ says Fox.

July 2007 Halo 3 launch. Mainstream, as opposed to gaming, media were taken to Amsterdam for a junket that included a Laser Quest battle in a deserted prison on an island off the Dutch coast.

September 2007 Halo 3 premiere in London, Paris, Munich, Stockholm and Milan, using the film-premiere model, with red carpet and celebrities in selected locations playing the game against each other in a bid to generate tabloid coverage.

What happens next?
There will be ‘community’ events, such as flashmobbing activity, and programmes based around users building their own content. ‘There will be competitions and outreach around that,’ adds Fox.

Nintendo Wii

Launched: December 2006

Key features: Touch-screen and motion sensitive controllers, internet browser, live weather and news forecasts and ability to download classic games

Key games: Wii Sports, The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, Wario Ware: Smooth Moves, Big Brain Academy, Metroid Prime 3: Corruption (out on 26 October), Super Mario Galaxy (16 November), and Wii Fit (2008)

Contacts...

In-house: Rob Saunders, Nintendo UK PR manager

Agency: Davnet Doran, account director, Cake Nintendo UK; Michele Newberry, account director, Cake Nintendo Europe (the account has just been taken over by The Red Consultancy).

Nintendo’s Wii has been designed to be as accessible as possible to people who have never played a video game, and attract a ‘five to 95 years old’ age group. Nintendo’s strategy centres around positioning Wii as a hobby, akin to listening to music, reading books, and sports – and remove the stereotype of gaming as a frivolous solitary activity associated with young men.

The PR team has worked to differentiate Wii from more traditional consoles to attract media outlets with previously little or no interest in games, presenting the brand as being less focused on shoot ’em up, racing and adventure games, and more about fun. In addition to Nintendo’s existing games franchises such as Mario, Zelda and Donkey Kong, there are games aimed at a broader demographic, including Wii Sports, Wii Fit and Brain Training.

Price has been a key factor: at around £179, Wii is less than half the price of the £425 PS3, with Xbox in the middle. Nintendo chose not to feature DVD playback on Wii, reasoning that most households already own a DVD player.

Campaign timeline -

May 2005 Wii shown at the annual gaming industry trade show Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) for the first time, with European media taken to the Los Angeles event.

April 2006 Brand name changed from Revolution to Wii.

May 2006 Wii playable at E3 for the first time, with European media taken to the event and given product demos.

July 2006 Wii Play Together programme, a pan-European tour of Wii software and branded set.

15 Sep2006 Pan-European announcement of launch date, price and game line-up. Cake event at ExCel, hosted by Gabby Logan, with Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski demonstrating tennis on Wii Sports.

November 2006 Wii House opens – a ‘home’ environment featuring 11 Wii units available for media to try, review and film.

8 December 2006 Midnight store opening featuring Ian Wright, Pat Cash, Ricky Hatton and Nell McAndrew.

What happens next?
For a start, The Red Consultancy is taking over comms. Cake says the Wii is not fully established yet so there is still brand building to be done, but essentially the second year will be about positioning Wii as the choice for gamers and non-gamers alike. No new hardware will be launched for several years, emphasising that software will be crucial to sustaining coverage.

Coverage in ‘non-traditional’ media and strategic partnerships and endorsements will also be key.

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