MARKET FOCUS VIDEO GAMES: No longer just a game - Newfound levelsof acceptance have transformed video game PR

Last fall, when Microsoft introduced the Xbox to compete with Sony's PlayStation2 and the Nintendo GameCube in the home video game market, it was a major technology story. But it may have also been one of the biggest entertainment stories of 2001.

Last fall, when Microsoft introduced the Xbox to compete with Sony's PlayStation2 and the Nintendo GameCube in the home video game market, it was a major technology story. But it may have also been one of the biggest entertainment stories of 2001.

In less than a decade, video games have gone from being blamed for corrupting young minds with excessively violent images, to an accepted form of family entertainment, and are now critiqued and reviewed in mainstream media alongside movies, music, TV, and books. But because of this relatively short history, those in the industry have an almost charming insecurity about video games' role as an art and entertainment medium, especially when compared to the film industry.

Both PR professionals and industry executives point with pride to how video games have surpassed annual movie theater box office revenues, conveniently ignoring the fact that more Americans now rent or purchase movies to view at home. Indeed, the mantra, "It's become more like the movie business,

is oft repeated by video game executives as proof that the industry has really matured.

But ironically, as video games aspire to Hollywood levels of visibility and acceptance, other industries are desperately trying to emulate Nintendo, Sega, Sony, and Microsoft. "Doing PR for games used to be its own niche,

notes Kris Ellenberg, SVP and creative director at MS&L's Los Angeles office. "Now we have a lot of traditional packaged-goods clients that want to introduce their products the way that video games are marketed.

It used to be that clients wanted their products marketed like movies."

Bonnie Goodman, GM of the Los Angeles office of Hill & Knowlton, believes PR firms can use the right video game client as the foundation for a youth marketing practice. Goodman, whose office handles arguably the sector's best brand - Sony's PlayStation - also says game companies end up being prestige clients because they can be a lot of fun. "Folks like to embrace something that has some sizzle,

she says.

It wasn't always this way. Veteran PR executives point to the early 1990s, when calls to general-interest media were met by either confusion or derision.

"I remember saying I'm calling them on behalf of Sega, and they wouldn't know what that was,

says Ellenberg. "I used to fight with the editors at Entertainment Weekly to get them to cover games. Now all that's changed, and not only do they review games, but they go beyond, into behind-the-scenes pieces and character profiles."

According to Dan Harnett, co-CEO of New York-based Highwater Group, much of the mainstream and business media's acceptance of video games can be linked to the arrival of Sony and Microsoft. "Microsoft and Sony, along with Nintendo, have a cache that helped change people's thinking about video games,

he says. "In the past, a lot of people didn't know where to place a video game stock, and so these stocks got impacted by everything from Motorola's earnings to Disney's. Now people understand, and video games are more easily accepted in the home entertainment aspect."

Goodman, whose game experience goes back to the mid-1980s, when H&K helped Nintendo launch the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), says the arrival of Sony and Microsoft has triggered a change in basic video game PR. "It has become much more accepted, so a lot more of our work is in maximizing the mainstream nature of the beast,

she says. "We're now going after an audience that believes in the business, and that video games are a wonderful tool for socializing or entertainment."

One in three American homes now has either a PlayStation or Play-Station2, and Goodman says part of the agency's role is to maintain the momentum of such a household brand. "It's the issue of how you keep the flame alive and the excitement going,

she says.

The internet factor

Only a few years ago, enthusiast magazines such as Next Generation, Incite, GameFan, and Electronic Gaming Monthly dominated video game journalism.

But their impact has been lessened by, among other factors, the growth of the web. "During the last six years, the internet has made it more difficult for them to be timely,

explains George Harrison, Nintendo of America SVP for marketing and corporate communications. "News breaks very quickly online, whether it's game tips, or codes or cheats, and that has made it more difficult for the magazines to be as unique."

Lynne Hentemann, MD with H&K's Los Angeles office, says the gaming magazines remain important, but adds, "What we've seen is a real need to segment markets. As the market expands, it has created a lot of niche audiences."

That sentiment is echoed by Peter Dille, marketing director for game publisher THQ. "There are an awful lot of people who play games but who don't subscribe to gaming magazines and instead end up being influenced by Maxim or Access Hollywood."

After years of handling PR either in-house or with smaller agencies, THQ recently took on Fleishman-Hillard for its top-level corporate PR counseling. "It's really a reflection of our recent growth and our anticipation of more of the same,

Dille says in explaining the move. "THQ has historically been a prudent company, but we now want to make sure we're beating our chest as much as we can."

THQ and other publicly traded game companies such as Electronic Arts, Activision, Take-Two, and Acclaim are increasingly finding themselves the focus of Wall Street analysts and the business press. "The real change is that PR is giving more time and attention to the media that has traditionally slighted or ignored this market segment,

says Bill Linn, president of San Francisco-based Linn PR, which represents Take-Two and other game companies. "As our industry has matured, the number of analysts covering it has gone up, and that caused daily newspapers to increase their coverage.

The LA Times now regularly covers a local company like THQ in the same way the Chicago Tribune follows Midway."

While interest in video games may be higher than ever, Linn points out that press coverage of the industry is cyclical. "There have been a number of other times in the past when the industry becomes a bit of a darling, and then some new thing comes along,

he notes. "At the peak of the dot-com boom, we couldn't get anybody to return our calls outside of the hard-core gaming press."

Still a male-dominated audience

One of the arguments against video games joining music, movies, TV and books as one of the mainstays of modern home leisure is that gaming, for the most part, remains a male activity. While a recent survey by the Interactive Digital Software Association found that 43% of women have played some type of video game, their level of interest and commitment to spending money on games is questionable.

Access Communications VP Jennifer Walker Simonsen has worked with Sega of America for the last six years, and has been part of several efforts to pitch girl gamers as a story. "It's an interesting pitch angle, and you can get media to latch on to it,

she says. "But if you look at who buys games, it's definitely 12- to 24-year-old males."

But within that core audience, there are sub-segments that require different approaches. "You've got licensed games for toddlers, or action games for teens, or games with mature themes that are definitely for adults,

explains MS&L's Ellenberg. "So for PR, it's really opened up not just the way we can promote a particular game, but also who we're promoting it with and where we're promoting it."

Walker Simonsen says her client, Sega, has been working more with partners such as MTV, largely because games are now such an integral part of youth culture. "A number of their shows are now featuring games,

she says.

"It's become a big lifestyle trend."

"One of the important things about having a video game client is that they are a part of pop culture,

adds Ellenberg, "and that connects us with so many other relevant areas of entertainment, sports, and technology."

But the final catalyst for change in video game PR is that after nearly 20 years, agencies are starting to understand more about what does and doesn't appeal to the gaming audience. Traditionally, this has been a hype-driven business, with firms staging events that feature consumers diving into mashed potatoes or eating pet food for the chance to win a game console.

Some companies still do those kinds of events, and a few still host lavish multimillion dollar parties for thousands of guests at the Electronic Entertainment Expo convention in Los Angeles each spring. But Walker Simonsen notes, "Everyone these days is really trying to work smarter and think about ROI."

Fleishman SVP Jamie Ludowitz adds, "The industry as a whole is going back to more brass-tacks media relations, really taking care of game reviewers on the product side, and focusing on a more corporate, strategic program.

Many have realized that glitz and glamour at huge cost aren't necessary to tell a story."

GIVING THE BRAND A PERSONALITY (HUMAN OR COMPUTER-GENERATED)

While video games can compete with music, television, and movies on a financial level, what has occasionally hampered PR efforts on the industry's behalf has been a lack of star power.

Part of this is simply because the creative process for games is so different from other entertainment media. The music industry can trot out a Britney Spears, and movies and television have stars such as Josh Hartnett and Sarah Jessica Parker. But until recently, video games were left with either "character profiles

of Super Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog, or interviews with overly caffeinated and largely anonymous software developers waxing on about coding breakthroughs.

But one sure sign of the maturation of the industry is that it now has a high-profile, not-so-secret public relations weapon - Microsoft chairman Bill Gates.

From keynote speeches at major conventions around the world, to a high-profile appearance in New York's Times Square last November to personally sell the first Xbox, Gates has leveraged his considerable media appeal on behalf of his company's game console.

"Mr. Gates has been incredibly supportive, and that's indicative of the fact that Microsoft understands that this is an important category," says Bob Finlayson, executive vice president at Edelman Worldwide. "For example, he met with the editors of the men's publications to talk about Xbox, and that's the first time that's ever really happened.

But on the horizon, there should be other potential spokespersons for the industry who lack Gates' stature in the business community, but make up for it with a heavy dose of sex appeal. PR agency B/W/R has begun work with game publisher Eidos Interactive to turn Lara Croft, the gun-toting heroine of the Tomb Raider game series, into a celebrity in her own right.

"We're going to give Lara Croft a personality,

explains Henry Eshelman of B/W/R. "We want people to be able to talk to her. She will be, for all intents and purposes, human.

Eshelman stresses that this Lara will be completely different from the movie Lara Croft, who was played by Angelina Jolie.

The virtual celebrity Lara, which Eshelman describes as being similar to Max Headroom, the computer-generated TV personality of the 1980s, will be the focal point of an eight-month campaign to drive awareness for the next Tomb Raider game release this Christmas.

"We plan to make Lara Croft such a sufficiently developed character," Eshelman claims, "that she can go on TV and give interviews, make appearances at trade show events ... or be a presenter at an awards show."

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