With E3 looming, video-game makers are competing for space in both specialist and mainstream consumer press. David Ward highlights some handy cheats
In an indication of just how mainstream video games have become, Sony's recent launch of its PlayStation Portable (PSP) handheld game player was a fully fledged entertainment event, complete with celebrities, parties on both coasts, and enough media attention to rival a blockbuster film.
But the PSP hype could just be the appetizer for what should be a game marketing/PR feast over the next 18 months as all three console companies - Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo - unveil their next-generation home-game machines.
Microsoft has already set the bar high by announcing it will unveil the Xbox 360 during an hour-long MTV special that will air worldwide on Thursday, May 12. Sony and Nintendo are expected to follow with announcements on their new consoles the following week at the annual Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) in Los Angeles.
Microsoft's direct-to-consumer approach notwithstanding, it's the media that will play a key role in whetting the public appetite for not only the latest hardware, but also all new games that can be played on them.
But what will make the coming year so interesting is how many general-interest news outlets will be competing with the game-enthusiast press for exclusives and interviews with top developers and executives.
"The mainstream press wants to cover video games because they read the same stats we do in terms of comparing games to the box office," says Dan Harnett, co-CEO of New York's HighWater Group. "They know that games are now an entertainment choice for everyday consumers."
While all this mass-market attention is welcome, Reilly Brennan, director of media relations for Midway Games, says it does present some new challenges, especially given that games can still be a somewhat controversial topic.
"Newspapers now all have their game guy," Brennan says. "But part of the problem is when a game like Grand Theft Auto or our own NARC sparks a bigger story, it's usually not the game reporter who ends up writing it. It's usually some news staffer who's brought in from a different beat, and oftentimes they aren't even technology writers."
Chris Olmstead, senior media executive with GolinHarris, which has had Nintendo as a client for 13-plus years, adds that at many general news outlets, video games compete for space with other home-entertainment items, such as CDs and DVDs. That's why he says it's a mistake to put too much focus on general-interest coverage at the expense of the enthusiast press.
"Consumer game coverage doesn't have the depth of the enthusiast press and is probably geared to more casual gamers," Olmstead explains. "Enthusiast magazines and sites go into great detail about all the elements that make a great game. They cover games through the development life cycle - news, previews, reviews, hints, and feature stories."
In the past, the gaming press meant almost exclusively dedicated magazines, such as GamePro. But Brennan says that the hard-core game fan is looking increasingly to the internet to get the latest news of titles.
"Magazines are always going to be important because you can never get a cover on a website," he says. "But the trend is moving toward online, in part because the internet is such a great forum for video games. You can do video; you can do screen shots; you can do message boards; you can have a community of fans [where they can] debate."
The large number of websites covering games, however, means you must be more diligent in qualifying sites to review games and for executive interviews. "A good start in determining who to work with and how that coverage translates into value for our clients is whether or not the site is included in Game Rankings, Metacritic, GameSpot Trax, or IGN's GamerMetrics," says Sean Kauppinen, account director with San Francisco-based Kohnke Communications. All these sites and services amalgamate coverage from a number of the top 550 or so websites.
Kauppinen says he'll also take time to personally visit new gaming websites. "I never send products to sites that are 'coming soon' or are based off a college alumni site," he says. "The risk isn't worth it with so many established, credible outlets around."
While video games have become a year-round business, the biggest time of year for PR pros remains May in the weeks before, during, and after E3.
"E3 is still a rich vein to mine for PR folks because all the press is focused on the confab, and it's really the time on the calendar to talk about games," says Peter Pedersen, SVP and deputy GM of Edelman's Seattle office, which handles media relations for Microsoft Xbox.
But the three-day show is so packed with media events that many game publishers reach out to the press weeks before. "Most companies do a pre-E3 event, and NDAs have become the norm in order to ensure everything hits at the right time," says Kauppinen.
Olmstead adds that PR pros should use shows like E3 for far more than simply touting products. "It's a chance to gather competitive intelligence, enhance relationships with key media contacts, and get a better perspective on how games are viewed as an entertainment choice with consumer media that perhaps don't cover our industry regularly," he says.
At a show where excess is almost the norm, PR pros also need more than an exhibit booth tricked out with flashing lights and loud music to get noticed. "When I worked for [PlayStation emulator] Bleem, we decided that keeping our booth closed behind curtains for the first day was a great idea to build excitement for our Bleemcast unveiling," Kauppinen says. "We had all of the top-tier media in first. We ended up with a line a couple of hundred people deep."
Do work with internet news and fan sites, which are increasingly where hard-core game players look for information on the latest titles and systems
Do send out review copies of games, even to trend- and feature-story writers. It's important for reporters to have a good feel for the product to understand where the industry is heading
Do leverage the growing number of sports and entertainment celebrities who are game fans to gain attention from the general-interest entertainment press
Don't rely on E3 for the bulk of media relations. It's a key show, but there's a lot of noise there, so reach out to reporters during other times of the year
Don't only target young males. Today's average game player is in his late 20s, and there are plenty of older players. Leverage the demographics to pitch outlets aimed at a broad age range
Don't focus just on the future. The press will increasingly look at upcoming consoles, but note that fans want news about machines presently in their homes