Video games chase mainstream coverage

With lifelike images and a growing audience, PR must adapt to keep up with this evolving market

The release of Grand Theft Auto (GTA) IV two weeks ago pushed video games another step closer to acceptance by the entertainment art world, complete with soundtracks, lifelike quality, and a wider, more mainstream audience. As the public looks at video games differently, the PR behind such games is evolving.

The critics, from gaming Web sites to The New York Times, piled on praise - or concern - for GTA IV's artistic portrayal of the pseudo New York City, aka Liberty City, that includes details down to the bathrooms at Brighton Beach, comparing it to The Sopranos, as well as films by Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese. New York's Vulture entertainment blog went a step further, writing, "Before too long, we'll be reading reviews of novels and TV shows and films that say they aspire to the sandbox creativity, the liberating amorality, and the ground-breaking, open-endedness of Grand Theft Auto IV."

GTA isn't the first video game to be compared to more mainstream art. Microsoft's Halo 3 solidified video games as a new form of entertainment art when released in 2007, while the industry debated whether Take-Two's Bioshock could be called the Citizen Kane of video games.

"With today's powerful consoles, we're at the point where it's hard to distinguish video games from live action," says Pete Pedersen, EVP of Edelman, AOR for Microsoft's Xbox console, via e-mail. "Scenery is detailed, motion is fluid, and characters are incredibly lifelike. [This] has also allowed PR [pros] to tell deeper, richer stories. Campaigns today are layered and complex, and must address many different stakeholders. For any given release, enthusiasts want trailers, Wall Street wants to know how many units, and People magazine wants to know if celebrities are playing."

David Hufford, senior director of global PR for Microsoft Interactive Entertainment Business, says his team noticed a significant increase in the number of news outlets covering video games.

"The biggest change is the number of mainstream media outlets regularly covering the industry," he says, via e-mail. "We're working with a cross-section of media that spans ESPN, Ellen, The New Yorker, Perez Hilton, USA Today, and Univision. The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and MTV now have journalists covering the beat full time."

The time frame for a game's launch is also changing, complete with "opening weekends," longer lead times, and campaigns that extend past the official launch date. "Launch dates have gotten bigger, and that's taken a page directly from movies," says Tyrone Miller, senior PR manager for EA, the company behind lifelike sports games such as Madden NFL.

Melody Ann Pfeiffer, senior PR manager for Capcom, which produces the Resident Evil series that later spawned a movie, says video game companies are taking the games on tour prior to launch. "You've got to start early with the consumer guys," she says, via e-mail. "You want them on your side right off the bat, so they are more likely to write about [the games] when they launch."

Eric Wein, senior manager of PR for Disney Interactive Studios, which produces film-based games such as Cars, adds, "To have coverage... two months after the release shows how the campaign can continue to build."

In addition to being taken more seriously as art, video games are offering parent company's strong revenues and new partnership possibilities.

In its first week, GTA IV sales totaled more than $400 million, according to Variety, compared to the superhero movie Iron Man's $100 million opening weekend. Music-based video game Rock Band, which was released during the 2007 holiday season, helped parent company Viacom post a 15% increase in revenue during the first quarter. GTA IV also includes a soundtrack of more than 200 songs, which users can purchase through the game's partnership with Amazon.

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