NEW YORK: Rockstar Games, the creator of the highly anticipated video game Grand Theft Auto IV, used a highly controlled media outreach strategy to promote the game's launch last month, according to gaming industry insiders.
The Grand Theft Auto (GTA) series allow players to assume the persona of a morally flexible anti-hero. The series is beloved by gamers, but criticized by some parents groups and women's organizations, which decry the potential for violence and murder in the game. Rockstar, a subsidiary of Take-Two Interactive, has so far sold more than 70 million units of the series, according to the company.
The success of the series has allowed Rockstar to dictate terms to the media, said Jeff Green, editor-in-chief of online PC gaming magazine 1Up.com.
"They're in the enviable position of being, kind of like their name - rock stars... they can basically tell the press what to do, because everyone wants a piece of it," he said. "There are plenty of other game makers who are clamoring for the attention of the press... but Rockstar will basically tell you that this is how we're going to do it, and you're going to accept our rules or you don't get a piece of the story."
Variety conducted a pre-launch interview with Rockstar co-founder and VP Dan Houser, but gaining the access took an unusual amount of work, said Ben Fritz, video games reporter and reviews editor. The video-game creator is unusually tightlipped about the company's operations, generally only granting select access around the time of a major product launch, he added.
"Usually around a Grand Theft Auto release, they'll do a few key interviews, but it's only around a release, and only around the release of certain games. If it's not around the time of a release of a game, it's unusual to see them talk to the press a lot," Fritz said. "They do [publicity], but they do it less than any other [video game] company. Gamers know less about what is going to be in GTA IV, but it's very carefully controlled."
Rockstar Games PR manager Bruce Dugan declined to comment for this story.
With GTA IV and past major releases, Rockstar has been "very protective of information," added Libe Goad, editor-in-chief of AOL GameDaily.
"They're very protective of their baby, I'll give them that," she said. "They're not as freewheeling with the information as some other people are."
According to an ex-Rockstar marketing staffer who worked on previous GTA releases, the gaming company has built publicity campaigns featuring picture teasers and strategically placed art from the game to create buzz during launches of previous GTA games. The company reacted to post-launch controversy, including the 2005 "hot coffee" incident, where players could unlock a sexually suggestive mini-game, by showing journalists the larger experience of the game, the ex-employee said.
"Can you have sex with a hooker? Sure, but [Rockstar would ask journalists], 'Have you played the game, and do you appreciate the larger social satire?'" the former employee said.
Often, producers send copies of new video games to multiple publications under embargo, or invite reviewers to play the game at a centralized location. Rockstar granted gaming Web site IGN an exclusive review of the game, which angered reviewers at other gaming sites. IGN gave the game a 10.
Some called into question the practice of granting exclusives to one publication, saying that it gives the manufacturer undue influence over the score.
Fritz, who noted the game is "very good," wrote a blog post about it and the practice, titled, "Exclusive reviews are ethically troubling."
"It's essentially a big favor from the company behind the game, which makes the review seem sort of shady," he told PRWeek.
The PR firm that represents IGN, Edelman, said executives from the gaming Web site were not available for comment.