Promoting video games takes more than a handful of gaming enthusiasts. Increasingly, PR firms are drawing expertise from a wide range of practices for the task.
Some seven years ago, Dean Bender, cofounder of Bender/Helper Impact (BHI), was on an airplane reading The Wall Street Journal when he noticed something that indicated a major shift was occurring in the video game market. He saw a group of young kids between the ages of 11 and 14 reading gaming publications. It was then that Bender realized video games had gone from being a niche-market item to a general consumer product.
Bender knew that BHI, a PR and marketing communications firm that specializes in video game promotions, would have to change its approach because younger consumers were basing their purchase decisions on the company's PR efforts in those publications.
"It was no longer about solely targeting the 18- to 34-year-old gamers," Bender explains. "We had to think about speaking to influencers within households. We also needed to speak to parents who were in the store with their child and trying to decide whether to spend their money on a regular toy or a video game."
Bender says this led to the idea of tapping into the expertise of more than just video game PR specialists to create promotions and communications programs, a trend occurring more often within PR firms.
"Having 12 gamers on my team makes things too one-dimensional," Bender says. "We needed people who understood the video game market and those who knew the general consumer market."
Now, when putting together a PR team, Bender says he requires it be made up of people with knowledge of the consumer product, consumer electronics, and entertainment markets. "We saw the transition the market was making, and it made complete sense to start doing it."
Bender says, depending on the title, video game releases now mirror movie premieres. This was the case for the release of Vivendi Universal Games' 50 Cent: Bulletproof last holiday season.
Bender says his team treated the property "not so much as a game, but more as an artist tracking his life in a video game." The 12-person team was made up of entertainment and gaming specialists. The entertainment team targeted TV stations and shows, and rap and lifestyle magazines, while the gaming team focused on video game enthusiast publications.
The entertainment team treated 50 Cent's character like a personality. "The TV stations we targeted wouldn't just review or discuss a video game, so we had to find a way to get the game showcased in some fashion," Bender says. The upcoming release of 50 Cent's movie, Get Rich or Die Tryin', and album helped BHI get coverage.
"We asked them to do two-day and weeklong profiles on 50 and include the game as part of it," Bender says. "Some of those profiles showed clips of the game and included some in-person and phone interviews with 50."
That team also targeted lifestyle publications, such as Playboy, Maxim, Vibe, and Rolling Stone.
The gaming team met with a select group of enthusiast publication and online editors at E3, the Electronic Entertainment Expo, and provided them with sneak previews of the game. After E3, the team widened its reach and began showing artwork and different levels of play to more editors.
Bulletproof got coverage in nearly 150 media outlets, including The Howard Stern Show, MTV, Today, The Washington Post, and The New York Times. To date, the game has sold more than 1 million copies in the US and England.
Laura Tomasetti, managing partner of Boston-based 360 Public Relations, says she also utilizes the different resources within her firm for video game promotions.
"Aside from gamers, we'll use online media directors and business media directors," Tomasetti says. "We obviously want consumer coverage, but we also want to make sure there is a certain level of business coverage that reaches investors and retailers."
Tomasetti, whose agency will be working with Turbine to promote the release of the online versions of The Lord of the Rings and Dungeons & Dragons, says the agency's online editor will also coordinate podcasts with the game's creators.
Sean Kauppinen, an account director at game specialist Kohnke Communications, says to promote the future release of Flagship Studios' Hellgate: London, it tapped the expertise of boutique agencies throughout the world. "Everyone in the world gets information on games at the same time now," Kauppinen says. "So if you don't target everyone directly, they'll feel neglected."
Kohnke worked with agencies from Germany, England, Spain, France, and Italy to coordinate a massive PR push. Kauppinen says gentleman's agreements were reached with some of the top publications in each country that Hellgate would be the cover story in their May 2005 issues.
"We got cover stories in 15 different publications, along with four- to five-page features inside of each," he says. "That helped bring a lot of buzz for the game into E3."
A release date has yet to be set for Hellgate. But that hasn't stopped gaming publications from writing about it. "We still average about a cover a month," Kauppinen says. "In the meantime, the developers are doing interviews and releasing screen shots every so often to maintain that buzz." The game has gotten coverage on MTV, Yahoo Games and AOL.
Bender gets his diversity of expertise in-house, and brainstorms for video game promotions now include everyone in BHI's office. "Bringing in people from all the divisions elevates the level of creativity," he says. "Those that are outside that world bring in a level of objectivity and innocence that can be very beneficial."
How big is the market?
Retail sales of video games, including console and portable hardware, software and accessories, reached more than $10.5 billion in 2005 - a 6% increase over the previous year, according to the NPD Group. Last year's total also surpassed the industry's previous one-year record of $10.3 billion set in 2002.
For the second year in a row, sales of portable software titles broke $1 billion, generating $1.4 billion in the US. Of the top 100, 13 were movie titles. Portable game hardware, software, and accessory categories saw respective dollar increases of 96%, 42%, and 88% over 2004.
Consoles did not fare as well. NPD attributes this to delays in the release of software titles and consumer anticipation of next-generation hardware. In 2005, console hardware, software, and accessories saw respective dollar sales declines of 3%, 12%, and 8% versus 2004.