“If you disagree with me, you do so at your own peril,” wrote Trip Hawkins, president of the now defunct game publisher 3DO, in an irate e-mail to the editors of GamePro magazine in 2001. “....And do not patronize me by telling me the reader is the customer—your real customer is the one that pays you your revenue. And it is game industry advertisers.”
In a way, he's right. Advertising dollars from game publishers and hardware manufacturers pay for the production of the popular gaming magazines. But it's your interest in candid stories about those products that makes ad space valuable in the first place. And that's when marketing gets more subtle. It should be obvious to any reader that marketers control the content of their ads, but did you know they have a hand in almost every story a game magazine prints? This isn't some conspiracy to secretly sell you junk you don't want.
It's the natural consequence of an undeniable fact: The games press is almost entirely dependent on access to information, people, and products that only game publishers can provide. You want the latest details on a game that's still a year away from release? What you get, when you get it, and who you get it from are ultimately decisions made by that game's marketers.
Think of it as a giant information spigot. The folks with their hands on the valve—the ones who tell games journalists about upcoming games (or don't), set up interviews with the game's developers (or don't), and eventually send out early review copies of that game (or don't)—are the publicists, or in the insider lingo, PR reps (public relations representatives).
You've probably heard the term thrown around, but what, exactly, does a PR rep do? “I work to educate and inform the media about our new product offerings and services,” says Michael Wolf, the PR manager for Games for Windows (the initiative, not the magazine). “The job of the media, in turn, is to carry their opinions about what I’ve told them to the public. The ultimate goal being to get coverage through online outlets, print publications, broadcast media, podcasts, etc.”
Wolf's diplomatic description of PR represents the ideal relationship between game industry journalists and the products they cover. But more often publicists seek not just to drum up press coverage, but to deliver positive coverage, preferably framed by certain points the game's marketers have deemed important to get across to the public (Spore is about evolution. Crysis is pretty, etc.). In short, they try to influence what the game press tell their readers, and how they say it.
As a simple fact of life, game writers and editors work with publicists on a daily basis, gathering the stories that populate their publications. But does PR really influence coverage? Do publicists really affect what you read in gaming publications across the web and on the newsstands? The very existence of the profession would seem to imply so. The real question is: How and to what extent? To find out, we spoke to several current and former game industry publicists—though many representing top-tier publishers refused (or were not allowed) to be interviewed—about their methods.