[Talking to game PR professionals at Electronic Arts, Telltale, and Destineer, Gamasutra looks at how carefully released information builds interest in today's games, exploring the tricky job of post-Internet public relations.]
Magical thinking is a common phenomenon in the world of video games. Treasure chests appear at dead ends, miraculously holding an item that allows the player to get out of a dungeon. Non-playable characters are trapped in looping animations until asked for their stories. Rocket launchers are lovingly placed right before the boss encounter. To the average fan, this is just good game design.
In the real world, magical thinking is an indicator of mental illness. Of all the things that could explain how and why something has happened, our individual existence is usually among the least relevant. We are beside the point.
The practice of public relations for video games is an extension of the art of game design. Using abstract language and insinuation, PR sells audiences on the existence of a world hand-crafted to respond to their interactive needs.
Gamers are always eager to discover the secret megaton waiting to be unleashed at an E3 press conference, or leaked to YouTube by some European enthusiasts. Gamers may be quick to forget about today's games, but they are always ready to fan the flames of excitement about what might be coming tomorrow.
What follows is a survey of how PR is contributing to the current landscape of game development. How can the power of PR be used to successfully sell a game? What happens when PR sells a game that's different from the one developers were intending to make? What happens when the secrets turn into giant anticlimaxes? How is the advent of downloadable content and the notion of the evergreen title changing game promotion?
Before a publisher can sell something, they first have to define what it is they're selling. "The most important thing to consider when planning a PR campaign is the game itself," says Tammy Schachter, senior director of PR for EA's Games Label. "Long before the game is even playable, we work together to find the language that properly communicates the features of the game and build a timeline that maps to their development schedule."
Establishing a schedule to release information at a pace that gradually builds anticipation until the climactic release date is crucial to this process. "We want to get a very high awareness and purchase intent on our games for the ship day," says Jerome Benzadon, global media relations manager at THQ. "To achieve that you have different strategies but of course you have to think about when to communicate what on the game, where and how."
With an established identity for a game internally, publishers can focus on specific demographics to which the game will most strongly appeal, and then create a message that caters to them. "For a game like Wallace & Gromit's Grand Adventures, we need to reach out to the fans of the Aardman films in a different way than we would reach out to hardcore Xbox gamers," says Emily Morganti, former PR director for Telltale Games. "Since Telltale does episodic releases, we have to commit to spending the next six months or so communicating with those groups on a regular monthly basis."
Creating appropriate messaging to target different groups is a matter of subtlety. During the launch of the original Gears of War, Microsoft hired David Fincher to cut a moody television commercial set to Gary Jules' atmospheric cover of "Mad World", which originally appeared on the Donnie Darko soundtrack.
In contrast to the trailers released directly to enthusiast gaming sites, which emphasized combat intensity, Microsoft wooed mainstream gamers with apocalyptic mood and the simple strength of Gear's distinctive art style. It also associated the apocalyptic fantasy with the emotionally wrought overtones of Richard Kelly's cult classic film, creating a sense of implicit credibility.
Nintendo also used a Hollywood crossover and ambient suggestion during the launch of its Wii console in 2006. Traffic scribe Stephen Gaghan was hired to direct a series of pithy spots that played on Nintendo's identity as a Japanese company. Two Japanese businessmen were shown driving around the country in a smart car giving hands-on demos of Wii Sports.
Gameplay footage appeared in brief glimpses and was de-emphasized in favor of reaction shots and warm pastels that sold the console as an inviting social encounter with something modern and vaguely Asian. This was a clever nod to the stereotyped xenophobia that many mainstream consumers held against the very foreign world of video games.
In the case of House of the Dead: Overkill, Sega relied heavily on an association between their light gun shooter and the Tarantino-Rodriguez mash-up Grindhouse. All the game's trailers and commercials were intercut with video footage mimicking the '70s exploitation horror of that film to contextualize the otherwise familiar gameplay scenarios of zombies lumbering towards the player. While the core gameplay was traditional and easily recognizable, Sega went out of its way to brand the game with a cultural association what was timely and fashionable.
House of the Dead: Overkill may have had distinctive and entertaining trailers, but it still sold poorly at launch and was quickly discounted at retail. The game was reviewed well across the board, and was released in February on a platform with little direct competition for violent shooters. So what happened?