[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
The Power of Positive
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."
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.
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?