Game Promo Follows Hollywood Script

LOS ANGELES Let’s face it, game publishers have the hots for Hollywood. While licensing movies to turn into games may not be as popular as it once was, it’s considered strategically appropriate to market a “triple-A game” the same way that producers publicize their big films.

Take BioShock, for instance. The just-released game for PC and Xbox 360 from 2K Games, which some critics have said is likely to be the best game of 2007, was deemed by its marketers to require special attention. In their estimation, that meant treating it like a Hollywood blockbuster.

“The game was so good we knew how much it would benefit from word-of-mouth,” explained Tom Bass, 2K’s director of marketing. “We needed to get that big first day so gamers would tell their friends about it and it would work exponentially in our favor from thereon in.”

Bass’ plan was to create a solution that would parallel the event marketing that frequently occurs in the movie industry.

“It’s not uncommon for our industry to borrow a lot from movie marketing; we do many nods to that industry,” he said. “Here we decided to start the program two years prior to the release date, then build the hard-core fan base, and then fan out to the mass market with everything leading up to that one big launch day.”

Additionally, there was the need to stimulate “pre-sells,” jargon for fans who plunk down cash in advance in order to reserve a copy of the game. Retailers typically look at pre-sell numbers to determine whether to adjust their orders upwards or downwards.

Rather than label BioShock as “the next big thing,” Bass decided to create a Web site into which he could release assets to show—not tell—how good the game would be.

“We created as an offshoot of the main Web site, a community site called The Cult of Rapture, named after the city in the game, that we updated every single day,” Bass said. “We started feeding information out to the gamers, the kind of information we normally reserve just for the press—details on the game, release dates, videos and other content that would foster discussion. Instead of making these grand comments about the game, we gave people material that they could discuss among themselves.”

But marketing a game in progress is like aiming at a fast-moving target; story lines evolve, characters change, and yesterday’s campaign may no longer be appropriate.

“We threw out our marketing campaign and started from scratch three times,” noted Sarah Anderson, 2K’s vp, marketing. “We’d have the print ads ready to go, the TV concepts were in place, and then something would happen inside the game, something would take a twist, and we’d decide that what we had was no longer true to what the game was becoming.”

That was not the only BioShock-related hurdle for the marketing team.

“If you saw the description of BioShock on paper, you’d never say that its success was going to be a slam-dunk,” admits Bass. “This was a risky game if ever there was one. I mean, this wasn’t just a shooter that had you firing at aliens. This is a game about an industrialist in the 1940s who builds an underwater society that begins breaking down because a discovery is made about the peoples’ DNA that causes them to go insane and they begin splicing their bodies. Try distilling that down into a 30-second elevator pitch.”

Rather than merely release screen shots, the marketing team created 25-30 videos over the course of 18 months to present the game’s unique look. The centerpiece of the campaign was the first spot, which the team never referred to as a “commercial” but a “trailer,” borrowing the movie marketing term.

“We turned the debut of the trailer into an event, pre-promoting it as a world premiere on Spike TV,” said Bass. “It embraces everything that’s cool about the game . . . and it’s set to Bobby Darin’s ‘Beyond the Sea.’ How many video game commercials can say that?”

While there are no celebrities in the game, the marketers treated the development team of BioShock as celebrities of a sort, sending Ken Levine, the game’s creative director, out to talk it up with the press. Even after the game’s launch on Aug. 21, Levine is still talking about how the viral marketing campaign actually made the game better.

“I was flabbergasted at the E3 show in May 2006 to experience what marketing’s word-of-mouth campaign had achieved,” he said. “There were lines of people who just wanted to see the demo.”

Levine wasn’t the only one thrilled with the reaction. Sensing it had a potential hit on its hands, 2K Games approached Levine and asked him what he could do if they upped his production budget.

“I gave them a laundry list of improvements and they told me to hop to it, ” he said. “So we hired more people, we lengthened the production schedule, and, frankly, we ended up with a much better game. It had been a good game early on, but it hadn’t been a great one.”

Making a great shooter, Levine said, requires “a tremendous amount of polish and a reliance on the performance of the hardware to make sure the game runs at a good rate. So, with the additional money they threw at us, we worked on the game and really made it sing. The hardest part of making an excellent game isn’t about aesthetics, not about making it beautiful, but about how can you make it comfortable for a player, how can you make them feel at home when they pick up the controller. That takes a lot of work.”

Initial focus testing of the game had been “pretty depressing,” Levine said. “We had brought gamers in and asked them questions like ‘How does the game feel?’ and ‘Do you understand the story?’ and ‘Does it excite you?’ and ‘Does it feel like other games?’ and ‘Would you buy it?’ ”

The results weren’t good. Levine’s team was open to criticism, but the initial budget didn’t allow for time to make fixes.

“When we got the go-ahead to spend more time on it, the game improved insanely,” he said. “We worked on it and we worked on it . . . and then we showed people the same demo but with all of our improvements—and they absolutely loved it. Apparently the tweaks made a huge difference. When we put the demo on Xbox Live, demand was so high that we broke the system; we overwhelmed the capacity of their servers. That’s never happened before.”

Levine won’t talk about the size of his original budget or how much it was increased, but it enabled his staff at in-house developer 2K Boston to practically quadruple from 30 people. In addition, his compatriots at 2K Shanghai were added to the team so that, due to the time difference, computer files could be passed back and forth every 12 hours, enabling game development to continue unimpeded around the clock. From start to finish, the game took approximately three years to complete.

A public company, 2K Games doesn’t share sales figures, but the fact that its marketing people are talking about a BioShock franchise seems indicative of the game’s success.

There are other indications as well.

“We received a request from some of the fans on The Cult of Rapture Web site to produce a collector’s edition of BioShock,” said Anderson. “We told them that if we got 5,000 or so interested fans, we’d do it. Well, within three hours, we received a petition with 18,000 signatures on it. I’d say that shows lots of interest.”

Perhaps most telling, the industry newsletter Next Generation reported that shares of 2K Games’ parent company, Take-Two Interactive, jumped from $1.40 to $14.80 following the strong U.S. debut of BioShock. Janco Partners analyst Mike Hickey said the game “could be a huge profit generator” for the company. That should be welcome news to Take-Two whose shares had just fallen 28 percent after it revealed that the release of its Grand Theft Auto IV would be pushed back from October 2007 to 2008.