Industry Watch: Virtual Vanguard

Industry Watch-Virtual VanguardVideo games stay on the cutting edge of entertainment

A video of a cute 20-something Hula-Hooping in just a T-shirt and panties makes for pretty good viral, no matter what she's selling. Or not selling: One particular video, shot by the woman's boyfriend without her knowledge while she was working out to the Wii Fit Hula-Hoop game, was posted this May on YouTube with the title, "Why every guy should buy their girlfriend Wii Fit." It scored more than 5.7 million views in less than two months, half a million of those in the first few days. It inspired parodies by not-quite-as-attractive gamers gyrating in their undies, lots of blog chatter, and even some attention from the Los Angeles Times. Everyone was wondering whether the boyfriend, who works for an interactive advertising firm, had been hired by Nintendo to plant some faux UGC. But no, the Times reported; he'd done this on his own. His girlfriend was furious. Nintendo probably wanted to give him a big kiss.

Even as other parts of the entertainment industry struggle to make efficient use of online and interactive to promote their products without losing control of sales, gaming has thrived on it. The industry has expanded not just its marketing repertoire but its demographics, too, drawing in women and seniors. Console games, advergames, casual games, massively multiplayer online role-playing games - the industry just keeps growing, by 22 percent in 2007 and a predicted 13 percent in 2008, according to the Entertainment Consumers Association, a nonprofit organization that advocates for gamers. All that expansion, especially in a soft economy, is happening partly because of the availability of broadband and other advances in technology.

And it's partly because the kids and teens who went crazy for video games in the 1980s are now adults clamoring for more sophisticated action.

Thin Is In

What's so magical about online marketing for the video game industry? For one thing, it can be as playful and engaging as the product it promotes. Video game consumers are primed for interactive advertising because it echoes the gaming experience itself. That also helps explain the mad proliferation of video mash-ups, virtual communities, blogs and news sites devoted to gaming, like Joystiq and 1Up.

While online advertising and video games were already a natural fit, marketing for the Wii and the Wii Fit, which targets adults and other nontraditional gamers both online and offline, changed things dramatically.
"It just opened up this whole new world," says Paul Verna, a senior analyst with eMarketer who specializes in in-game advertising. "It wasn't a breakthrough on a technical level, in terms of sophistication of graphics - but it was a breakthrough on the marketing level, in terms of the sexiness of the product, the low cost, the fact that it appeals to everyone from grandparents to grandchildren. I think those things have widened the scope for the gaming industry."

It also inspired plenty of interaction. Dedicated video game fans had already been creating mash-ups, spoofs and homages for their favorite titles, but the Wii sparked the creativity of an exponentially wider audience. In late 2007, LA sketch comedy group Fries on the Side performed a skit called "Wii Sex," in which a woman leaves her geeky, undersexed boyfriend home alone. Naturally, he boots up the (fictional) video game for some relief. Naturally, his girlfriend walks in on him. Awkwardness ensues - as did a quarter million YouTube views.

Guns, iPods and Energy Drinks

Major new releases like Halo 3 and Grand Theft Auto 4 can almost get by on word-of-mouth alone. But hard-core gamers aren't left behind in the world of online promotions. A video that appeared online April 1 - always a tough day to verify any kind of news - showed a character from Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed fighting through about five minutes of the opening scenes of Konami's eagerly anticipated Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, which wasn't scheduled for release until mid-June. Editors, bloggers and gamers alike speculated about whether it was a fake.

The video was, in fact, real, and it showcased an unlockable costume that generated lots of excitement and turned out to be a real element in MGS4, too. Metal Gear first launched 20 years ago; MGS4 is the seventh in the series. Its lengthy record of attracting gamers helped it land in-game sponsors and product tie-ins - the lead character uses his iPod to chill out when he gets too stressed, and he swigs Regain energy drink to pump himself up. (Check out the amusing video promoting the drink and the game on YouTube, too.)

Dynamic advertising in online games - typically displayed on elements like billboards, which can be updated for demographic relevance and timeliness every time a user logs on - has also made video games more attractive for brands, which has led to greater investment in and promotion of the games online.

"Then you have those wild cards, like the (Rock Band) games and music titles," Verna says. "They're even having an impact on the music industry, which is so badly hurting and has gotten a shot in the arm with all the licensing deals."


Casual games and advergames - simple games that can be played in just a few minutes, perhaps on the gamer's phone as he waits on line at a store, or while she takes a break at the office - are clustered on gaming sites, stand alone on microsites, and are promoted both online and off.

The stunning in-store sales of Burger King's advergames for Microsoft's Xbox sparked new interest from marketers in casual games and advergames. While BK's success has yet to be matched, marketers have learned to more deftly incorporate their brands as useful elements of existing casual games - as Staples did with its "That was easy" button in a popular puzzle game, Verna points out.

The growth of the video game industry and continued advancements in online technology go hand in hand. And the combined energy doesn't just feed one industry. Marketers who invest in video games do so because of solid brand recall, the growing popularity of games among adults and seniors, and the increasing availability of broadband. Video game sales may have slowed this year, but they're still more than viable.

"It kind of stands alone in the entertainment industry," Verna says. "The movie industry is generally healthy, but there are definitely some fault lines and danger signs. Television is constantly threatened by video online.

"Amid all that, the game industry just seems to, year in and year out, post some really impressive growth numbers. And the factors are varied, which is good: You have marketing factors, technology factors, demographic factors, and they all kind of play into a generally healthy picture, a picture of growth for the industry."

Next story loading loading..