'BioShock' marketers take page from pics

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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 first-person shooter 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 marketing people to require special attention. In their estimation, that meant treating it like a Hollywood blockbuster. So what does that entail?

"The game was so good we knew how much it would benefit from word-of-mouth," explains 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.

"You know, it's not uncommon for our industry to borrow a lot from movie marketing; we do many nods to that industry," he says. "Here we decided to start the program two years prior to the release date, then build the hardcore 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.

"As with, say, science fiction movies or other genres that are considered 'cool,' fans tend to look at marketers as 'clueless suits' who hype everything," says Bass. "We knew we needed to be careful to do things in a way that was cool ... not to build hype but to build buzz. Especially when we started marketing the game two years before it was finished. I mean, how do you go out on the E3 floor and say you've got one of the greatest games ever made when there's nothing for anyone to see or play?"

Rather than label "BioShock" as "the next big thing," Bass decided to create a Web site into which he could keep releasing assets to show -- not to tell -- how good the game would be.

"We created as an offshoot of the main BioShock.com Web site a community site called The Cult Of Rapture, named after the city in the game, that we updated every single day," he recalls. "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," notes 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."

The marketing team wishes that was their only "BioShock"-related hurdle.

"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 and ... well, try distilling that down into a 30-second elevator pitch."

In addition, notes Anderson, it's not based on a movie, there are no celebrities attached to it, it has a stylized art deco look, and its soundtrack consists of period pieces, like "Beyond The Sea" and "God Bless The Child."

"While we knew the gameplay would be incredible, that it was going to raise the bar, it was going to be tough to convince gamers about that without their being skeptical of the marketing," she says. "We had to let them figure it out and get them excited enough to tell their friends."

Bass recalls their "focus-testing the hell out it much like they do in movie marketing."

Rather than merely release screen shots, the marketing team created 25-30 videos over the course of 18 months to show off the game's unique look. The centerpiece of the campaign was the first commercial, 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," says 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.

Indeed, even after the game's launch on August 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 recalls. "There were lines of people who just wanted to see the demo. I was thrilled but, I mean, we had done other games similar to 'BioShock' in the past -- 'System Shock 2,' for instance, many years ago -- and we never got this reaction."

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 recalls. "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 explains, 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."

Levine is positive that the additional time and budget paid off. Initial focus-testing of the game had been "pretty depressing," he says. "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 says. "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 to what level 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,' " says 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 10% following the strong U.S. debut of "BioShock" -- from $1.40 to $14.80. 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% after it revealed that the release of its "Grand Theft Auto IV" would be pushed back from October 2007 to 2008.

2K's marketing team calls its "BioShock" marketing campaign quite a learning experience. From Bass' standpoint, its unorthodoxy was precisely what the triple-A game called for. And he is already looking at titles a couple of years out and planning "community marketing efforts," especially for some of 2K's more high-profile products.

"In my mind, it's all about involving your fans," he says. "We value that community and we value their feedback and, especially in this case, we think we were able to make the game that much better by putting that feedback to work."

Paul "The Game Master" Hyman was the editor-in-chief of CMP Media's GamePower. He's covered the games industry for over a dozen years. His columns for The Reporter run exclusively on the Web site.
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