games reporter

'BioShock' marketers take page from pics

Let's face it: Game publishers have the hots for Hollywood. While licensing movies to turn into games might 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 was deemed by its marketing people to require special attention. Tom Bass, 2K's director of marketing, sought to 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," he says. "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."

"BioShock" was not an easy video game to convey in a marketing message because of its high-concept story line. "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 people's DNA that causes them to go insane and they begin splicing their bodies," Bass says. "Well, try distilling that down into a 30-second elevator pitch."

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 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."

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, prepromoting it as a world premiere on Spike TV," Bass says. "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?"

Although there are no celebrities in the game, the marketers treated the "BioShock" development team as celebrities of a sort, sending Ken Levine, the game's creative director, out to talk it up with the press.

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.

Janco Partners analyst Mike Hickey says the game "could be a huge profit generator" for the company. That should be welcome news to Take-Two, whose shares recently fell 28% after it revealed that the release of its "Grand Theft Auto IV" would be pushed back from October to 2008.

2K's marketing team calls its "BioShock" campaign quite a learning experience. From Bass' standpoint, its unorthodoxy was precisely what the game called for. And he already is 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."