Content rules video games

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Hit video game characters like Crash Bandicoot and Spyro the Dragon are about to become larger than life in an estimated $30 million marketing push by Universal Interactive Studios this summer that will show content is king.

The ad and marketing campaign for Universal, a unit of Vivendi Universal Publishing, is the first time the company has supported its own character franchises. Universal, which owns software content under the Blizzard Entertainment, Sierra and Knowledge Adventure labels, is a game creator, but had left the promotion and distribution to publishing powerhouses such as Konami Corp. and Electronic Arts. Now, Universal shifts into the marketing role and has named agency Kovel/Fuller, Los Angeles.

"Crash and Spyro have had a long history of advertising campaigns from Sony [Computer Entertainment America], now it's up to us to step that up even further," said Jim Wilson, president, Universal Interactive Studios. Sony will continue to advertise Crash games for its PlayStation platform.

Universal will run ads, event marketing and other promotional activities supporting up to three brands this year, Mr. Wilson said. Most of the hype focuses on video game consoles, but the real sales driver is content. And video game content is increasingly marketed like a major Hollywood movie.

Games featuring the quirky and irreverent Crash have sold 22 million copies globally. Universal, through sibling Universal Studios, also owns the "Jurassic Park," "The Mummy Returns" and Bruce Lee franchises. Universal will develop a Bruce Lee game series for the Xbox and expects to create games for the GameCube in 2002. Next spring, it plans to produce a game based on the 1983 horror flick "The Thing."

But for its first ad effort, Universal will promote "Spyro: Season of Ice" on Nintendo's GameBoy Advance handheld game device with a TV, print and online campaign, plus a promo offer that ties to its film, music and theme park units.

Universal has "Jurassic Park: Survival," a PlayStation 2 game, in development and plans to offer one for the Xbox next spring. However, the "Jurassic Park" titles will bear no relation to Steven Spielberg's forthcoming Jurassic Park 3 movie. The software title "will have a unique story line and a new protagonist, we're not following the movie," Mr. Wilson said. Universal will release a teaser of the game July 18 with the movie's soundtrack and is mulling in-theater promotion.

This fall, Universal will tout "The Mummy Returns" for the PlayStation 2 in a cross-promotional effort with its home video sister unit, featuring trailers of the game on VHS and DVD. "The Mummy" will also receive print, online and TV support. Advertising for "Crash Bandicoot: The Wrath of Cortex" on the PS2 is expected to begin in August with back-to-school events.

Universal chose Kovel after an intense search. "We wanted agencies that understood the interactive game space, that had done over-the-top creative for the youth market and had big brand experience," Mr. Wilson said. The review included: WPP Group's Y&R Advertising, Irvine, Calif., AKQA, San Francisco, and Los Angeles' B.D. Fox & Friends, the Ballpark Advertising agency and Absinthe Pictures.

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