You receive an e-mail from a friend. You open it up and there's an image of a corpse on an autopsy table. You zoom in until you can see the name on the toe tag-it's yours!
That's the idea behind Microsoft's campaign for first-person shooter game Perfect Dark Zero, which is being marketed this holiday season along with Microsoft's new console, Xbox 360.
A stealth-marketing campaign allows gamers to send e-mails to theirfriends, excitedly telling them to click a link to see something cool. The link leads to a video site, where a woman named Joanna Dark, partially hidden by shadows, speaks to the you from a divan in a film-noir-like setting.
She asks if you know anyone who works for a company called DataDyne and tells you to write that friend's name on a piece of paper. A crumpled paper appears for you to scrawl your name, e-mail and cellphone number, and a friend's name and e-mail.
When the friend receives the e-mail and clicks on a link within it, they find themselves looking out from a hospital bed and up into the face of a frantic doctor. Then they hear the sound of the monitor flat-lining. Next scene: the autopsy table, where they witness their own dead body.
A note appears on the bottom of the screen: "One frag for me, chump. This is my little way of saying I'm going to give you a serious trashing when Perfect Dark Zero comes out for the Xbox 360 later this year." (A "frag" is gamer talk for a kill.) Moments later, the sender of the first e-mail receives a cellphone call from Joanna telling him the job is done.
Interactive agency AKQA, which handles interactive creative for Xbox and Games for Windows, began the stealth marketing initiative Oct. 4.
Why be so morbid? The promotion had to be something that would appeal to two audiences: the hard-core gamer and the broader, less-plugged-in, perhaps older audience. "We feel this definitely delivers on the challenge of reaching both audiences," said Nate Brooling, global advertising manager for Xbox and Games for Windows.
The game is rated Mature and the initial e-mail warns the contents might contain "disturbing material." Even so, isn't Microsoft worried about raising hackles over violence in the campaign? "Once the gamers send it out to a broader audience ... we're going to run into some potential issues, but that's a risk we're willing to take," Mr. Brooling said.
He said it was too soon to produce results numbers, but that the chat boards for both groups have been buzzing.
The reason for such shock marketing is the skyrocketing cost of producing video games as they have taken on the sophisticated elements of moviemaking. Analysts say the cost for creating major games costs $10 million to $20 million-and rising. Video publishers typically work with annual marketing budgets of between $10 million and $50 million.
At the same time game companies have become hot investments whose stockholders have high expectations. Consumers spent $6.9 billion on console and PC games in 2005, according to the Yankee Group. For both reasons, game makers must find ways to expand and deepen their audience of paying customers.