Almost overnight, online services have become the hottest new vehicle for videogame heavyweights like Sega of America, Nintendo of America and Acclaim Entertainment to market their products.
The companies are teasing fans with previews and tips about upcoming games, running contests and sweepstakes and offering a chance to talk with their executives.
Most of the activity is centered on the commercial online services Prodigy and CompuServe. But the Internet is also emerging as a hot new channel for hyping-and even selling-games, following the lead of several smaller marketers of computer entertainment software.
Sega appears to be moving fastest, inking an exclusive partnership with CompuServe early this month and establishing an official, commercial presence on the Internet last week.
On its World Wide Web home page, accessed at http://www.segaoa.com, Sega offers a partial listing of its games, plus game tips, news and events including a one-month sweepstakes offering three free Sega 32X game units. Sega also plans to begin selling videogame-related products, such as hats, toys, T-shirts and game-playing guides, on the Internet as soon as early next year.
Capitalizing on interactive synergies, Sega also will cross-promote other interactive ventures, including its cable TV Sega Channel, on CompuServe and also on the Internet.
"The interactive people are using videogames, computers and every other kind of high-tech device out there. There are a lot of marketing synergies, and we're going to find as many as possible to expand upon," said Kerry Bradford, associate director of new-business development at Sega.
The interactive marketing channel for videogames is taking off so fast that the online computer service companies, led by CompuServe, can barely keep up with requests from videogame marketers eager to sign on.
"We're talking to various videogame and computer software companies, and we're striving to make sure each relationship is unique, but things are taking shape very fast," said Jim Pascua, CompuServe's games product marketing director.
Neither Prodigy nor America Online has inked any official partnership deals yet, although Prodigy is working with Acclaim on various promotions.
Acclaim in September started its first online trivia contest and sweepstakes. The Prodigy effort, tied to the release of "Mortal Kombat II," garnered an unexpected 10,000 responses from subscribers hoping to win a trip to Thailand to perform a cameo role in the "Mortal Kombat" film.
"The marketing connection is obvious. Videogame enthusiasts are high-tech enthusiasts who are also on the leading edge of computer online services and the Internet. This helps us expose our games to more people in more ways and therefore sell more products," said Allyne Mills, Acclaim's director of corporate communications.
Last month, Acclaim launched another sweepstakes promotion on Prodigy for a videogame based on MGM's recently released "Stargate" film.
To keep interest alive until the videogame comes out in January, Acclaim plans to give Prodigy subscribers a peek at one game screen per week as the game is developed.
Nintendo jumped online late last month, using CompuServe to launch its first-ever online promotion, a series of events touting the Nov. 21 release of "Donkey Kong Country."
Nintendo's promotion included a live, 1-hour online conference between CompuServe users and Nintendo's President Minoru Arakawa, Chairman Howard Lincoln and VP-Marketing Peter Main; 80 people attended.
A trivia contest drew 800 entries during the first week, and 500 users downloaded video samples of the game.
Nintendo calls the CompuServe promotion a test, but says it's pleased with the results and plans to expand its offerings on that network as well as other online services.
"We started with CompuServe, but we will probably sign on with all the major online services as we move ahead on this very quickly," a Nintendo spokesman said.
Sega, however, has plans for an even bigger presence on CompuServe. The videogame marketer established a permanent forum where users can get information and tips about Sega's games as well as shop for videogames, toys and related merchandise.
Copying Nintendo, Sega offered an online conference last week with CEO Tom Kalinske that drew 130 users.
CompuServe's Mr. Pascua called Sega's agreement "exclusive," adding that the online service is striving to create "uniquely exclusive" relationships with various videogame marketers.
All this activity from the heavyweights comes after much smaller players paved the way. Upstart id Software, based in Mesquite, Texas, last year marketed its best-selling PC title "Doom" exclusively on the Internet, letting fans download portions of the game for free. This year, id is trying a different strategy, offering the "Doom II" sequel for $49 at retail or for $29 plus a download fee of about $20 on CompuServe, the first such effort for that online service.
Rocket Science Games, Palo Alto, Calif., hoping to cash in on similar underground success, officially launched itself Oct. 31 on the Internet at http://www.rocketsci.com, where it's providing information about and marketing its first CD-ROM games. Eventually, the company hopes to take orders for games through the Internet site, said President Steve Blank.
"The kind of people who surf the Internet are videogame players, pure and simple. It's the one product that is perfect for marketing and selling in cyberspace and the market is perfectly ripe right now for it," Mr. Blank said.