Making a Video Game the Star of a TV Show

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LOS ANGELES -- Video games may be luring viewers away from broadcast and cable TV networks, but Microsoft Corp.'s Xbox division is counting on TV to help it score with audiences and sell more copies of "Halo 2."
The MTV show took viewers behind the scenes to see how a video game like 'Halo 2' is made.

As part of the launch of the game this week, Xbox teamed up with MTV to produce a half-hour behind-the-scenes special of the sequel, as part of the cable channel's Making the Game series.

Show featured celebrity gamers

The show mixed interviews with "Halo 2's" creators at Bungie Studios, with new footage from the game, and interviews with celebrities like Justin Timberlake, Hilary Duff and Jimmy Fallon, and bands like Good Charlotte, Incubus and Hoobastank that appear on the game's sound track.

"We knew 'Halo 2' was going to be one of the biggest video game launches ever, and we wanted to make it an entertainment property," said Jennifer Karayeanes, vice president and group media director at Interpublic Group of Cos.' Universal McCann, New York.

"The MTV audience is the gaming audience," John Shea, executive vice president for sponsorship development and integrated marketing at MTV, VH1 and CMT, said in a statement. (The networks are all part of Viacom.) "Halo 2 is destined to be one of the biggest video games of the season and we're excited to give fans a behind the scenes look."

Getting the special made wasn’t that easy, however.

Initial MTV skepticism

Previous games that have been featured in MTV's Making the Game, a spin-off of its popular Making the Video series, have featured bands or other celebrities in the gameplay. "Halo 2" does not, and the network questioned whether its audience would be interested in watching how the sci-fi shooter was created.

The "Halo" franchise does have its celebrity backers, however, with stars having shown up at private parties to play the games, and eagerly making the trip up to Seattle, near Microsoft's headquarters, to get the first chance at checking out the sequel.

"For several video games there's a cult following of celebrities, where all they want to do is play the game. 'Halo' is one of them," Ms. Karayeanes said.

Knowing this, Universal McCann began talking to MTV nearly 20 months ago to broker
The MTV show took viewers behind the scenes to see how a video game like 'Halo 2' is made.

a deal between Xbox and MTV, pushing the appeal of "Halo" among celebs.

Pop culture credibility

"It wasn't that we had to convince them that the game would do well," Ms. Karayeanes said. "It was all about convincing them that there would be an audience for it. They didn't want to show a program that's about a bunch of guys creating a game. We both wanted to showcase the game and the pop culture credibility of what something like 'Halo 2' carries."

For its launch, Xbox is spending tens of millions of dollars to promote the game -- more than any other title to ever hit the market. And while most video-game publishers normally just target the hard-core gaming community, Xbox is going after non-gamers as well, hoping that an exclusive title like "Halo" will not only sell games, but also its gaming console.

Before the release of "Halo 2" this week, Microsoft had already reported 1.5 million advance orders. The first "Halo," which hit the market three years ago and helped Xbox compete against fierce rivals like Sony's PlayStation 2 and Nintendo's GameCube, has sold over 5 million copies.

Paid nothing to produce MTV special

Xbox didn't pay to produce the MTV special. It provided footage, product, consultants and access to the game's creators, but MTV retains ownership of the episode, as part of its Making the Game series. However, Xbox did purchase a "significant" amount of media on MTV and MTV2 throughout the year to push its products, as part of the deal. Without that, the Making the Game special may never have happened.

Other cable networks also jumped on the chance to promote the launch of "Halo 2." Spike TV, another Viacom sibling, featured the game as part of its Ultimate Gamer series, while video-game-themed channel G4 devoted 20 hours of programming to the "Halo" franchise all day Nov. 9.

However, none of those cases were dependent upon a media buy.

Any initial doubts were put to rest when the special started airing on MTV on Nov. 5.

The show generated a 0.5 rating among the key demographic of 18- to 34-year-olds, a considerable boost over the 11 p.m. time slot's usual average rating of a 0.37. Among viewers ages 12-24, the program fared even better, generating nearly a 1 national rating, vs. the time period's average of a 0.6 among the demo at any other time.

Overall, the special is slated to air three times on MTV and six times on MTV2. It will also air in over 40 countries on cable channels.
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