Games people play: Video-game marketing: $400 mil

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As marketers scramble to gauge consumers' mood heading into the all-important fourth quarter, video-game players will stoke demand with the biggest marketing extravaganza the category has ever seen. And despite a raft of dismal economic news and the pall cast by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, marketers appear set to let the games begin.

Microsoft Corp., Nintendo Corp. and Sony Computer Entertainment together are poised to spend more than $400 million on U.S. marketing in the fourth quarter-which starts today-to support their video-game consoles and related software. Analysts hold out hope the $7.7 billion interactive entertainment industry will remain a bright spot in what may prove to be a sluggish holiday-buying season.

Microsoft, which delayed the launch of its Xbox video-game console ($299) from Nov. 8 to Nov. 15, has pledged $500 million in global marketing (about $300 million earmarked for the U.S.) to support its entry into console gaming and has already begun the ad and marketing blitz with teasers in gaming publications. One teaser features one of Microsoft's national promotional partners, Tricon Global Restaurants' Taco Bell. (See related article at right.)

Flagship games including combat game "Halo," sports game "NFL Fever 2002" and action/adventure game "Oddworld: Munch's Oddysee" will be among the titles featured in print and TV ads. Microsoft has 12 to 15 TV spots produced; TV teasers begin later this month. Print hitting 15 male-targeted magazines such as Dennis Publishing's Maxim and Stuff, as well as snowboarding and skateboarding titles, breaks midmonth, targeting the 16- to 26-year-old Xbox demographic.

Event marketing with sneaker marketer Van's begins Oct. 6, while a roadshow for sampling Xbox and its games starts in San Francisco later this month. Interpublic Group of Cos.' McCann-Erickson Worldwide, New York, handles Xbox advertising. The aspirational campaign attempts to put gamers inside the gaming experience.

Nintendo's GameCube ($199), launching Nov. 18, is likely to be the sleeping giant in the console race. Nintendo "will do very well long term and it will displace some spending," said Lee Uniacke, group publisher, Ziff Davis Media Game Group.

With the GameCube, Nintendo is determined to move beyond its core audience of young kids to lure gamers 17 and older. It's spending more than $75 million on U.S. marketing in the fourth quarter, with an edgy ad campaign from Bcom3 Group's Leo Burnett USA, Chicago.

The first TV spot breaks Oct. 15 with a provocative shot of a naked man floating in a huge cube. George Harrison, Nintendo senior VP-marketing and corporate communications, said the spot conveys that "great things can happen inside the cube, the guy is transported to the inside of the cube and game footage is projected onto the wall of the cube."

Nintendo has seven TV spots to support GameCube and flagship games such as "Luigi's Mansion," a mystery game. It will have six titles available at launch and 17 by Christmas. To reach older teens and young adults, it's advertising in Wenner Media's Rolling Stone and a raft of other magazines.

"This is a battle about the Xbox and the GameCube," said John Davison, editorial director, Ziff Davis Media Game Group. "For the first year, they're fighting for the No. 2 slot." Sega Corp.'s exit from the console market earlier this year leaves just three players.

Meanwhile, Sony's PlayStation 1 and 2 have a combined 16 million consumers in the U.S. Sony's challenge, analysts say, is to maintain momentum and rack up software sales for both systems.

The Sept. 11 attacks prompted software publishers, such as Electronic Arts, to alter packaging, while Sony and other leading publishers tweaked game scenery and, to some extent, action within the games. Microsoft didn't change Xbox creative, but did remove the World Trade Center in its "Project Gotham Racing" game, according to Don Coyner, Xbox director of marketing.

"There's an extreme amount of sensitivity," said Schelley Olhava, senior analyst with International Data Group's IDC. The industry came under scrutiny two years ago after the Columbine High School shootings in Colorado as parents and elected officials blamed violent video games and TV shows for triggering the events.

Ms. Olhava thinks things are different now, but that "at the end of the day, people like to play these genres of video games"-action/adventure, combat and simulation-"that some may perceive as violent." Ms. Olhava believes that playing such games doesn't affect gamers' long-term behavior.

Ziff's Mr. Uniacke said he lost about 2% of planned ad revenue in November and December magazines after software marketers pulled ads because some components-ad creative, game packaging or the titles themselves-were deemed inappropriate following the attacks. Still, he maintained the basic nature of many action/adventure games will continue. "A hero overcoming some kind of aggression isn't going to change," he said.

The industry has high hopes for Christmas 2001 despite recent events. "More people are going to be staying home," Mr. Uniacke said. Added Mr. Davison: "Escapism is something everyone needs."

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