SegaSoft online games tap into cultlike mind-set

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SegaSoft, looking to break into the lucrative online gaming market, is relying on an unusual and potentially controversial marketing strategy centered on a fictional cult.

To market the HEAT.NET network, which targets 18-to-34-year-old males, agency Ground Zero, Santa Monica, Calif., is creating the fictional CyberDiversion movement, a "cause" whose purpose is to divert onto cyberspace what it describes as a primal human urge to kill.


"We kill. It's OK. It's not our fault any more than breathing or urinating. It's programming in the deepest parts of our cranium drives in a structure we call the Reptilian Complex," imaginary founder Dr. Bartha is quoted as saying in publicity materials. The only way to safely take care of the complex is to play videogames in cyberspace, Dr. Bartha says.

"It's possible this is a controversial idea, but we think it is an idea that has some merit," said Peter Loeb, VP-general manager of entertainment networks at SegaSoft, a Sega of America spinoff backed by the videogame marketer and a venture capital group.


"It's a marketing campaign, but there is some validity to the concept [that] you need an outlet for aggressive urges," said Mr. Loeb. "If it becomes a movement, all the better. Starting a movement is a good way to market a product."

HEAT.NET, currently being tested, will offer consumers PC games, tournaments, chat, e-mail, personal Web pages and membership points that can be redeemed for prizes or discounts on game software.

The online gaming business could reach $1 billion by 2000, say industry sources. Microsoft Corp. is the behemoth of the industry with almost a quarter of a million subscribers playing Microsoft games.

Various plans are afoot to create a buzz about the CyberDiversion movement.


Ground Zero developed 13 Web sites, each with a homemade look and topic, such as mothers against the movement and a kids activities page, which includes a reptile mascot that can be printed out and colored.

The unusual publicity ideas, however, go beyond the Web.

For instance, the "CyberDiversion Institute," a headquarters facility for the fictional cult, has been created in Ground Zero's offices--a converted warehouse where dismantled wings of old fighter planes serve as partitions and employees sit on B-52 ejection seats.

The office also houses an old school bus with the CyberDiversion name on the sides and a sign on the front reading "A life killed in cyberspace is a life saved on Earth."

In addition, pro-CyberDiversion signs and posters are ready for use by "demonstrators" at public events. For example, during the second O.J. Simpson trial at the Santa Monica courthouse, Ground Zero employees conducted an impromptu rally, which was covered by a Los Angeles TV station and shown on the evening news, the agency said.

This fall, SegaSoft will employ students at college campuses to post notices of speeches by Dr. Bartha. Those will include a sticker indicating the talk has been canceled due to school policy.


The students also will be provided with chalk to mark campus sidewalks with CyberDiversion slogans, small cards to place on car windshields and newspapers for school news racks.

Traditional HEAT.NET marketing will begin with online efforts, including ad banners, and will be followed by print ads and TV commercials geared to the back-to-school season.

Print ads breaking in July computer magazines feature a grass-roots feel, with stock photographs of a mushroom cloud and handwritten comments, including some cross-outs.

There will be joint marketing plans with Virgin Records, among others.

Copyright April 1997, Crain Communications Inc.

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