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Scott Steinberg: Game marketing in 2010 and beyond

Viral what?

Hate online advertisements? Can't stand corny TV commercials? Feel like spitting to get the taste out of your mouth every time someone in the gaming business cheerfully talks up "viral marketing" as if they'd made a reference to Hitler instead of the latest Halo alternate reality game (ARG)? Then rejoice - for video game fans and execs alike, it's a whole new world, and one in which the methods used to promote today's hottest titles are increasingly starting to resemble actual games themselves.

Consider that, in 2010, video game marketing has evolved. To a certain degree, we're past the age of simple push (static print ads for God of War III, fancy 30-second spots for Splinter Cell: Conviction); pull (bonus levels for buying Lost Planet 2 at a specific retailer, spend a dollar to buy new gear in your favorite Facebook title) and viral content (those cheesy live-action Street Fighter spots you can't resist forwarding to friends) creation. Rather today, in many ways, marketing has become virtually indiscernible from the end product itself. Never mind original Dante's Inferno titles for social networks, or Mass Effect spin-offs for smartphones that mostly serve to raise awareness for the series as a whole. Even LittleBigPlanet or Spore's level-editing toolkits serve as effective promotional tools, using ongoing downloadable content updates to keep these products constantly feeling fresh and top of mind. What - you thought Microsoft built Xbox 360 Achievements (virtual carrots on a stick that keep you playing titles longer, constantly tempted to try new content or spending more time on the company's multiplayer service) into games just so you could have something to brag about to your mates around the playground or office water cooler?

Frankly, we've entered into an era where adding long-term value and building/managing relationships, not simply driving sales and fueling market awareness, have suddenly become paramount for game makers. And developers and publishers alike are increasingly being forced to accept a radical truth as a result. To wit - no longer can game promoters afford to act as shifty, glad-handing characters that buy a few TV commercials here, take out a few magazine ads there, then call it a day and spend the rest of their time attending star-studded Hollywood premieres. Instead, they must proactively work hand-in-hand with (and increasingly begin to think like) actual game designers and fans themselves. Similarly, as developers (traditionally among the advertising department's least ardent supporters) are having to wake up and realize, to succeed in the modern era, marketing must also be deeply embedded into actual product development, ideally from day one, and viewed as an organic extension of any given title's core feature set. (Case in point: Blur's Twitter integration, Guitar Hero's regular song updates or Borderlands' ongoing downloadable add-ons.) Because in its purest essence, video game advertising circa 2010 isn't about just providing a temporary groundswell of support for a specific title or brand. It's about creating a persistent, standalone entertainment experience with real, tangible worth unto itself.

Given this sweeping change in focus, it's important to note, promotional content isn't just being designed from the beginning now to live on in a dedicated, ongoing space (see: UbiSoft's UPlay initiative or Capcom's Unity portal). Everyday players such as yourself will, going forward, increasingly be given the tools to interact with, shape, share and make of game assets and elements what you will - as well as the option to connect and communicate with fellow enthusiasts while doing so. In essence, as publishers are quickly coming to realize, tomorrow's most effective advertising campaigns are actually metagames in disguise. That way, instead of skipping over that commercial for Super Mario Galaxy 2 or flipping past the page with the FIFA World Cup 2010 ad, well... You're instead compelled to actively and regularly seek them out in order to sate your desire to gain exclusive access/knowledge (e.g. a sneak peek at the next Final Fantasy), a perceived boost in social status (greater rank or standing in the fan community) or tangible reward (a free virtual pet in World of Warcraft or t-shirt for frequent posting on the game's official message board). So don't be fooled the next time you feel compelled to download a new tune in Rock Band or futz around Split Second''s website hunting for screenshots and developer diaries. Companies know what you're thinking, and are waking up in growing numbers to the fact that audience empowerment is the key to success. After all, we, the general public, aren't constrained by the issues game marketers traditionally face, e.g. deadlines, budgets or political issues - just the scope of our imagination.

Call it a victory for players: Not only do we inherently derive more value from the paradigm shift, but increasingly gain more power to color within a broader set of lines when it comes to interacting with game assets. Even more importantly still, we also suddenly get the option to drive and influence the shape of the end product itself. To this extent, marketing is no longer a one-way street, where all interactions ultimately accrue to the advertiser's benefit. Today, it's simply another form of conversation in which both sides of the equation - fans and game makers alike - now have a voice in the ongoing dialogue. So instead of instantly feeling the urge to burn someone at the stake the next time you spot a shady-looking marketer at a games convention, consider. He or she may share a lot more in common with our fellows and the game designers we celebrate than you might suspects. Because these days, to a growing extent, we're all taking part in the same game - the only difference between ardent fan, website owner, community manager, game developer, VP of advertising and whatnot being how you choose to play it. Well, that, and salary level + benefits, natch...

Video game expert and TV/radio host Scott Steinberg is the author of Get Rich Playing Games and the creator of game industry documentary series Players Only. A celebrated gadget guru and technology expert, he frequently appears as a technology and video game analyst on broadcast networks like ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC and CNN, and has contributed to 400+ outlets from The New York Times to Playboy and Rolling Stone. For more of his insights, visit www.VideoGameAnalyst.net.

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