Publishers obsess over opening grosses

Hollywood is starting to rub off on the vidgame biz — at least when it comes to pushing its biggest titles.

Publishers have adopted the studios’ obsession over opening weekend grosses and are looking to turn the releases of new titles into events worthy of a tentpole release.

That means ballooning budgets for publishers as they spend tens of millions on TV, radio and print ads, millions more on lavish launch parties (with celeb-packed guest lists, of course), flooding websites with promotional videos, making friends on MySpace, as well as brokering pacts with promotional partners to spread the word among players and non-gamers alike.

It’s a far cry from the way games were pushed in the past — when publishers relied heavily on word-of-mouth or mostly on ads in gamer mags and dot-coms.

The costly effort has been influenced by the surprising haul of “Halo 2″ in 2004. When the sci-fi shooter collected $125 million in coin over a 24-hour-period, the feat forced many nongamers to take the vidgame biz seriously for the first time.

“It showed that videogames were no longer that thing that kids play in their basement,” says Chris Di Cesare, Microsoft’s director of creative marketing.

Microsoft releases the third installment of “Halo” on Sept. 25.

This time, in addition to everything it plans to do on its own, Microsoft has enlisted Comcast, Burger King, 7-Eleven, Mountain Dew and Pontiac to tie-in with the launch in order to connect with the valuable but elusive 18-34 demo. Each partner, except for BK, is expected to pony up more than $5 million in TV ads. For “Halo 2,” only 7-Eleven and Pepsi, through the retailer, were promo partners.

The goal is to make the game the most successful debut of any entertainment property ever, with initial grosses topping any summer pic.

“We’ve taken a very event-film approach to the launch,” Di Cesare says. “We did $125 million last time. We’re confident we can do better.”

Boffo results only help the biz, publishers say, in not only moving more of the bestselling games, but also the gaming systems they’re played on. “Halo 3″ is exclusive to the Xbox 360, for example.

Electronic Arts already scored a big opening with “Madden NFL ’08,” the latest version of its hit football franchise that has regularly become the company’s top seller each year.

The title hit store shelves on Aug. 14, and moved 1.8 million copies in its first week, earning more than $100 million.

Last year’s edition sold 5 million units in its first five weeks on sale, making it one of the year’s bestselling vidgames.

With EA releasing a new “Madden” each year, the publisher’s under pressure to make sure each one continues to serve as a major moneymaker for the company.

This year, marketing firsts included tie-ins with Pepsi, Snickers and Visa — those efforts are just now rolling out. Whereas Pepsi’s “Halo 3″ promo appears only on Mountain Dew cans, “Madden” appears on all of the company’s soft drink packaging.

The partners help get “Madden” in front of audiences it may not normally have been able to reach, says Chris Erb, director of marketing at EA Tiburon, which is behind the launch of “Madden.”

For example, the online vids reach core gamers, TV hits mainstream auds and brand-backed promos reach consumers EA wouldn’t normally target.

Other non-traditional efforts involved an episode of cabler Spike TV’s “Monday Night Game Head,” devoted to the making of the game and its new features, the launch of a magazine, and the return of “Maddenholiday,” a tongue-in-cheek holiday in which players take the day off from work to the play the game.

For the launch party, EA took over Times Square, buying up billboards and hosting an Ozzy Osbourne concert above the Hard Rock Cafe.

“All of it’s to drive the first day numbers,” says an EA spokesman. “We wanted to follow what works with movie marketing and make (the release of the game) a big event itself. It’s always a question for us: How do you make the biggest game bigger every year?”

Midway Games is going big on its launch of John Woo’s vidgame “Stranglehold” that bowed on Sept. 5 on Xbox, and rolls out to other consoles and PCs through Sept. 25.

The publisher says the game’s launch is “Midway’s most robust campaign ever,” and included a “True to John Woo” Short Film Contest, the packaging of a special edition of Woo’s actioner “Hard Boiled” with the PS3 version and sponsorship of Spike TV’s Saturdasian Invasion Film Marathon on Aug. 18. There also were tie-ins with U.S. Asian film festivals in L.A. and New York, in addition to ads on ESPN, MTV, USA Networks, Comedy Central, Cartoon Network, MySpace, IGN, IMDB, GameSpot and even film review site Rotten Tomatoes.

Says Midway’s chief marketing officer, Steve Allison, “We’ve reached outside the typical marketing campaign and tapped into new avenues to reach the mass consumer.”

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