Bethesda's dragon slaying 'Skyrim' sells mood, not graphics

Fall for videogame publishers is like summer for Hollywood studios — a season of blockbusters supported by massive marketing campaigns. Yet with each game competing for attention, getting noticed is tougher than ever.

That’s why it helps to hire a dragon-slayer.

For Bethesda Softworks’ fantasy game “The Elder Skrolls V: Skyrim,” out Nov. 11, the company chose to produce a live action commercial in which a warrior, with grim determination, calmly walks past throngs of panicked residents of a medieval village to fight a dragon that’s menacing them.

Helmed by Alexei Tylevich, the spot is unusual for a game release: most ads typically feature CG-animated sequences edited around shots of gameplay.

But Bethesda worried that kind of ad would get lost in the clutter of other videogame commercials. After all, the game is facing off against heavyweight titles such as Activision’s “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3,” EA’s “Battlefield 3,” WB’s “Batman: Arkham City” and Sony’s “Uncharted 3″ that boast bigger marketing budgets.

Bethesda will still roll out a more traditional ad closer to the game’s launch, but the live action spot was designed as a “mood piece” that captured the cinematic aspects of the game that would play well on TV and quickly “catch your attention,” says Pete Hines, Bethesda’s VP of marketing and communications.

The scope of the ad certainly does. Lensed at Prague’s Barrandov Studios over three days, the production involved more than 100 extras and eight stuntmen. Commercial house Logan (which has created ads for Apple, Toyota and other game franchises like “Metal Gear,” as well as “Zombieland’s” opening credits), produced the “Skyrim” spot and the digital dragon.

Although Bethesda declined to disclose the budget of the ad, the spot wound up costing about the same, if not a little less, than a commercial heavy on CG-animated sequences, the company says. It has 60-, 30- and 20-second versions airing.

The effort has paid off in terms of buzz. Since the “Skyrim” spot started airing on TV and online, the attention it’s generated across social networks and Twitter has surprised Bethesda. It has been viewed nearly 1 million times on YouTube since Oct. 24.

Online chatter has compared the ad’s design with the second season of HBO’s “Game of Thrones.”

“If people say that looks like ‘Game of Thrones,’ we’re in the right place in terms of mood and vibe and tone,” Hines says. “If that’s the impression we’re leaving, that’s a good thing as opposed to, ‘That must be for a some new videogame,’?” a humdrum response which often plagues other game campaigns.

Bethesda is hardly the first gamemaker to use filmed footage to help sell its games.

Sony currently has a memorable ad featuring live action versions of characters from its PlayStation franchises gathered in a bar, while Microsoft brought its “Halo: Reach” and “Halo 3″ campaigns to life with short films that focus on the characters, plot and themes of the games they’re promoting.

Bethesda wants to stress those same elements in its live action spot, hoping auds will themselves as the hero battling dragons. “People are looking for different ways to get their message across rather than 30 seconds of footage from the game, a logo and a box shot,” Hines says. “If everyone’s doing that, you need to do something different.”

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