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From Jet Set Willy to Grand Theft Auto: The Evolution of Video Games Marketing

With the impending release of Call of Duty: Ghost on Xbox One being hotly anticipated, following a month that has already seen the most expensive video game in history roll out with Grand Theft Auto V, Alison Berkani, brand experience and event production director at communications agency Exposure, takes a look at the evolution of video game marketing over the years.

The video games industry really took off in the 1980s, and for years afterwards marketing those games was about reaching a niche: usually through specialist magazines and shops for a specialist audience. Then, as consoles such as the original PlayStation hit the market, it became about the launch event: gathering dozens or even hundreds of gamers, journalists and perhaps even a few celebs together to be the first to try out the awesome new game.But in the past five or ten years, we’ve seen marketing budgets move away from that big event towards a broader, more carefully planned and highly-integrated campaign. As console technology and production budgets have grown, gaming has moved away from its niche and become a vital part of the entertainment sector – on a par with the biggest Hollywood movies. Grand Theft Auto V, for example, had a marketing and development budget of £170m – on a par with any special-effects-laden summer blockbuster. Gaming has gone mainstream. It’s a multibillion dollar business and its marketing efforts mean fighting against not just other games but movies and TV programmes as well. The modern game launch means engaging consumers everywhere, a constant conversation through every channel imaginable: social media, forums, mobile apps, viral videos, billboards and TV ads, to name but a few. There is no size fits all – campaigns are meticulously planned to match the target audiences with different channels and strategies varying in effectiveness. Many also now employ special, personalised content used in the build-up to the big day, which is hopefully compelling enough to be shared and talked about: Halo 4’s ‘Forward Unto Dawn’ web series, for example, racked up five million views per episode and was entertainment in and of itself, only barely recognisable as an advert. The big launch event is still a key part of the marketing mix, but it has become just that – a part rather than the entirety. Video games, particularly the franchises like Halo or GTA, are huge entertainment brands and now have the same sort of red carpet style and celebrity attendance as any Hollywood premiere. But now these events have to have online reach through Twitter and Facebook as well; the number of people physically there might be reduced, but the number of people involved is actually much, much greater. Modern games also have the same – or sometimes even greater – level of hype or buzz: fans queue for days to get their hands on a copy of the latest game and some of the most well-known gamers have become celebrities in their own right. Take gamer legend Martyn Littlewood – a man with his own internet channel and over 170,000 Twitter followers. The best way to market a video game hasn’t actually changed in all these years: its still word of mouth. But what has evolved, and is continuing to do so as more and more non-gamers get engaged with the sector, is the best way to get that word of mouth started up.

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