Call Of Duty: How Top Video Game Makers Are Innovating For The Crowded Holiday Season

For video game buyers, it's the most wonderful time of the year: A plethora of top-notch titles beg for your bottom dollar--every game from Modern Warfare 3 to Super Mario 3D Land. Among game makers, there's an epic battle raging that would rival any on-screen action. "It's got to be the most crowded holiday, in terms of big blockbuster or blockbuster potential titles, that we've seen in five or 10 years," Pete Hines, VP of marketing and communications at Bethesda, makers of Skyrim, tells Fast Company.

 

The Crowded Holiday At A Glance

Batman: Arkham City (Oct. 18)
Promoted through presence at both San Diego Comic Con and New York Comic Con.

Battlefield 3 (Oct. 25)
Held an online multiplayer beta, which 8 million played.

Uncharted 3 (Nov. 1)
Had a promotion with fastfood-chain Subway to get access to multiplayer beta, as well as held AMC theater events.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 (Nov. 8)
Held Call of Duty XP weekend event and produced celebrity ad.

Skyrim (Nov. 11)
Differentiated by being only AAA fantasy game out, and produced live-action trailer with over 1 million views.

Super Mario 3D Land (Nov. 13)
Nintendo created a Mario level in real life, in the middle of Times Square.

Assassin's Creed Revelations (Nov. 15)
Fostered a fan following through annual releases, and created an ad with star athletes.

Halo Anniversary (Nov. 15)
A new release for one of the most successful game series, with over 40 million sold, by remaking the first game.

Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword (Nov. 20)
Holding a series of 25th anniversary symphonies worldwide.

The $19 billion dollar video game industry typically generates about 50% of its revenue in the last three months of the year, Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aime says. In the last 3 to 4 years, Nintendo has made more than 60% of its revenue in the same quarter. With so much at stake, Nintendo and other game publishers have come up with a variety of strategies for standing out in a crowded marketplace.

Whether they're hiring celebrities to appear in TV commercials (Activision), appealing to die-hard fans with a long-awaited sequel (Sony), or creating a real-life version of a game for kids to run around in (Nintendo), video game publishers are spending big to make sure you do, too. Here's a look at some of the approaches video game companies are taking this eason to capture your attention. 

Strategy 1: Get All Touchy-Feely

The basic honey-trap for video game publishers is the in-store kiosk. "We are going to be in 25 of the most popular malls across the country, giving consumers hands on experiences with all of our 3DS, as well as Wii and DS, games," says Nintendo's Fils-Aime. "We believe letting consumers get their hands on our content is the best way to sell them."

So what happens when even the stores are getting overcrowded with kiosks? Throw a huge event like the sold-out, five-city, three-day event that Sony held for Uncharted 3. Or host an event like the one Nintendo mounted this past weekend in Times Square in New York City. "We turned the space into a scene from Super Mario 3D Land," says Fils-Aime, complete with warp pipes, breakable blocks, and power ups. Children got to jump around in a playground with a Mario theme that even the parents appreciated, and then they could play the demo of the new game.

Strategy 2: Scratch A Niche 

Instead of banking on one major hit, the largest game publishers release a few offbeat titles that reach beyond the core big-guns-and-aliens audience. "The strategic umbrella we operate under has been and continues to be something for everyone," said John Koller, Director of Hardware Marketing at Sony Computer Entertainment America. Besides the action title Uncharted 3, the company is releasing everything from virtual pet game EyePet & Friends to family party game Carnival Island.

"Military shooters are very popular, but we've got our brand Just Dance--which was the second largest selling brand in America last year, just behind Call of Duty," says Tony Key, SVP of Sales & Marketing at Ubisoft." Even Assassin's Creed is a little bit of counter programming to your typical hardcore shooter."

Bethesda is betting that the massive fantasy world of Skyrim will make them stand apart. Hines said, "We're not another military shooter with single player co-op and multiplayer, where people have to decide, 'Which of these do I want, Battlefield or Call of Duty?'"

Strategy 3: Power Up With Stars

Ubisoft is using advertising with star athletes to get Assassin's Creed noticed. "We got a TV ad where NBA MVP Derrick Rose, football star Adrian Peterson from the Minnesota Vikings, and MMA champion B.J. Penn are displayed. So we went with a mainstream message for the male, core gamer," says Key.

Activision took it a step further with a commercial for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, that plays as a short film, starring well-known film actors Jonah Hill (Moneyball) and Sam Worthington (Avatar).

Strategy 4: Keep 'Em Comin' Back For More

The game may have been rebuilt from the game mechanics to the setting, but turning it into the latest sequel in a well-known series is guaranteed to attract die-hard fans to buy again. "If you look at the games that have come out, there's really only one major new IP [intellectual property]--and that was our shooter Rage," says Bethesda's Hines. "Everything else is a sequel: Battlefield 3, Modern Warfare 3, Batman: Arkham City, Uncharted 3, Resistance 3, Gears of War 3, Skyrim, Assassin's Creed Revelations, Saints Row 3."

Nintendo's holiday offering is completely built off of name recognition. Fils-Aime notes, "First, these are the franchises you love. It's Mario, it's Zelda, it's Kirby, It's Donkey Kong. Second, these are great games--you can trust the quality of Nintendo."

Some series have a shelf-life life that brings a long-term fan following. Erik Peterson, the producer behind localizing Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, said, "This is the 25th anniversary of the Zelda franchise--this is a game that builds off of 25 years of history." And Microsoft's Halo series is celebrating its 10 year birthday with Halo Anniversary, an HD update of the original game.

The game's creators themselves understand the importance of a series's history. Evan Wells, the copresident of Naughty Dog, that made Uncharted 3 for Sony, said, "We are really confident in Uncharted as a franchise. We know our fans are eager to get their hands on Drake's next adventure. So we wouldn't want to disappoint them."

These strategies appear to be paying off for game companies so far. Battlefield 3 and Batman: Arkham City have both sold 5 million copies in their first week, while Uncharted 3 saw 4 million games sold in a week of sales. And Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, moved 6.5 million copies in one day. Patrick Soderlund, Executive VP of EA Games, publishers of Battlefield 3, said, "If you really want to have significant success--10 million+ units--you'll probably have to ship in that holiday timeframe."

Of course not every game can be a success, and that can make the holidays a painful time of year for developers. "I have worked on games that take 2 years and sometimes longer than that," says Dan Ayoub, executive producer for Halo Anniversary. "It's really tough on the team because they pour so much of themselves into their projects" and yet a game's success "comes down many times to a couple of months."

But for all the doom and gloom, this hectic holiday may be a crucible for the game industry. "Having all this competition, the only effect it's going to have is to force everyone to keep pumping out quality and setting the limits to the next level," says Alex Amancio, Creative Director on Assassin's Creed Revelations, "which in the long term, can only be good."

Follow author (@khohannessian), video producer (@adambarenblat), or Fast Company on twitter.

[Video production assistance from Tony Castle]

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