Shelf life: playing a game of survival; unique promotions, packaging, Internet access give PC games an edge at retail - computer video gamesPete Hisey
There's almost no way to overestimate the importance of gaming to the mass acceptance of the personal computer. Doom and Myst have probably been responsible for as many PC sales as have falling prices, the Pentium chip, cheap Internet access, children's educational needs or virtually any other variable that can be mentioned.
Like Mario and Sonic's big brothers, those two titles (along with other megahits like Rebel Assault and Sim City) turned the PC from an esoteric luxury to a necessity for millions of purchasers, many of whom would be embarrassed to admit spending $2,000 simply to shoot zombies and demons in an underground labyrinth.
On the other hand, once you get past the 20 or 30 titles like 7th Guest and Dark Forces that became instant classics, there are hundreds of others that arrived on-shelf with great reviews, major promotions and terrific packaging, only to gather dust and quickly disappear.
Some 5,000 titles are expected to be battling for an average of 300 shelf slots by December. What separates the winners from the losers in this highly competitive market, and what can retailers and publishers do to better their odds?
The basic truth in this marketplace is that a title has 30 to 60 days to prove itself. If it hasn't broken through in the first month, chances are that it won't be given a second month. And with hundreds of titles appearing each quarter in the category, even terrific games are sinking without a trace. Several specialty retailers are now demanding blank return authorizations with each shipment and are returning products after an average of 35 days on-shelf.
So retailers and publishers alike have had to adopt aggressive marketing strategies to survive in this ever-changing and fickle category.
"Our emphasis is getting as much advance PR as we can for an upcoming game to start the word of mouth early," said Interplay director of marketing, PC division Charlene Steele. "Whenever possible, we run pre-sell programs, where consumers get a premium like a T-shirt or a cap for preordering. And once products are in-store, we run sales associate programs and awareness programs to drive sales off the shelf."
Interplay virtually wrote the book on Internet publicity with its introduction two years ago of Descent. Millions of potential customers downloaded samples of the game at the time, and Steele said that the company is going one better with the introduction of Conquest of the New World, which has the first real-time sample ever (meaning consumers can simply click on an icon and start playing a full battle scene from the actual game with no downloading and no waiting).
Internet promotions are extremely effective for games, Steele said, because "hard-core gamers are also usually hard-core Internet users."
Interplay has also utilized clever packaging to stand out at retail, the most clever of which was the on-pack inclusion of a mouse designed to look like an eight ball to promote the hit Virtual Pool. According to Steele, the company plans more one-of-a-kind packaging, but more important, plans semi-exclusive promotions with its retail partners. "The important thing is to develop promotions for each retailer that address that retailer's particular strategy and needs," she said.
MGM Interactive, a relative newcomer to the category, is also a believer in the power of the Internet when it comes to promoting games, although the noise level is building there as well as on-shelf. "The trick now is to draw attention to your Web site," said exec vp of marketing Ron Frankel. "We're spreading money around at a lot of other Web sites to get our message out" about upcoming titles like Cyberthug and H.O.S.T. The company has also used trailers in its direct-to-video titles to promote related interactive products like Dark Seed II and Babes In Toyland.
"Each title is different, and promotional strategies should reflect those differences," he said.
Psygnosis, the European publisher pushing into the American market with racing and adventure games, adds a new wrinkle to Internet promotion with on-line sweepstakes for game-related prizes. According to director of marketing Lori Von Reuden, the company provided a free trip to the Indy 500 in conjunction with the release of its Destruction Derby title this year. Contestants had to find the site and then smash a car to bits with a sledgehammer to find an entry certificate.
Von Reuden has a similar strategy cooking for the upcoming licensed Formula 1 game, with the grand-prize winner attending a Formula 1 racing school in Montreal before attending an actual race in Monte Carlo. According to Von Reuden, some sort of brand identification is probably the most important element in on-shelf success, whether that means a sequel to a successful game, a tie-in with a movie or other entertainment property (like Formula 1), a true brand name like Disney or the participation of a celebrity (as in Psygnosis' use of Monty Python's Eric Idle as a main character in two Discworld titles).
Microsoft, despite its overwhelming brand presence in the software world, is still like Psygnosis--a relative newcomer in the gaming world. According to director, retail channel marketing Ed Belleba, the company has to work as hard in this area as anyone else. The company recently tested Entertainment Station interactive kiosks with several retailer and plans to roll them out this fall in support of its expanding games program.
Absent the try-before-you-buy technology, the company used stand-alone merchandising units for Fury 3 and Flight Simulator CD to make them stand out from the crowded shelves and concentrated heavily on general interest publications to reach prospective buyers.
Long-term, though, the company has invested in its permanent merchandising program, a 500-ft. concept shop that most retailers will spin off into several in-category components to merchandise Microsoft's offerings in each of several major categories, Belleba said.
Sega might be lumped in with Microsoft as a brand that really doesn't need much help in-store, but for the company's first move into the PC market, Sega is looking at several strategies to cement its presence in this new category.
According to product manager Jill Braff, the company plans to concentrate on its brand name and to cross-merchandise with its video game products wherever possible. With widely known franchises like Sonic the Hedgehog and Virtua Fighter, POP signage will bring instant familiarity to the PC department. "Parents will see the value of Sonic's Schoolhouse, for instance," Braff said. "It's an educational program that they won't have to fight with their kids to get them to learn." Sega may even bundle Sonic titles together for a learn-and-play-type promotion, she added.
Packard Bell Interactive (PBI), although not quite in the league as the above two, is a major player at the mass level, particularly through its parent, the country's largest supplier of PCs to the retail market.
According to vp of marketing John Rutter, the company is leveraging its relationship with Packard Bell by adding coupons to each of the 4 million PCs the company plans to sell this year offering a free PBI game with the purchase of another.
Packard Bell also plans a Back-to-School value-added program with several retailers to include a bundle of BTS supplies like pencils, pens, notebooks and other items enclosed in a reusable pouch with each kid-oriented software package.
"Overall," he said, "our parent has extremely valuable relationships with most of the country's mass retailers, and we look for ways to build on those relationships."
Starting with the upcoming geography game, Monster on the Loose, PBI will be getting into the Internet as well, Rutter said. A single click will bring kids to a PBI-developed Web page related to the country the monster is visiting, and that page will in turn suggest related pages on culture, music, language and politics of that country, with instant connection a button-push away.
On the retail scene, the best keep widening the gap. CompUSA and Best Buy are now leagues ahead of other mass merchants. CompUSA recently introduced its Software Sampler, which allows shoppers to test-drive up to 200 games and other software titles. Best Buy, meanwhile, has shifted into more interactive demos, along with an improved themed endcap program.
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