Sunday, May 23, 2010

Gaming Industry Exemplifies Smart PR

One area of public relations that doesn't yet receive a lot of attention in communication research literature, in the classroom or in boardroom discussions is that of PR in the gaming industry. And no, I'm not talking about casinos.

Video game sales are way up — scoff not, this is a big business that has overtaken music sales. Since the latest generation of gaming consoles released — beginning with the Xbox 360 in 2005 and ending with the Wii and PS3 in 2006 — the industry has grown to epic proportions, and even nontraditional gamers began snatching up Wii consoles to try its unique motion controls (soon to be released by its competitors as well). Mainstream and high-end gamers stuck with the Xbox 360 and PS3, respectively. But now that we're years into the current gen, it's software (actual individual game) sales that are stunning.

photo of a truck driving across a mountainous landscape in halo reach
Bungie is allowing some players to test its new game, Halo Reach, in a beta test on the Xbox 360. Here, players use a vehicle to move across the game's world. | Microsoft photo

Well-known retailer GameStop reported a 13.3-percent increase in new software sales for its first quarter earnings this year. The year's big games once released during the holiday season, leaving what gamers referred to as a summer drought. But now, publishers are learning that with the right titles, marketed to the right gamers, they can sell games all year long.

So how has gaming become such a hugely successful industry? I could debate that topic for days, covering everything from achievement systems implemented lately in games to targeting new demographics to the immersion experience that movies and music can't provide to the increased popularity of mobile devices and therefore mobile gaming. But a large part of the gaming industry's success is thanks to good PR and marketing.

Game developers employ a two-way communication channel with the games' eventual players. Virtually every major company maintains forums where they have open conversations with gamers about what they want from games. These companies also know what type of people play first-person shooters as opposed to flight simulators — they put in the time to do good market research.

Perhaps one of the best moves used by the gaming industry is something we might think of as a pilot test in the communication realm — companies make end users a real part of the development process. Two of the top game makers in the business — Blizzard and Bungie — are both currently in the process of beta testing their latest titles with select loyal gamers. This is the process where gamers can sign up to actually play parts of a new game early in order to help tweak the balance of in-game characters and report bugs. This makes gamers feel more invested in the game, and even those who don't participate in the beta are more confident in buying the final product because they know their peers have already tried to 'break the game,' therefore making the retail version virtually a perfect experience.

PR practitioners should take a page from the growing gaming industry. Put more time and thought into the development of products and campaigns, open up communication channels with stakeholders and involve end users in the process to ensure a polished final result.

Want to know more about gaming? Joshua DeLung is also a D.C.-metro area gaming writer for Examiner.com. You can find his articles here.