Video Games Go Hollywood

It may surprise most people, but the leading character in the entertainment industry’s largest opening ever wasn’t played by Will Smith, Johnny Depp, or even Tobey Maguire. It’s a guy who goes by the name of Master Chief, and, no, he’s not a blockbuster movie star…yet. Master Chief is a super soldier from the future who stars as the main character of Microsoft’s extremely popular “Halo” franchise.

The video game industry witnessed a record-breaking moment in September 2007 when “Halo 3,” the last installment in the trilogy, grossed over $170 million in sales in the first 24 hours, topping the mark for a game previously set by none other than “Halo 2.” Games have quickly surpassed other forms of entertainment in both dollars and time spent across all demographics, thanks to highly recognizable franchises such as “Halo.”

Major video game launches have begun to resemble Hollywood’s biggest movie debuts. It’s even been rumored that these leading games are impacting actual movie sales. The most recent example? Janco Partners analyst Mike Hickey said, “We anticipate the video game release of ‘GTA IV’ on April 29 could dampen the potential from [the] ‘Iron Man’ theatrical release on May 2.” With continued growth behind bigger video game franchises, it’s safe to say that games have gone Hollywood.

In the past, video game developers relied on improved visuals, innovative features, and additional game mechanics to encourage gamers to purchase sequels to their favorite titles. (It’s convinced me to spend $60 annually on titles like “Madden NFL Football.”) Recent video game titles have not only included innovative game play features but also taken storytelling via games to a new level. Games such as “Mass Effect” are lauded as much for the storyline as the amazing graphics and game play. Not only are gamers able to represent their alma mater and beat their archrivals in “NCAA Football ’08,” but now the consumer’s integrated into the actual story and given the sole discretion of determining the outcome. Video games combine movies’ addictive story elements with ability to determine a unique outcome.

With this increased focus on the storytelling, the opportunity to include real-world brands and products increases as well. As seen with movies, actual product integration adds to the plot’s realism. Consumers expect the leading lady to drink Red Bull rather than a generic energy drink on the big screen. The same rules apply to video games, as they make it easier to communicate brand messages or product benefits via the story. T-Mobile partnered with Electronic Arts’ “Skate” to include the Sidekick device as the main character’s primary communication tool. The Sidekick was integral to receiving messages and intrinsically included in the game dialogue. Unlike moviegoers, gamers were able to get a virtual hands-on demonstration of the device’s capabilities and recognize how they could use it in their real-world life. The most well-written commercial or print ad can’t provide that type of consumer experience. The game also reached a low estimate of over 1 million consumers who spent countless hours playing with T-Mobile’s Sidekick.

Improved storytelling in games also extends the reach of video game intellectual property. In the past, games were easily converted into comic books because hardcore gamers tend to be avid comic readers. Game developers’ emphasis on the game’s plot allows the intellectual property to reach additional media (e.g., movies, television). As marketers look to surround consumers with holistic marketing campaigns, integrating brands into multiple touch points that your consumer actively seeks out seems like an effective opportunity.

While Master Chief hasn’t won an Oscar yet, he helped Microsoft launch the largest grossing entertainment opening. Advertisers, if video games are the next blockbuster entertainment properties, let’s make sure we work with video game companies to ensure their products and messaging are up for best supporting actor.

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