If you asked someone who’d never picked up a control pad to name a video game, chances are they would say Grand Theft Auto. (Super) Mario and Lara Croft are more iconic characters and, as arch games industry provocateur Peter Molyneux recently pointed out, mobile titles, such as Angry Birds, have a wider audience. However, the GTA series has seeped into the public consciousness, and this is down to PR.
Arguably this may be for the wrong reasons. The long-running series has been labelled violent, misogynistic and racist over the years and it certainly does have unwholesome elements, which have been seized upon by the anti-gaming lobby. However, the games have their collective tongue lodged firmly in cheek and can be surprisingly sophisticated – Breaking Bad on an Avatar budget if you’re a fan of glib PR sound bites.
Grand Theft Auto’s notoriety was carefully cultivated and goes back to the very first title launched in 1997. Publicist Max Clifford engineered a media backlash to place it firmly in the category of video game nasties, such as Mortal Kombat and Carmageddon. The original Grand Theft Auto did not have the polish or the panache of its successors and it’s doubtful it would have become such a juggernaut franchise without this wilfully orchestrated outrage. Clearly this was one of few examples where the old adage that “there’s no such thing as bad publicity” has actually been proved correct.
You may have spotted that Grand Theft Auto 5, the latest in the series, launched last week. It has since gone on to become the highest grossing video game yet released. The new instalment also boasts the highest production costs to date, estimated at around £170m, which brings it into the same budget bracket as the most expensive blockbuster movies. However, Grand Theft Auto 5 achieved sales of $1 billion after only three days and by comparison the highest grossing film to date, James Cameron’s Avatar, made (a mere?!) $87 million during its opening weekend.
With these types of budgets the premium tier of the games industry brings considerable risk to investors, particularly if the title is not already part of an established franchise. Generally speaking, the major film studios are able to pull a profit from even the biggest stinker, so long as it makes the right level of investment. With a fully stoked publicity machine, a blockbuster movie is almost guaranteed to do good business over the course of the all-important opening weekend, at least as long as it fits into a popular genre and has bankable stars.
Even after bad reviews inevitably take their toll and ticket sales drop sharply in cinemas, almost any big budget film will make a profit over the years across multiple distribution windows – Blu-Ray, pay TV, subscription VOD services and so on. However, video games publishers don’t have that advantage and games certainly aren’t too big to fail. The level of investment in terms of both time and money which needs to be put into games means consumers are less prone to impulse sales. Also, the retail value of games drops precipitously after a couple of months, or until the next “triple A” title hits the shelves.
Longer term sales are also impacted significantly by the second-hand market. Microsoft was forced to retract its plans to kill off used games sales for its next generation console in the wake of fierce criticism from the gaming community following the slow motion PR car crash which was the reveal of the Xbox One in May. This was a great victory for consumers against “the man”; however, it’s not such good news for games developers and publishers.
Gamers are probably one of the hardest audiences to please in the world; tech-savvy and outspoken they will take to forums, blogs, comment sections and Amazon reviews to argue their point in minute detail. Given all the publisher had at stake over Grand Theft Auto 5 and, correspondingly, the time that has gone into its development, there was little doubt the game would meet fans’ expectations. Given the depth of feeling displayed by sections of the gaming community, finally releasing the title must have been incredibly fraught for all involved. I can imagine the only team sweating more at the prospect of fan backlash must be Disney over the new Star Wars films.
Arguably, the Disney PR team have an easier job of it; after all wearing a Darth Vader costume is less likely to put your life at risk than dressing up as a gangster. This was something that the staff of a games store in France learned when they attracted the attention of armed police on GTA 5’s launch day.
I’m sure stunts will still have a part to play in the next generation of consoles. However, the sight of people queuing around the block at midnight is likely to become a less straight-forward story for PRs to fall back on. Grand Theft Auto 5 was one of the first titles to offer early downloads so gamers would be guaranteed a copy to play on launch day. Given the size of the file, this was not without teething troubles but one of the big selling points for digital distribution on both PS4 and Xbox One is the option to start playing a game whilst it is downloading. As the market for CDs has contracted, the same is likely to happen for games. The model is already proven with consumers used to the newer delivery model thanks to Valve’s highly successful Steam service for PC games.
Regardless of whether a game comes on a disk or via a download, or whether consumers are going on the recommendations of their peers or professionals, reviews are what determines the fate of any title. This means that getting the highest possible Metacritic rating is of huge significance if any game is going to have a decent shelf-life. Inevitably there have been exposés of shady dealings by games PRs, including astroturfing and promising early review copies to magazines and websites in return for the guarantee of a good score or placement on a magazine’s cover or prominence on a website’s home page.
No doubt there will be further scandals to come, but PRs now have to think bigger than just the friendly gaming titles. As the games industry grows up, the ways in which PRs engage with a broader set of media will have to become increasingly sophisticated. More and more column inches are being dedicated to video games in the non-specialist press as the medium becomes increasingly mainstream. Whereas 16 years ago the original GTA was in the national press thanks to a carefully constructed moral panic, now the big story is that Grand Theft Auto V may go on to become the highest grossing entertainment product ever made.