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The Video Game Market: Plug In!

By Betsy Cummings

On a blazing May morning, outside the Los Angeles Convention Center, commuters whip with typical speed through rush-hour traffic. But it's nothing compared to the frenzy that's about to ensue at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3Expo) video game convention inside.
Crammed into the 400-square-foot space on the convention floor that is the Webzen branding center for the next 72 hours, no less than 40 people are screaming and reaching for all their worth toward the booth's stage. That's because Webzen, a video game manufacturer, and one of nearly 500 exhibitors at the E3Expo, is tossing out T-shirts from the stage to a select few recipients - those who are quick enough to snatch one out of the air. T-shirts?!

With the ear-piercing hollers and shouts coming from this swarm, you'd think Elvis had entered the building, not a 100% cotton, washable red piece of clothing. "It's the most useful thing you can have," says Bruce Ly, a software engineer in attendance, explaining the rabid race for Webzen T-shirts. "If they didn't give away stuff, I'd still come," but promotional products, he says, go a long way in connecting video games with their audience - usually young, active consumers who are into highly tactile products that they can collect and keep to remind them of their favorite games. It's evident when the booth fanatics who didn't manage to snag one of the half-dozen shirts tossed into the crowd utter a collective sigh of disappointment.

Whatever the reason, video game promotional items are intensely popular among users who serve as free brand promoters to gaming companies when they wear T-shirts, hats, lanyards and other items given to them. The key, experts insist, is finding the right promotional product to push your game. For example, when marketers behind the new violent video game Gun, wanted to promote its mystique, they did so through bloody ears attached to lanyards that attendees adored.

Disgusting? Perhaps, but game enthusiasts couldn't snatch up enough of the amputated foam ears imprinted with the word "Gun." "Cool, awesome," gush two booth visitors who grab the ears at the E3Expo. It makes an impact for sure, but its branding strength could be fleeting, since there are no other markings on the ear besides the word "Gun." It's impossible to know what the game is, that video giant Activision manufactures it, or where to buy the product if you view the ear outside of the convention - and an otherwise repulsive-but-compelling promotional product loses its long-term marketing muscle.

That's just the point, says Andy Swanson, publisher at Future Network USA, a company that produces several video game magazines. It's a product produced specifically for the serious gamer. "They want that person to say, 'What is this ear? What does it have to do with video games?'" In that case, the product is meant more for instant impact than it is for long-term promotional power.

But other products have longer branding strength. Wizards of the Coast Inc., for example, offered a mousepad recently to highlight the company's Magic: The Gathering online card trading game. "Everyone comes for fat loot," says Terri Perkins, online product manager for video game company Funcom, about gamers and their love of premium products. So it's important that each video game's "loot" stick out more than the last. Below, we highlight several successful video game product promotions, none of which rely on bloody body parts.

Make It Hot
It's 11 a.m. at video game product manufacturer Logitech's E3Expo booth and things are just heating up. "And the game is on!" shouts the emcee while two trade show visitors, standing on a raised platform, video controls in hand, battle it out onscreen amidst a rocky desert terrain in a military video game.

"Oh no, Steve is dead," the announcer shouts. "You suck, but let me give you a T-shirt." So begins the promotional giveaway at the Logitech booth, which include T-shirts, speakers, cordless headsets and cordless gaming sets. "OK, that was Michael killing Will," the announcer bellows gleefully as another gamer fails in the bid to win prizes, before launching into another promotional pitch as a dozen more gamers wait in line for their turn to win promotional products. "Win Z5500 speakers," the emcee barks. "You will love them, but your neighbors will hate you. Or you can win this cordless headset (which will silence game noises) and your neighbors will love you."

These are, of course, Logitech products that the company is giving away, hoping to entice more to buy, but that's not the only promotion going on here. In fact, the prizes are the final tier of a multi-level promotional plan that involves smaller premium products to spark gamers' attention - and then reel them in to the bigger awards. In addition to T-shirts for those who participate in the games at the company's booth, every visitor receives a flashing, clear-plastic lanyard with Logitech's logo and the tagline, "Play with the Best."

"Anything that lights up, moves or is loud," is usually a hot promotional item with the gaming crowd, says Denise Garcia, trade show and events manager for Logitech. But the most effective items, she says, are functional, as well as eye-catching. Bag holders, lanyards that are reusable, T-shirts and other items that will have multiple uses beyond the initial promotion are the most effective for promoting a brand or particular video game.

It's no secret why nearly every video game maker at the show is giving away bags that attendees will use to collect product samples on the show floor. "Companies are thinking, 'We know you're going to carry around all this free stuff.' So the bag is another marketing message," says Swanson.

But no matter what companies are giving out, they want it to have impact. "If we're going to invest money in promotional products, we don't want them to end up in the trash," Garcia says, adding that Logitech gave out 15,000 T-shirts at $5 each and 10,000 flashing lanyards costing $3 each.

Making products exclusive is key as well. Not even the company's employees get Logitech T-shirts, only the game participants, some of whom wait up to 30 minutes to play for their chance at prizes.

Announcing the Newest
When video retailers like GameStop want to promote new game launches, they almost always do so with promotional products says Sean Kauppinen, account director and video game expert for Kohnke Communications, a public relations firm for interactive gaming companies. Doing so, he says, is a smart business strategy for testing the market and determining the level of interest of a particular game.

"Promotional products have the greatest effect on pre-orders" of video games. They draw people in and lock in guaranteed sales. I think it's because gaming has become more of a lifestyle for avid consumers," Kauppinen says. "If gaming is your lifestyle and you play Halo (a first-person shooting game by Microsoft), then you want every possible Halo thing you can find."

And smart game marketers know that, tying in games to popular movies and trends. "I've seen LucasArts use key chains, light sabers or toy figurines to promote video games," Swanson says. But the key is that those products are giving gaming companies something in return. When gamers enter a GameStop, for example, to pre-order the Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith video game, they may put $10 down to do so and receive a promotional product in return.

Promotional products like that, "pretty much guarantee that they'll come back to buy the game," Swanson says, paying $30 or $40 more for the product. "If he doesn't, then you just pocketed $10 for a $2 item." Not bad, but the ROI centers more around the promotional product's attractiveness to the gaming crowd. It's the mentality of gamers to pick up freebies, he says, since they are emotionally attached to the experience that various games provide. And the interest in pre-order promotional products gives video game developers and retailers a better sense of how many games will be purchased, while sparking added interest in the process.

For others, announcing new games is as much about promotional products and giveaways as it is the game itself. This summer, when gaming center company iGames promotes the latest Microsoft Battlefield game, Battlefield 2: Modern Combat, it will do so using several promotional products, including 2,000 T-shirts and posters at 82 gaming centers nationwide. "Between 10-20% of the value of the event is in prizes and giveaways," says Mark Nielsen, executive director of iGames. But that's important, he adds, since gamers will be expecting such heavy promotion and will be looking for products.

When Battlefield 2, Medal of Honor is released in the next month, video retailer EB Games will offer a free headset to those who purchase the game. They'll have a similar promotion for European Assault, offering a free comic book to game buyers.

Such giveaways are part and parcel of popular games that companies want to promote even further, Swanson says. "Where you see promotional products being used the most is with retailers like Best Buy, EB Games and GameSpot," particularly during pre-orders for hot titles like the latest Star Wars game or the next iteration of best-seller Grand Theft Auto, he says.

Create Mad Buzz
Sometimes the best way to create awareness of a new game is by giving away promotional products - not to the public, but to the press, or via the media. "These days companies do pre-release press tours when they want a game to make a big splash, offering editors a chance to see the games a month before they're released" or before a major show like E3Expo, Swanson says. Editors at his magazines, PSM, Official Xbox Magazine and PC Gamer, will occasionally receive bags of gifts that include everything from T-shirts to the games themselves.

But gaming companies also try to partner with media companies and hit consumers with promotional products in other innovative ways, such as by having products polybagged with magazines to entice gaming enthusiasts to buy the magazine on the newsstand and learn more about a soon-to-be-released title.

When Rockstar games prepared to release another version of its hot-selling Grand Theft Auto series with the latest title, Grand Theft Auto San Andreas, the company partnered with Future Network USA to create more buzz and awareness of the game. To do that, they polybagged PSM magazine with bandanas, an iconic symbol that gangsters wear in the game. Rockstar did a similar promotion when the game came out on Xbox, polybagging a poker chip (since casinos are a large part of the game) with the magazine, one of which included a golden ticket that a lucky winner could use to win a BMX bike.

Keep It Cool
Certainly, video game fanatics want the latest promotional product and its accompanying video game, but they want both to be cool. When video game maker NCSoft announced the next version of its game City of Heroes, called City of Villains in May, they wanted to create a product that would dovetail specifically with the game, which is about superheroes. Their choice? Mauve capes imprinted with the company's logo and game title on the back.

But the company wanted visitors to work for the cape and the free game by going through a game demo in order to get a cape. Then, to get additional marketing mileage, NCSoft promoters asked cape recipients to wear the capes around the E3Expo so that, if they were spotted donning the cape, they could win the new game. The strategy is brilliant, says Mike Crouch, NCSoft's public relations manager. "These are walking billboards for us."

It even worked on those who weren't particularly interested in wearing mauve capes. "I don't really want to wear this, but I really want to get the next version of City of Heroes, City of Villains," said video game animator Paul Sauser, before sheepishly tugging one on.

Finding the product that will appeal most to gamers can be tricky. When Logitech's Garcia wanted lanyards as a promotional tool, she wouldn't settle for the first one she saw. In fact, she took dozens home with her and stood in her closet every night, testing various lanyards' illumination capability to make sure the lanyard Logitech chose would be bright enough in a dark arena to draw attention to her company's logo.

For some products, however, the choice is obvious. When Funcom wanted to promote its video game Age of Conan, based on the "Conan the Barbarian" comic strip, it did so with plastic, inflatable swords - and adults were lined up 20 deep to get them. The company gave out 8,000 recently at $1 each for the swords that were custom-made in China. "The swords aren't for keeping," says Funcom's Perkins, adding that the company realizes most swords will be trashed or given to children once adults handle them initially. "But it draws attention to us and people want to see our game."

Apparently so. Gladys Fox, who works for Standard Office Machines and stands only 4 feet 11 inches tall, says she battles fiercely for every gaming promotional product she can get her hands on. "Yesterday, I wanted a signed copy of Doom but seven guys rushed ahead of me to get it," Fox says at the E3Expo. "I could have used the sword then."

Conan swords may not have a long marketing lifespan outside of the convention. "I gave mine to my nephew who is four, and he hit his sister with it until I popped it," Swanson says. So it's important to make sure a product is as attention-grabbing to gamers as it is useful in the long run.

And apparently, even the bloody ears may have a life off the show floor. "If you want to see something interesting, go onto eBay, search for E3 2005 and people are selling press kits and every bit of swag they pick up at those shows," says Kauppinen. "There's a market for it because those who can't make it to the show buy that stuff. These promotional products definitely have an impact somewhere," and often a marketing life far beyond their initial promotional purpose.

COPYRIGHT © 2005 The Advertising Specialty Institute. All rights reserved.
Betsy Cummings is a freelance writer based in New York.

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