Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Mass Effect: PR Tactics

Opening rant

I'm not entirely sure who is doing public relations for BioWare right now, but whoever it is could school the industry a bit on generating buzz. I didn't take the time to do an extremely thorough search, so if anyone knows who the mastermind is behind yesterday's cryptic announcements, leave it in the comments. I was able to find some PR firms that BioWare utilized in the past on some old press materials, but they don't seem to have the developer listed as a client currently. I did also see some @bioware e-mail addresses on other materials, indicating that internal folks could be responsible for recent communication efforts.

Now, if you aren't a gamer, you're likely still staring at your screen asking, What buzz? And why the heck should I care as a PR professional about some video game developer?

Well, look, I'll catch you up on the news next. But you really should be paying attention to the gaming industry, which is comparable in sales ($10.5 billion in 2009) to the movie industry ($10.6 billion in 2009). Americans have already spent about $9.7 billion on gaming in 2010. And right now, the gaming industry is exemplifying good PR and marketing smartly.

So what'd they do this time?

BioWare is a Canadian-based video game company responsible for many bestsellers and gamer favorites such as Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect (and their sequels). The company is a subsidiary of industry heavyweight Electronic Arts.

Yesterday, Spike TV posted a video on its 2010 Video Game Awards site stating that BioWare will make an announcement during the awards show Dec. 11:

Gamers immediately began scouring the Web for information... is this a new franchise, or could it be that BioWare is already dishing out the next part of the highly popular Mass Effect series? (Mass Effect 2 only came out this year and is a nominee for the 2010 game of the year — even still, an announcement would likely mean a late 2011 release for a new game.) Not long after the promo debuted, a savvy poster on the gaming site Kotaku noticed that the rifle shown in the video was very similar to a rifle obtained in Mass Effect 2, the M-29 Incisor:

As if that wasn't enough to fuel the nerdy fire, moments later, BioWare's Facebook page (and its pages for Mass Effect, Dragon Age, etc.) posted two cryptic barcodish symbols:

This is where the PR buzz really exploded. Hundreds and hundreds of commenters and 'conspiracy theorists' across BioWare's various platforms and on Kotaku, IGN, Shacknews and elsewhere discussed what it all could mean, some fervently defending their positions.

The general consensus seems to be that the barcodes can be scanned in and translated to binary and eventually determined to equal the mass of iron and the coldest temperature ever recorded on Earth (temperature is apparently known as an effect in physics). Also, that temperature of -128.6 F was recorded in Vostok, Antarctica. Vostok is also a system in the Mass Effect universe. This has led many to believe that BioWare's Dec. 11 announcement will be Mass Effect 3, or a related spinoff game. Others think that because of the connection to a temperature on Earth and the prevalence of iron on Earth that the new Mass Effect game may take place on the planet (Mass Effect has never explored Earth previously, even though the Milky Way is a part of the lore).

A successful PR tactic

By the end of the day, BioWare had gained coverage on all of the major gaming and tech news sites, several gaming podcasts and all over the social media space. It will be interesting to see what ratings turn out to be for the VGAs this year, but I predict they'll be mediocre at best because (A) good luck figuring out what channel Spike TV is and (B) gamers would rather just find the info online during/after the show. For BioWare, though, this tactic of using a little mystery with some cross-promotion couldn't have gone better, and it's a perfect case study for PR professionals seeking some inspiration on innovative ways to connect with target audiences and get them talking.

Photos are from wikis, social media and officially released press materials obtained through Games Press.