MI6 conference emphasizes style as much as substance

Inaugural marketing-in-games summit kicks off in San Francisco with help from Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert.


SAN FRANCISCO--In a season rife with game-industry conferences covering the medium from every perspective, the inaugural MI6 conference stands head and shoulders above the rest when it comes to production values. Of course, that emphasis on how the event is presented should be expected, considering it's the one conference put on by game marketers, for game marketers.

Between the inflatable blimps, suspended lighting rigs cycling colored spotlights around the room, booming sound system, and giant screens alternately showing commercials, presenters, and PowerPoint presentations, it felt as much like an awards show as a straight-faced communal examination of the issues affecting a key component of the gaming industry. The thumping intro music for the speakers didn't hurt, either.

The conference planners even went out of their way to get some celebrity appeal. Kicking the event off Tuesday afternoon was a brief, taped introduction by Stephen Colbert, host of Comedy Central's The Colbert Report. After chastising the crowd for helping promote evils such as violence, sex, and evolution ("I'm talking to you, Spore!"), Colbert asked for help shilling his own proposed game, World of Colbertcraft, and asked everyone to enjoy the conference.

The first presentation of the event was handled by Chris Di Cesare, director of Xbox marketing, who used his half-hour slot to talk about the changing advertising market and the ways in which Microsoft's Halo 2 and Xbox 360 launch campaigns took advantage of them. The brunt of Di Cesare's message was that the world of advertising is undergoing a massive change.

"What it all comes down to is control," Di Cesare said. "There is unprecedented power to decide what, when, and how consumers view things. The old consumers, they used to be an easy target for marketers to push messages."

Technology such as digital video recorders and the Internet have changed the market fundamentally, according to Di Cesare, and marketers need to embrace that change. He suggests that the old way of thinking that held a 30-second commercial spot on prime-time TV as the end-all, be-all needs to change and be supplemented by more alternative marketing techniques.

He mentioned numerous advertising campaigns that engaged viewers with the brand in new ways. Burger King's "Subservient Chicken" campaign, in which visitors to a Web site could type in commands for a person in a chicken suit to carry out, was one such example, with another being New Line Cinema's promotion for the upcoming Samuel L. Jackson film Snakes on a Plane. Di Cesare noted that once an audience had unexpectedly embraced the film based on little more than its title and star, New Line Cinema shot new footage to make the film fall more in line with fan expectations. It also has been encouraging fan-made trailers and other content that engages the audience in the promotion of the film.

As for his own efforts, Di Cesare explained the thinking behind Microsoft's promotional efforts for Halo 2 and the Xbox 360 launch.

"The overall strategy we used was something we called, 'Feed the core, captivate the masses,'" Di Cesare said.

For the Xbox 360, the Zero Hour launch event was designed to stir the hardcore market, while the MTV half-hour special that unveiled the system aimed for a much broader appeal. As far as Halo 2, the infamous ilovebees campaign certainly generated buzz among core gamers, while the company attempted to generate a perception around the game's launch that it was a blockbuster event to interest the masses.

Even though Microsoft designed ilovebees to capture the interest of the core market, it took off to such a degree that coverage of the campaign spilled out into mainstream media such as The New York Times. A similar pattern emerged with the Hex168 promotion for the Zero Hour event, where more than 56,000 gamers had to decode Web sites to figure out how to even enter a contest, 3,000 winners of which would be invited to an Xbox 360 launch event. However, it was still up to the winners to find their own way to the event, which was held in a remote location in the Mojave desert.

"What we thought would be really interesting about this were the many human interest stories that resulted from people moving across countries to be at the event," Di Cesare said.

One such story involved a man in Sweden who won two passes to the event but had no way to get there. He managed to trade his second pass to a man in Texas in exchange for airfare to the United States. Once the winner landed in Texas, he and the stranger who brought him to this country set off on a road trip to Zero Hour. Another story involved the first two gamers on the scene, a pair of gamers from Mississippi who got there a day early and wound up being covered by 20 news outlets.

"No longer is it a model about viewing ad impressions," Di Cesare said. "It's about entertaining and engaging. And as long as you have a focus for your product, then you can understand what consumers want and apply some of the practices that I've outlined."

At that point, Di Cesare thanked the audience and left the stage while music blared once again. No sooner was he out of view than the next presenter was being introduced and the conference rolled on. MI6 is scheduled to keep rolling in that fashion until Wednesday night, when presentations by Spore designer Will Wright and famed horror film director Wes Craven lead into the MI6 Achievement Awards, hosted by Adam Sessler and Morgan Webb of X-Play.

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