Q&A: Gears of Wars' hype machine

Chris Di Cesare, Microsoft's director of Xbox marketing, talks about promoting the Xbox 360's marquee holiday season title, cemeteries, and chainsaws.

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While Sony and Nintendo are all-hands-on-deck in preparation for the launches of the PlayStation 3 and Wii, Microsoft's holiday focus is on games, particularly the much-anticipated Gears of War from Epic Games. The game was already featured in an MTV special and is a sponsor of Megadeth's Gigantour, but Microsoft has more events lined up.

The company is promoting the game with a series of events known as the Match Made in Hell, beginning with a tie-in with New Line Cinema's Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning. Gamers in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago will be able to see a prescreening of the movie and then play Gears of War on the big screen.

GameSpot chatted with Chris Di Cesare, the director of Xbox marketing, to find out how a company steals some of the thunder from two high-profile system launches, the effectiveness of viral marketing, and Emergence Day.

GameSpot: There's a lot of attention being paid to Gears of War this year. How important is Gears to Microsoft this holiday season?

Chris Di Cesare: Well, clearly just by anticipation alone vis-à-vis you can check it out from E3 on, we clearly see this as our big action game for the holiday, and obviously it's exclusive to the platform and a great showcase both visually as well as for multiplayer. It is our marquee title.

GS: In a sense you are taking on the PlayStation 3 and the Wii, which are launching around the same time as Gears of War, with the Xbox 360's second wave of games. Is this something where you would say you've got them right where you want them? Is this where you expected the Xbox 360 to be by now?

CD: Obviously the fact that we've been a year in the marketplace gives us the opportunity where we have a big portfolio of games out there and great first- and third-party support. So our lineup is really strong, and obviously what people ultimately want a platform for is games, and we've got great games. So it definitely gives us an edge on that standpoint of having a year in the marketplace with that momentum we're having.

GS: Back to Gears. You're doing the Match Made in Hell promotion. Can you describe the type of person you're trying to reach with it?

CD: As we've done with Halo, there's just huge excitement, community excitement, for it. It's largely an event that we're catering to our most loyal fans for Gears of War as well as Xbox in general.

GS: Is there a demographic you're targeting with these Gears of Wars promos?

Marcus Fenix's Chainsaw Massacre.
Marcus Fenix's Chainsaw Massacre.

CD: Somebody wrote that it's the ultimate chainsaw double-billing, if you will, for this event. I mean, if you look at horror fans for Texas Chainsaw Massacre as well as fans of Gears of War, it's the 18- to 24-, 18- to 34-year-old males who are our big fans. That's the primary audience for both, so as the line is, it's a perfect match made in hell, if you will.

GS: Yeah. A lot of blood. That'll be fun. How did the idea of showing the game alongside Texas Chainsaw Massacre come about? Who approached whom?

CD: Actually, it's an interesting question. We obviously vis-à-vis Xbox Live are doing a lot more partnerships with movie studios. The audience for Xbox Live is growing and so forth, and we reached that audience. [It] is hard to reach for a lot of typical TV viewers because people are playing more and more games and not watching nearly as much TV, so studios are attracted by that. So partnerships with the studios, distribution of their high-def trailers and other original programming or content is something that we're seeing more and more of. I was at a meeting with New Line Cinema and they were talking about their upcoming films that they're going to heavily promote, and I was doing the same around the [much]-anticipated games that we have going. And then they brought up Texas Chainsaw. Obviously there's a lot of synergies there [with Gears of War]. So it made the perfect sense to partner on that. Kind of a mutual agreement rather than one approaching the other. It came out of a conversation.

GS: The pairing with Texas Chainsaw Massacre is only going to be done in four cities. Is this sort of an idea that is a test for future projects? It's a fairly new idea what you're doing.

Yep--this will work with Gears of War.
Yep--this will work with Gears of War.

CD: Yeah. I don't think it's ever been done before, kind of a double billing, if you will, a first public viewing for both a film and a game. I think it's something we definitely would do or consider doing in the future. I think it's just a matter of finding a synergy, a partner where it's mutually beneficial to both. I mean, you couldn't think of two properties that kind of align so well that are both launching around the same kind of launch window. And on top of that, it's all taking place in the month we go gold for Gears and the movie premieres. So there's a lot of synergy within a one-month period of time.

GS: You're also doing stuff with Gigantour, and you had the MTV special that was focused on Gears. What is it that makes Gears so marketable to nongaming audiences?

CD: I think just one is when people see it, they're blown away. Visually it's really a testament to kind of how far gaming is going in terms of immersive experience where we're really approaching movie-quality look and feel, and on top of that being interactive. I think that really attracts people. And they say it's kind of like Band of Brothers meets Resident Evil or that kind of horror genre meets combat. And just with the excitement surrounding the month [because] of Halloween and edgier content that you see during this period of time, I think there's a lot of interest in the game and the marketing surrounding it.

GS: There were also some mumblings on the Internet about some messages that were sent over Xbox Live from the two main characters from the game. Whatever happened with that?

CD: You know [the thing is] I wasn't involved with that, so if I knew, I could give you more details. It's just I don't know about it, actually.

GS: What's your opinion on the whole viral-marketing and alternative-reality-games thing? Do you think they work?

CD: What I always say is you need the right property, the right idea, and the right team to help execute it. Especially with Halo. Obviously with I Love Bees it was something that just really struck a chord and was done kind of covertly and spread virally, and it was hugely successful. But you can't ever do that again--you can't do it exactly like that. While it can work, you have to continue to reinvent that formula to appeal to the community with the right kind of interactive entertainment experience in it's own right. Because that's what it is. It can't be an overt marketing messaging or anything like that.

GS: Now, we've heard a lot about Emergence Day, which was originally designated as November 12, but then Epic Games' Mark Rein said that Gears is shipping on November 7. What's going on with that, and can you clear up any of the confusion?

Now this is synergy!
Now this is synergy!

CD: Well, my understanding is that we will have some limited distribution starting on [November 7] and then full distribution at all retailers on the 12th. So some level of product will be out there, but I think we wanted Emergence Day to be truly when the product's available to the broad consumer public. So we're using that date as a launch day, even though there will be some trickling of product out before that.

GS: Rein also said that Microsoft is planning some cool Emergence Day events. Is there any chance you can fill us in on some of those details?

CD: We're really focusing on the first event. This is one of a series of three different events that we're going to be having during the month of October, all what we call the Match Made in Hell tour. So it's more partnering with content--edgier content--that kind of coincides with the game itself and having a unique experience for people. So it's Gears of War plus something else interesting or fitting with the product and the time frame of October. So this first event obviously is a partnering with Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Another event that we're going to be having closer to when the game goes gold at the end of the month is being held at a cemetery location where you get a chance to play the game, and there will be celebrity guests. But all of them are hands-on play of Gears of War before it's officially available. And then the last event is going to take place at a Fright Night-like location, so it's a part of Great Adventure [theme parks] where we'll be taking over the park in the evening and also having a private performance by Megadeth and having Gears of War playable. But also it'll be the first time Megadeth--who obviously through Gigantour became big Gears of War fans--are going to do their first performance of a Gears of War set, if you will, or perform a Gears of War song that they've scribed and will be a part of the new album. So you know, Megadeth and Gears of War, Texas Chainsaw and Gears of War, cemeteries. They all have this theme of giving gamers a chance to play the game before it launches, but then having some fun extracurricular activities.

GS: [Gears of War designer] Cliffy B.--everyone loves him. He's about as close to a rock star as there is in the industry. Do you think that in the future the people behind the game will become as marketable as the game itself?

CD: Yeah, those are the rock stars, the developers themselves. I mean, the passion that they have for the project comes through. Some guys are a little bit more open to the camera, Cliffy B. being one of them. And he's quite a charismatic personality on top of being a great developer.

GS: Stepping aside from Gears of War, what sort of marketing strategies are you taking with the other Microsoft Game Studios titles, like Viva Piñata and Forza 2?

Viva Piñata--not a chainsaw in sight.
Viva Piñata--not a chainsaw in sight.

CD: Well, it's a little bit early for Forza. Piñata's a very different property than Gears of War. You can't [confine] two extremes. Saturday morning we're running the Viva Piñata animated series, which is a great way to reach that young audience on a property that we believe in. And we're partnering with Kellogg's and Radio Disney around that as well. We're doing a lot more content media outreach and so forth that's geared towards a very family-friendly game, which Pinata is all about.

GS: What's being done with promoting Gears of War is only a drop in the bucket compared to what's going to go down with Halo 3, right?

CD: Well, listen, I think I would say that Gears of War is our big blockbuster title for the holiday. But expectations for Halo 3 are through the roof. So I can't really compare the two in terms of that, but I would say that obviously anticipation is growing even now for Halo 3, even though it's out next year.

GS: Yep, it definitely is. Thank you very much.

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