Public Relations Lessons from the House of Mouse

The_Haunted_MansionAt the 2009 Game Developers Conference, Scott Rogers, a designer whose credits include God of War and the excellent (albeit tough-as-nails) Maximo, presented a talk that broke down the core concepts of game design into something everyone could relate to… Disneyland. It was a truly inspired idea and one that, when applied correctly, might also help shed some light on the power of public relations.

Amusement parks, even ones as carefully Imagineered as Disneyland, mean lines. Lots and lots of lines. As a visitor to the magic kingdom, you’ll probably have to wait in line for food, restrooms, the monorail, shows, and rides. For the most popular attractions, those wait times can take over an hour, which can be hard to justify when the ride only takes 5-10 minutes.

This is where the true brilliance of the house of mouse, and the potential power of PR, comes into play. Through careful design choices, the waiting area for just about every major attraction at Disneyland is an extension of the ride itself. The long, winding spaces the queues occupy are decorated lavishly with little interactions that both make the wait more pleasant and inform people what to expect when they reach their destination. They even provide helpful advice on what to look out for and how to stay safe.

Haunted_Mansion_SignConsider the Haunted Mansion. At the start of the line, visitors are funneled through a pet cemetery with plenty of dark humor. Before the ride, guests are divided up into manageably-sized groups and fed through the Stretching Room, a comedic-yet-chilling experience featuring an introduction to the ride by the “ghost host” and portraits of silly death scenes. Heading down a hall of transforming paintings, guests finally arrive at the Doom Buggies and hop on the ride itself.

Disney could have done what most amusement parks do, create a switchback line that dumps people directly onto the ride as fast as possible. It’s a quick and, to a certain degree, effective solution, but the overall experience suffers for it. By taking the time to build out the ride’s influence beyond the attraction itself, they have an opportunity to prepare their guests, keep them entertained while waiting, and set expectations ahead of time.

This is the subtle power that PR can wield over an audience. Much like convincing people to happily wait in line for a ride through the Haunted Mansion, getting someone to buy your game at launch requires their keeping their interest levels high and making sure they understand the title as the release date approaches. You can certainly stick with sending out a launch announcement and setting up a number of well-placed ads, but building on the basics and engaging with your audience can take things to the next level.

As a prime example, take the heavy metal action-adventure Brütal Legend. It had ample star power, a clever premise, and a ready-made audience of metalheads and gamers waiting in the wings. Instead of relying on these points and simply spending a ton of marketing dollars right before the Rocktober 13th launch, Activision focused heavily on pre-release PR efforts and made sure that the outreach acted as an extension of the title’s theme. Here are a few of the highlights:

  • To tease the game before a big reveal in Game Informer, Activision mailed out a limited number of vinyl singles from “Riggs Records” that (true to metal form) demonically chanted the name of the game when played backwards.
  • Video shorts popped up in various places online which had Jack Black (and Tim Schafer) introduce the world to the importance of roadies, the finer points of metal, and key details about the game.
  • Jack Black made multiple in-character appearances as Eddie Riggs in the months leading up to launch, including visits to Jimmy Kimmel Live! and the MTV Video Music Awards.

In other words, Activision and Double Fine built the spirit of Brütal Legend into the entire campaign, combining plenty of humor with traditional facets of both gaming and metal culture. The result was entertaining, informative, and just silly enough to let people know you didn’t have to love metal to join in the fun.

Walt Disney knew that the key to building a successful attraction was making sure the entire experience was accounted for, from the start of the waiting line to the last ten feet leading up to the exit. The same theory applies to successfully launching a new game. Get people to “jump in line” by making a big announcement, hold their attention by providing a steady flow of interesting information, use messaging that helps them understand what your game is and why it’s worth the wait, and, above all else, make sure they have the best experience possible leading up to the launch.

Considering how vast the gaming industry has become and the fact that many games are announced over a year before they hit the shelves, following Walt’s lead can make all the difference in the world.

(Many thanks to Scott Rogers for the inspiration. Head to to check out the entire set of slides from his fantastic GDC presentation!)