Top Ten Video Game PR Moments of 2009

It’s December, and ’tis the season to sit back with friends and family, have some eggnog, and organize an entire year’s worth of events into convenient, easily understandable list form – preferably condensing it to no more than 10 events, otherwise you’ll be… hey what’s that over there? That’s right! It’s a list of the ten most defining PR moments in the video game industry in 2009. What better way to get into the season of unabashed navel-gazing than to summarize the most successful, and failed, attempts at bolstering one’s public image.

#10 – OnLive Streams GDC 2009 – Cloud computing was all the rage this past March when OnLive announced that it had been in stealth mode for seven years and was close to achieving the un-achievable – streaming intensely complex video games to any television or PC. With a major funding announcement combined with a near-fully operational playable prototype, OnLive stole the show with little effort. A perfect PR storm, hardly anything else came close to generating the amout of buzz OnLive did at GDC 2009. Since then, however, we’ve heard hardly a peep, and GDC 2010 is just around the corner. Will it be another seven years until we hear from OnLive again?

#9 – 2K fouls EA at the line – A good thing to keep in mind when promoting your own game is that you should focus on promoting your own game. Never talk badly about a competitor, keep them close for they are your enemy. Such logic was not in mind when 2K Sports community manager Ronnie Singh accused EA of developing a patch for NBA Live 10 before the game was released, saying that their incorporation of community feedback was an exageration. Flame war! These two companies battled it out for days in blogs and on Twitter. Sadly, no one came out on top, and both groups ended up looking silly. What happened to being the bigger person?

#8 – Scribblenauts Creates Tidal Wave of Anticipation – The little DS game that could – Scribblenauts wow’ed E3 attendees with it’s innovative gameplay that seemed to offer near endless possibilities for creative puzzle solving. Everyone was ready to buy this game three-times over just after playing with the title screen. The concept alone was enough to make Scribblenauts one of the most anticipated games of 2009, and the publicity team at Warner leveraged it’s accolades perfectly with promotions like Street Fighter characters draw in Scribblenauts’ style. Scribblenauts is probably the single-best PR case study for a video game in 2009.

#7 – Microsoft Waves from the Future at E3 – 2009 saw a deluge of new kinds of technology, from streaming video games, to free to play online games, to downloadable content – all of which ignited a conversation about the future of the console industry. Then came Microsoft’s unveiling of Project Natal at E3. Suddenly the future of the industry as we saw it was tossed out the window. Microsoft put together an impressive live demonstration very shortly after acquiring 3DV Systems – the company that developed the technology on which Project Natal is based – and in the process changed everything about what we expected out of the next five years.

#6 – Sony Shapes Up and Slims Down – High-five, Sony! This was something all gamers, Microsoft and Sony fanboys alike, were waiting for since the PS3’s initial $600 pricepoint was unveiled. Not only did Sony turn the Mini-Van-like design of the original PS3 into something more akin to a small SUV, but they dropped the price to a reasonable $299.99. It was like magic, and PS3 hold-outs everywhere thanked the gaming gods for such a blessing. Just forget about the fact that they’re still losing money on every console.

#5 – Hey – We’re Recession Proof, Right? Right? – Towards the end of 2008 the American economy started to look like a sinking ship. We in the gaming industry were pretty sure that we had a nice lifeboat waiting for us on the deck to protect us from danger. Analysts hedged their bets against the fact that people want, “escapism” entertainment. After over $1 billion in lost revenue, and thousands of layoffs across the industry, it turned out that what people wanted more than entertainment was employment. Though no one organization does PR for the entire industry, the bolstering of sales expectations forced more than a few over-zealous organizations to abandon ship.

#4 – Randy Pitchford Gets Steamed – When Randy Pitchford, CEO of Gearbox, called out Valve for the overtly conflicted use of their proprietary digital distribution platform, Steam, it called into question what most felt would be the future of buying and selling games – digital distribution. It was a bandwagon that everyone hopped onto, Microsoft with Games on Demand, Nintento with WiiWare, and Sony with the PSN Store, not to mention a slieu of PC based networks. Suddenly the question of distribution network ownership became an issue, and nearly the entire development community was called upon to take sides. With little resolution to date, this will be an interesting issue as the industry becomes more digitalized.

#3 – Shake-It, Baby – 2009 saw the emergence of a new power in the gaming industry – the iPhone platform. For a short time the App Store was like the Wild-West, (and still is in some respects) with developers submitting all kinds of apps in the hopes they would strike it big. Many submitted apps with little to no real interaction in the hopes that the concept or title of the game would be enough for people to pay the mere $0.99. That strategy failed big time when Baby Shaker hit the App Store, offending pretty much everyone and putting heavy pressure on Apple to refine their approval process.

#2 – Infinity Ward’s Absent-Minded Promotional Video – The leak of Modern Warfare 2’s “No Russian” level, in which the player accompanies a terrorist organization through an ultra-violent shootout on civilians in an airport, created a media fallout well beyond what occurred for GTA III: San Adreas’ “Hot Coffee” controversy, which ultimately ended in a class-action lawsuit. Activision and Infinity Ward scrambled to prevent the fire from spreading, but in all the commotion failed to realize that something even worse was on the way. No it wasn’t another ultra-violent reveal from Modern Warfare 2, it was a cheeky promotional video featuring Phillies pitcher, Cole Hamels. The subtle context and faux interest group featured made it seem as though Infinity Ward was actually condoning the hate-speak that plagues online gaming communities. The real potential of such encouragement totally overshadowed the simulated violence of the “No Russian” leak, leaving many of Infinity Ward’s biggest fans feeling confused and disgusted.

#1 – Offerpal CEO Digs Her Own Grave – Many enthusiast gamers may have missed this one, but there was a media avalanche in the social games space earlier this year. It all started at the Virtual Goods Summit when Offerpal CEO Anu Shukla mouthed-off to Michael Arrington of TechCrunch – one of the most prolific and influential bloggers on the Internet. During a panel Q&A session, Arrington asked Shukla a reasonable question about Offerpal’s stance on some of the more spam-like promotions they place in social games – Shukla responded with insults and dismissal. So what did Arrington do? He wrote a daming blog post, effectively unravelling Offerpal’s entire business model, causing nearly every social games developer to reevaluate their terms of service, and getting Shukla booted from the CEO position of a company that she co-founded. This moment defined why PR people exist.

Runner-UP: Sony Goes Nowhere with the PSPGo