Console wars power up for the holidays

Possibly the hottest property on the shelves this Christmas, gaming consoles are already battling it out to be the number one stocking-filler. Sony Computer Entertainment is fighting to maintain its stronghold on the console market with its top-selling PlayStation and successor, PS2, in the face of launches by two formidable rivals. Software giant Microsoft launched its long-awaited Xbox in Canada and the U.S. on Nov. 15, while Nintendo's GameCube was quick to follow three days later.

Possibly the hottest property on the shelves this Christmas, gaming consoles are already battling it out to be the number one stocking-filler. Sony Computer Entertainment is fighting to maintain its stronghold on the console market with its top-selling PlayStation and successor, PS2, in the face of launches by two formidable rivals. Software giant Microsoft launched its long-awaited Xbox in Canada and the U.S. on Nov. 15, while Nintendo’s GameCube was quick to follow three days later.

Despite concerns that the usually lucrative sector would be damaged by the economic downturn of late, researcher NPD Group in New York reports that the video game market is already up 35% from last year before the crucial holiday season, which should boost that figure to 50%.

All three players have launched costly marketing campaigns, with Sony ploughing an estimated US$100 million into its North American ad campaign, and Nintendo spending US$75 million in the fourth quarter alone. Sony is concentrating its effort on its original PlayStation for the first time since 1988, to try and leverage popularity of the cheaper console.

In a campaign that started Oct. 1 and runs through to March 31, Nintendo of Canada teamed up with Kraft Foods for on-pack game giveaways. Nintendo also partnered up with media players like MuchMusic, YTV and SRC in Quebec to provide game sampling opportunities in seven cities across Canada, running from mid-September to mid-October.

Microsoft Canada has topped the bill with a budget of more than US$500 million for its worldwide campaign. In another Canadian initiative, Microsoft is specifically marketing the music capabilities of Xbox. A deal was signed with Universal Music and EMI Music in Canada to create Xbox Soundtrack 1, a two-CD set with artists like Crystal Method and Public Enemy. Xbox Canada is also running a nationwide ‘Search for the Ultimate Gamer’ campus tour, focusing on the older college demo. Strategy polled creatives to see which console gets the highest score.

Pascale LeBlanc, founder of Toronto-based youth marketing strategy firm, Youthopia Communications

Microsoft Xbox : Three cryptic 30-second spots, created by MacLaren McCann in Toronto, which made their debut on MuchMusic during the 2001 MTV Video Music Awards, focus on a scary-looking prophet who receives news of how Xbox will change gaming forever. One spot shows the prophet drawing chalk X’s all over a wall; Another shows a dozing security guard who is unaware that the prophet’s face is appearing on all his CCTV screens. The third involves the prophet holding a cockroach.

These spots made me think of the movie, The Blair Witch Project because of the dark, mysterious environment. The campaign is beautifully executed. They certainly know the clientele pretty well. Kids really respect companies that do their homework and raise the bar like that. It’s very much a basement, underground approach, directed at the couch-potato market.

Nintendo GameCube: This campaign builds from the 60-second spot by Leo Burnett in Chicago which shows a rapidly circling animated cube filled with fast moving colourful game characters, and snippets from various GameCube games. It focuses on the well-known Nintendo character, Mario. An image of the console appears on the screen and then fades out to reveal the tag line, ‘Born to Play.’

By contrast, these spots are more extroverted and street level. They’re very clean and stimulating, and they follow all the rules. I like this approach better because I’m a street fan, and I prefer the energetic, in-your-face strategy. They really make use of the full colour spectrum that you see in the games.

Max Valiquette, youth marketing consultancy, Youthography, Toronto

Xbox: Fifteen and 30-second teaser ads created by McCann Erickson Worldwide in New York, dubbed the ‘green jewel’ campaign, focus on a luminous green, spinning Xbox jewel, highlighted with a cryptic voiceover and imagery such as sunflowers.

This was supposed to be the biggest launch in history so I was expecting to be inundated with advertising, and that really hasn’t been the case. The spots appear to be driven very much by the brand, and doesn’t make use of any games. I’m not sure if that approach will work strategically.

GameCube: I’m stunned by the level of production in these spots. They are really theatrical and impressive. Nintendo seems to be showcasing its technology by focusing on the fact that they have the games and icons to drive people to buy the console. Strategically it makes a lot of sense. They have turned Mario into an impressive icon which is a really good idea, as it is familiar icons that people are really looking for in an ad. That should really drive GameCube sales.

Sony PlayStation: Four 30-second spots were created by TBWAChiatDay in New York. ‘Gym,’ which launched on Aug. 29, shows a group of people riding exercise bikes and swaying from side to side along with a racing game on a TV screen. ‘Lounge,’ which launched on Nov. 19 (and will be shown in cinemas along with a spot for a Harry Potter PlayStation game), shows a group of department store Santas playing a basketball game on a PlayStation. The tag line: ‘Wherever, whenever, forever, PSone.’

These spots are more specifically game-driven. Each one focuses on a specific game rather than promoting the console itself, which makes sense as the console has been around for a long while, so they don’t need to try and launch it again. I’m not sure why they are promoting PlayStation as well as PS2. I find the messaging quite confusing and it doesn’t really stand out all that much.

Ian Grais, creative director,

Rethink Communications,

Vancouver

PlayStation: Sony has obviously been on the market for a while so it makes sense that they are more focused on promoting the different game titles. My main criticism here is that the ads all revolve around footage from the individual games. What has happened with a lot of video game commercials is that they show a lot of gaming footage, and it all gets lumped together in the execution, and it’s not all that effective or memorable.

GameCube: This spot is not very original but it makes a good attempt at providing imagery that is linked to the games. They are intended to add to the hype that surrounds the system. Neither Nintendo or Microsoft do a very good job of defining the features of their units or giving me a reason to upgrade from PlayStation, aside from the improved graphics. The game graphics were the weakest part of the GameCube spot. One section at the end shows a young male inside the cube. All the walls of the cube are supposed to be the game, but it doesn’t look that impressive and left me wondering what the message was.

Xbox: The spot with the security guard tries desperately to be really cool but I found it extremely confusing. It’s obviously a teaser spot because it doesn’t really give much information about the console, but I don’t find it very creative or interesting. The green ball spot is interesting and life-like. It makes the point that people want to play these games to escape reality.

Greg Skinner, youth marketing consultancy, Mina, Toronto

Xbox: (On the green jewel spots) I thought these were mediocre. These spots don’t really take advantage of the imagery, intensity and hype that has built up around the Xbox. A lot of gaming Web sites have posted movies and previews of the new consoles which gives them an advantage over PlayStation.

GameCube: This spot does an OK job of grabbing your attention. It makes you take note of the ad and ask yourself what it’s all about. People get really amped up when an ad includes a hint of the actual games, so they could have made more of that element. Ads have the power to act as a catalyst to people who are thinking about buying a console, so if it makes you excited about a new game then it’s doing the right job.

PlayStation: PS2 has been out for a long time so it’s difficult for it to have the same pull to the market. These spots are quite creative and would probably have more of a pull to a first-time console-buyer than the GameCube and Xbox spots.

Brenda McNeilly, creative director, Grey Worldwide, Toronto

PlayStation: Just doesn’t do it for me. How many product demonstration spots can the public – or perhaps more importantly this market – stomach? It feels very predictable and singularly unremarkable. Some of the performances in the spots are certainly respectable and the Santa one I confess did bring a smile to my face. But I was left with the feeling that these spots just seemed to go on and on for the purpose of creating interest – but the payoff in each spot was so weak it was more like a drop-off. Feels dated and, frankly, marked for Xbox’s obsolescence propaganda.

With files from Mike Connell.