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Analysis: Comic-Con -- What's The Verdict For Game Makers?

The 2009 San Diego Comic-Con saw 125,000 attendees and Gamasutra talked to notable firms, including Sega, Telltale, and EA about the show's relevance to video games, and how it stacks up versus the game-focused E3 and PAX.
[The San Diego Comic-Con saw 125,000 attendees this year, and Gamasutra talked to notable firms -- from Sega through Telltale to EA and beyond -- about the show's relevance to video games, and how it stacks versus the game-focused E3 and PAX.] In its fortieth year, the San Diego Comic-Con International -- which long ago expanded to host far more than just its namesake -- has become so popular that attendance is now artificially capped at 125,000 by the fire marshals. The show now serves as a hub for pop culture in general, particularly genre fiction, across comics, television, film, novels, and video games. In increasing numbers, major game publishers are showing up, including major publishers Electronic Arts and Activision, MMO specialists Sony Online Entertainment and NCsoft, indies The Behemoth and Telltale Games, and numerous others. Gamasutra spoke with representatives from nearly all attending publishers and developers about their opinions on the show. Various topics were discussed, but all agreed on one point: With E3 trying to cement its trade show status, even as it returns to its higher-budget tradition of old, consumer events like Comic-Con -- and upstarts like Penny Arcade Expo -- are crucial. "Comic-Con is fantastic; it's where we get to meet the fans," said Sega's Aaron Webber, whose sentiment was echoed by representatives from every other company. "As a lot of game companies are finding out, it's all about the fans and reaching out to them. We meet the people dressed up as Sonic or Valkyria Chronicles characters, and see what they think of our upcoming games." The Role of Comic-Con For Games Some publishers tailored their lineups specifically to fit the show's perceived audience. For example, Sega brought Iron Man 2, Sony Online Entertainment had DC Universe Online, NCsoft had City of Heroes, and Activision had Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2: Fusion. "We wanted to bring properties specifically to Comic-Con to show how we're tying in with comic book-related titles," said Clint Chapman of THQ, which brought along Marvel Superhero Squad and Darksiders, the latter featuring creative direction by comics artist Joe Madureira. Ubisoft had just one game at its booth: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Smash-Up. Said marketer Amy Brady, also known as "Valkyrie" of the Frag Dolls gaming team, "We focus on the main market for Comic-Con. There are a lot of gamers here who play everything, but we knew the Turtles fans would really be rampant." Several reps told Gamasutra that there is growing overlap between games and the larger umbrella of popular media, in part because the games industry is expanding its audience, and in part because the games themselves are sharing more in common with their entertainment cousins. "Games are becoming a much more appropriate medium for storytelling, and people come to Comic-Con to see stories. They come to see art. It's a natural marriage," explained Electronic Arts' Alex Charlow. "It's about taking our best story-driven games and bringing them to people who are hungry for sci-fi and fantasy, and who may have fun playing out those stories rather than just reading them." 2K Games had gaming's most unique booth at the show (pictured aboce), delving into the fiction of its upcoming BioShock 2 with a detailed recreation of the office from its ongoing Something in the Sea site and puzzle, which the company updated directly from the show floor. "We had people who were followers of the site for the past few months, people who were huge fans of BioShock, and just general people coming by and saying, 'This booth is so cool,'" said 2K community manager Elizabeth Tobey. "I had people staying for two hours just browing and engaging with everything. It was fun to see how interested people were in the story." Adam King, of NCsoft's Paragon Studios (City of Heroes), said publishers can't afford not to attend. "It's a necessity to be at Comic-Con along with all the other publishers here -- if not just to keep pace, to establish a presence," he noted. "There's a ton of consumer and enthusiast media that comes to Comic-Con now, and having the opportunity to tap into the broad consumer press is certainly a huge opportunity for anyone at Comic-Con." And with that attendance comes a broader swathe of consumers than at many gaming shows. "It's a testament to the event that Comic-Con brings out everybody," said D3Publisher marketing manager Fernando Bustamante. "Our lineup this year is focused on kids, and you can tell we have a great turnout of kids wanting to play our games. Any target you're looking for, you can find at Comic-Con." Comic-Con Vs. E3 Several publisher reps agreed that Comic-Con is valuable for building brand recognition and loyalty among consumers, in contrast to E3, which is built for a more focused approach of building press around specific titles. "E3 is all about talking to the press or wholesalers, but Comic-Con is where we talk directly to the people who have loved Sega, who really care about the company and want to see it do well going forward," said Sega's Webber. "We did a lot with cosplay promotions to reward the fans dressed as characters from Sega games. We had a six-year-old kid with a homemade costume he spent three months on." However, Ubisoft's Brady said publishers should be taking better advantage of the differences between Comic-Con and E3, and using it as an avenue not just to meet fans but to set up shop. She believes other industries have already figured that out. "Comic-Con really sets the bar and shows all the merchandising you can do," Brady said. "I don't know why in the gaming area [of the hall] we don't see the games and downloadable codes being sold. Everybody else has already adapted to that. [Gamers can] go home and buy the games, but why not just do it right here?" At least a few companies are acting on that strategy: some, like Electronic Arts and Capcom, already sell goods directly from their booths. MMO Makers Reach Out To Community Publishers of MMOs especially praised Comic-Con's opportunities to hook up with fans. Every year, Sony Online Entertainment holds a fan event in San Diego alongside Comic-Con, providing free transportation and entertainment, to strengthen its online communities. Its upcoming DC Universe Online makes the event all the more appropriate. "Relationship-building is a big part of the strategy here," said SOE senior global brand manager Debysue Wolfcale. "Our games have history and longevity; they're going to be around for years to come. In many cases, whole families are playing our games. If people feel good about you as a company, they feel good about trying your games, and there's no better way to foster that than somebody walking into a booth with SOE people, playing the games, and asking questions." NCsoft's King highlighted Comic-Con's panel sessions, and the growth of communicative social media, as helping the company's presence at the show. "City of Heroes being the only [released] superhero MMO, the Comic-Con fanbase has always been a huge base," he said. "We've always been fortunate to have a panel or two at Comic-Con, which lets our developers inform out players of new things about the game and their motivations, and to interact. "City of Heroes players are well represented here, from taking advantage of Twitter in telling people where we are and what we're doing, to David Nakiyama, one of our concept and comic artists, sketching out their characters. It's been great to do something personal." Indies Speak Out Independent developers stressed the importance of maintaining a conversation with their fans, and reinforcing their identity as smaller, more personal studios. "It's good to just be able to answer questions in person and feel like a friendly company," said Will Armstrong of Telltale Games (Sam & Max episodes, Tales of Monkey Island). "It's important to us to feel like we're just some guys making video games, to be very approachable." For San Diego-based The Behemoth (Castle Crashers, Alien Hominid), Comic-Con has always been integral to the company. Its past games were announced at the show, and this year's event featured the first playable demo of its upcoming (and unnamed) game. "We always like to make this our place to show new stuff," said co-founder and programmer Tom Fulp. "The fans here are so great. We get three things: We get publicity, we get testing, and we just get good energy to keep us motivated." Unlike many companies, The Behemoth relies on tangible playtesting feedback by watching attendees pick up the controllers at the show. "We definitely get to observe how lots of people play it," Fulp said. "You see the spots where you want to move things around, you see how people can grief each other, you get new ideas by watching what they do." PAX: A Challenger Approaches Nearly everybody agreed that the independent Penny Arcade Expo in Seattle, run by webcomic stars Jerry "Tycho" Holkins and Mike "Gabe" Krahulik, has been a boon for the industry, offering an audience that is more game-oriented than Comic-Con and more consumer-driven than E3. Said The Behemoth's Fulp, "Even though PAX isn't the same size crowd as Comic-Con, it has had a more solid and focused turnout at our booth. I'd actually say PAX wins the title of video game consumer convention." "[Comic-Con] definitely isn't our main show," said Telltale's Armstrong. "A lot of people here don't follow video games as much. As far as picking up the slack from E3, PAX is a much stronger contender for that. It's a much more friendly show. E3 is much more about marketing shill -- everyone is just throwing in lots of money." "Penny Arcade is eating [E3] up because of their role, and what their role should be," Ubisoft's Brady said frankly. "E3 will be there as long as they can provide that media value, but these consumer events are where the people who buy our games are." Her prescription for E3? Brady put it simply: "A day for the press is perfect, then open it to the consumers."

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