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"Not really Ford News but it's a good article for you gamers", Stacy

Gamers are influencing new vehicle designs, advertisements

By Anita Lienert / Special to The Detroit News
Dale G. Young / The Detroit News

Video game facts at a glance

Over 221 million computer and video games were sold in 2002 -- nearly two games for every U.S. household.
Marketers will spend an estimated $61 billion on interactive projects this year.
60 percent of Americans age 6 or older -- about 145 million people -- play computer and video games.
Gamers spend an average of 3 to 4 hours playing games online every day.
The average age of players is 28.
Women age 24 to 49 are the fastest-growing online audience.
Sources: Jupiter Media Matrix, Entertainment Software Association, Nielsen/NetRatings, Sony Computer Entertainment America, Advertising Age

To avoid the temptation of cutting class and skipping homework to play car racing games, Jiyan Karlo Cadiz left his Sony PlayStation 2 at home when he returned to Michigan State University last fall to begin his junior year.

But the 20-year-old mechanical engineering major from Rochester Hills still enjoys the nightly Gran Turismo games that are an after-dinner ritual for the guys who live on the second floor of East Akers Hall.

The use of real production cars is one of the highlights of the popular game. Cadiz usually picks the Nissan Skyline GT-R as his game car. It is no surprise that he plans to buy the redesigned GT-R when it debuts in the United States in 2006 at an expected price of $50,000.

“These games are the perfect form of advertising,” Cadiz said. “You really get to know the product. You can pick a car, accessorize it, tune it and drive it in the game under realistic conditions. It’s better than any brochure, magazine ad or TV commercial.”

Cadiz is not alone in recognizing the power of video games to sell cars and trucks. Gamers are changing the face of vehicle showrooms, automotive design studios, auto shows and commercials. They even are beginning to influence what ends up in American dealerships.

“Gamers are part of our company folklore,” said Ian Beavis, head of marketing for Mitsubishi Motors Corp. in North America. “When the original version of Gran Turismo came out, they put pressure on us to bring the Lancer Evo to America. We finally brought it in and today we sell 500 of those a month to a very young audience. And they are all gamers.”

Automakers are scrambling to get a foothold in this nontraditional market, which generated $10.3 billion in revenues in 2002. Sales of video games are expected to mushroom to $29 billion by 2005, according to Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research, Inc.

Video games and gamers have even spawned a unique form of marketing — called “advergaming.”

“Advergaming is taking games — something that people do for recreation — and inserting a message,” said Julie Roehm, director of marketing communications for DaimlerChrysler AG’s Chrysler Group, which sells Chrysler, Jeep and Dodge brand vehicles. “It’s important we go to all the places our consumers are.”

In an era when some consumers reach for the television remote every time a commercial appears, games are a godsend for advertisers.

“Car manufacturers want to reach a younger audience,” said Scott Lee, lead product manager for Microsoft Game Studios, which makes the XBox system and the Project Gotham Racing 2 car game. “Where is that younger audience? It’s not at 7 p.m. watching TV in the family room. It’s at 7 p.m. in their bedroom playing Xbox. It’s there that they will sit and look at that car for hours. That car will become their car.”

Automakers are realizing the value of developing and distributing their own games, which offer greater control over how their products are portrayed. Chrysler is considering setting up gaming kiosks in dealerships to pound home its product message and entertain young people — something Japanese manufacturers are already doing on their home turf.

To some observers, however, auto companies are too late to the video game party.

“By the time the corporate boardroom has discovered it, it’s done,” said Eric Noble, president of The CarLab, an Orange, Calif., automotive research firm. “Kids like what’s underground and underdog. Now, with auto companies jumping on the bandwagon, it’s becoming too commercialized.”

That hasn’t stopped the video game industry from trying to make inroads in the auto industry, however. At the Geneva auto show in Switzerland next month, Sony will set up a display among the Fords, Fiats and Ferraris to unveil new technology for the Gran Turismo 4 game that will debut in the fall.

At April’s New York auto show, Sony will unveil a custom driving-simulator — its own version of a concept car, complete with flat screens, a race chair, steering wheel and brakes.

Automakers, in the meantime, appear to be setting aside concerns about the violent aspects of some of these games, which are played online, on home consoles and via cell phones or personal digital assistants. Incorporating violence helps to maintain credibility in an effort to win over young male buyers.

“In the past, advertisers could never imagine a commercial where you dent a car,” said Alex St. John, the CEO of Redmond, Washington-based WildTangent, which was hired to create three online games for Chrysler that debuted in January. “But half the fun of a game is driving recklessly.”

Joel Schlader, Chrysler’s gaming manager and interactive marketing specialist, said corporate attorneys determined that gaming is enough of a “fantasy” to make it permissible to damage vehicles.

“If you couldn’t blow it up or crash it, it would get so commercial and corny that people would reject the game,” Schlader explained. “The one thing we won’t do is embellish the product or program in twice the horsepower.”

Automakers seem to be staying away from games that are overtly violent or show criminal behavior, however. In Grand Theft Auto, players are awarded points for running down pedestrians and the game features gunfire and prostitutes. The vehicles look like actual production cars but do not use real product names.

While some violence in video games seems to be accepted, automakers tend to draw the line at violence in more reality-based music videos and movies.

“We won’t be in a music video where the car is the villain or in an accident or hits somebody,” said Eric Johnston, Mazda director of marketing.

Some automakers, such as the Scion division of Toyota Motor Corp., use games on their own Web sites but spurn participation in outside video games — a surprise, considering that Scion pitches itself as a youth brand.

“The tough part about video games is a development time that is incompatible with ours,” said James E. Lentz, vice president of marketing for Toyota in America. “It takes two years to develop a video game, but it only takes us 12 to 15 months to develop a car. We don’t want our car to end up in a game that comes out a year after our product launch.”

Game manufacturers say the average development time for a game is 18 months.

When it works, auto industry executives say advergaming is an inexpensive — sometimes free — way to connect with consumers. Product placement in video games can cost as much as $100,000 for licensing fees, but movie placements can run $100 million, according to auto and gaming executives.

Sometimes, automakers want game manufacturers to pay for the right to use vehicle images. Sony Computer Entertainment America spokesman Ryan Bowling says Ferrari, Porsche and Lamborghini demanded exorbitant licensing fees — but that’s why they aren’t in Gran Turismo.

Game makers have other concerns about working with the auto industry.

“Building a car in a game is a complicated process,” said Christian Phillips, manager of intellectual property and business development for Microsoft Game Studios. “We have the responsibility to get it 100 percent right. We need 3-D images and technical data that most car companies are not comfortable releasing.”

But the two sides are getting closer.

In December, 20 members of Sony’s development team met Ford Motor Co. designers and engineers at the automaker’s Dearborn Proving Ground. They rode in the 2005 Ford GT sports car, took thousands of photos and recorded horn and engine sounds before setting up a PlayStation 2 to play video games with the Ford engineers.

Toyota was the first automaker to agree to a licensing deal. Gran Turismo debuted in May 1998 featuring 50 production vehicles. When Gran Turismo 4 debuts in the fall, it will include more than 500 production cars, including historic vehicles like the Ford Model T, that will be accurate down to the names of the paint chips — what is described as a huge milestone for video car games.

Gran Turismo 4 will be a watershed product because it will have the capability to be played online, as well as on a home console. Sony says the goal is to create an automotive community where people can chat about cars, compete in tournaments and do virtual test drives.

“This is a unique way to showcase cars and reach the younger market,” said Sony spokesman Bowling. “Our brand is cool and that helps the car companies.”
 
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