As computer games get more realistic, the junkets for journalists who review the games are becoming more surrealistic instead. Last year, a handful of magazine editors were flown to Paris by Cryo Interactive, a French developer trying to crack the U.S. market with its "Versailles 1685" game. They were given a tour of Versailles during off-hours by the curator himself.
"To show us a secret room in the game, the curator took us into an area that's not open to the public," recalled Rob Smith, an editor at PC Games. "We then opened a couple doors, and ended up on the roof of Versailles. At that point, I turned to a reviewer from Next Generation [magazine] and said, 'My God, this job is cool.'"
It's a job that anyone could love -- as long as you're comfortable with the you-are-there concept. In the past year, game reviewers piloted a helicopter in Florida, rode a tank in California and took a river-rafting trip in Georgia. And they've taken in a World Series game, the Indy 500 and even hit baseballs in 3Com Park.
As the number of games increases, publishers are looking for more outrageous ways to catch reviewers' attention. The game business is growing into a mature entertainment sector, not unlike the movie or music biz, where junkets are common. But rather than being flown to meet movie stars in L.A., game critics find themselves thrust into an all-too-real first-person adventure.
Last summer, I was shipped out to Fort Hunter Liggett in Northern California for faux boot camp, taking turns with other editors riding an M-1 tank, shooting an M-60 machine gun on a firing range and pulling a lanyard on a 155 mm howitzer, sending a high-explosive charge miles away. Later, we would play an early version of "Armored Fist 2," a tank simulation game, to get the ultimate side-by-side comparison.
But do these stunts work, or can they backfire? For me, riding the tank was a show-stopping, jaw-dropping experience. The game was, uh, a bit of a letdown. But the point was to get our attention, and focus it on NovaLogic (the company pulling off the stunt) and its tank sim game.
After taking lumps from reviewers who dinged their games for being too arcadelike and not realistic, NovaLogic wanted a change of image. In March 1997, it flew 10 editors to West Palm Beach, Fla., to stay at the plush Breakers Hotel. To promote its upcoming Comanche flight sim, NovaLogic let the editors actually take the controls and fly a real Bell helicopter. Later, reviewers saw a prototype of an actual Comanche attack copter.
"They blew the wad in a big way, and let us fly the damn helicopter," said Desmond Crisis, a reporter for CNET's "The Web" TV show, who attended the promotion. "It was not a cheap experience, but it captured our attention for the weekend. Hey, I had the opportunity to put PR people in the back seat and make them puke. Plus, I buzzed Jimmy Buffett's place in a Bell helicopter."
Crisis, a diminutive spark plug of a guy, certainly enjoyed the trip, but doesn't think junkets really make or break a game. "If the game blows, we'll say it blows, no matter how good the lobster dinner is," he said. The "Comanche" promo event cost NovaLogic about $50,000, and the game got great reviews, according to one promotions person who worked on it.
"Armored Fist 2" -- the game that hatched the boot camp -- fared less well, reportedly selling only 25,000 units. But often, these unusual promos aren't intended as hit-making deals, but rather to garner attention for a company in a market overcrowded with players.
Smith, the executive editor at PC Games in San Mateo, Calif., has been on his share of promotional junkets and has pounded beers with the best of them at industry parties. Smith shrugs off charges that magazines lose credibility by taking junkets.
"That's bollocks," he said, in his British accent, bristling. "They buy my time, not my opinion. It's basically a way to get people's time, to stick products under our noses and schmooze. When they fly you somewhere, you have no choice but to look at what they've got. If they come to our offices, we can always cut out early from a demo."
Smith was flown to Cleveland last year by Accolade to see a World Series game, as a promotion for its "Hardball 6" baseball game. But the crème de la crème of his junket experiences, he says, was the trip to Versailles. Though the trip seems lavish on the surface, Smith reasons that the company would have spent more by taking a promo road trip through the U.S. with an entourage of PR people and developers.
Shortly after taking the boot camp trip, I was given a chance to ride in a stunt plane during San Francisco's Fleet Week air show. Electronic Arts and its Jane's simulator subsidiary had hired a stunt pilot to take reviewers up for loop-to-loops, barrel rolls, the whole stomach-turning thing.
Though the stunts are getting more outrageous, gamemakers try to be sensitive to criticism from consumers or game designers who might see junkets as a waste of money.
"We try to make it fun [for press people], but you want to keep it on a certain level, and not appear inappropriate," said Noreen Dante, promotions manager at Electronic Arts. "You don't ever want it to come back that a bias on a game was due to the activity instead of the actual game itself. Consumers appreciate that. They're very savvy these days."
Angela Edwards, formerly Sega's PR manager, is now director of PR at MicroProse, a PC game publisher. She thinks things have calmed down a bit in game promotions recently, with greater accountability to the bottom line. But with a more competitive industry, companies still have to do eye-catching promotions to get noticed.
"There are a lot more players [in the industry] now," she said. "So the pie is divvied up into smaller pieces. Everyone's done the big party and spent big money, but now they say, 'What am I getting out of this?' There's a lot of competition, so you have to really target your marketing money."
Edwards helped Sega put on one of the most storied parties in the history of E3, the gaming industry's biggest annual convention: a House of Blues bash in Los Angeles in 1996. People were scalping invites on Sunset Boulevard, Brian Setzer played and Sega spent a minimum of a "few hundred thousand dollars" for everything, according to Edwards.
She sees the extravagant events still serving a purpose for companies that can afford them, like Sony and Eidos, building a hip image among the younger convention-goers. At last year's E3 in Atlanta, while the usual big parties drew well, a MicroProse river-rafting event made a lasting impression.
James Glave, former editor at GameSpot, remembers the event fondly. A few dozen editors were taken by bus to the Chattahoochee River near Atlanta. They were instructed to leave valuables behind and sent outside, where they found stacks of super-soaker water guns. Beer was served; a big water fight ensued. Everyone piled into rafts and the battle took to the river, with some filling guns with murky river water or beer, according to Glave.
Then, they pulled around a bend and came upon a restaurant. They changed into dry clothes and received hot towels with MicroProse logos; waiters arrived with silver platters of hors d'oeuvres. An amazing array of food -- Southern-style ribs, risotto, oysters -- awaited guests under a big tent on the lawn. Night fell, and a mist formed on the river. Then, almost on cue, fireflies came out, dancing in the night.
"The party put everything else to shame," Glave said. "Trent Ward, who's been covering the industry for 10 years, said it was the ultimate party for him."
Nobody who recalled the party mentioned a particular game, but everyone called it the "MicroProse party." It was an experience -- and a company -- they won't soon forget.