GamesIndustry.biz: Second Take

Is there such a thing as bad publicity?

Published as part of our sister-site GamesIndustry.biz' widely-read weekly newsletter, the GamesIndustry.biz Editorial is a weekly dissection of one of the issues weighing on the minds of the people at the top of the games business. It appears on Eurogamer a day after it goes out to GI.biz newsletter subscribers.

No publicity is bad publicity. How many times have we heard that phrase? It has been applied to all manner of different situations, from video nasties to misbehaving celebrities. People like Max Clifford have made lucrative careers from the power of that phrase. In the videogames market, which is the whipping boy du jour of socially conservative types across the western world, the idea has found fertile soil and taken root. Controversy breeds popularity; exposure leads to sales.

I'm not going to argue with that wisdom - after all, the evidence is compelling. Copies of Manhunt were hoovered off shelves when the game was named (incorrectly, as it turned out) as a factor in the brutal murder of a British teenager a couple of years ago.

The Hot Coffee scandal did nothing to hurt, and perhaps quite a bit to help, sales of GTA San Andreas. Indeed, an earlier title in the GTA franchise was "promoted" by means of outraged tabloid headlines, by none other than the aforementioned Max Clifford. Even hapless Acclaim managed to grab by far its best publicity through notorious stunts like offering to pay the speeding fines of everyone in the UK for a weekend (for a Burnout title), which saw the company slammed by the authorities.

Let's face it - Jack Thompson is, in ways, the best thing ever to happen to Rockstar Games, a brand which has been founded as much on controversy as on quality. His role as chief rabble-rouser is perfectly pitched to provide a hate figure for anyone of a more sane, liberal bent, while the sheer frothing insanity of his pronouncements ensures that he will never actually be taken particularly seriously by anyone in a position of authority.

It's worth considering, next time he makes one of his crusading statements, that if Jack Thompson did not exist, Rockstar Games would have had to create him. Not that he can complain - Rockstar Games, in turn, provided him with a raison d'Ítre after it became clear that America was no longer afraid of his former target, rap music.

No publicity is bad publicity; this much is clear. However, before every company in the industry races headlong into the manufacture of granny-beating simulators, it's worth taking a long, hard look at the sobering fate which has befallen Rockstar's parent company in the last few months. In the wake of a shareholder revolt at Take Two, with possible asset stripping and job cuts on the horizon, perhaps we should add an important corollary; some publicity is bad business.

Of course, on the surface of things it's not actually the controversy surrounding GTA or Manhunt which led to Take Two's board of directors being ousted. Allegations of regulatory impropriety and financial mishandling, combined with concerns over the profitability of certain parts of the business, were among the key factors which led to the dramatic (but not unexpected) turn of events at the recent AGM.

However, looming over the proceedings like an elephant on the table was the Hot Coffee scandal; and beside it, the ghosts of controversies past - of Manhunt and Jack Thompson, of allegations of racism against Haitians, of pre-launch outcry from anti-bullying charities over Canis Canem Edit.

Some of these scandals, like Hot Coffee, led to serious questions being asked and inquiries being undertaken. Others were patently ludicrous - but still grabbed headlines. None of them, I would submit, damaged sales of Rockstar Games' products in any way.

For gamers familiar with the products, these scandals were carnival side-shows; they understood the relatively innocent truths of the situation, and treated the media furore as a chance to point and laugh at the ignorant middle-aged conservatives, too old to have played videogames and too inflexible to see them as anything other than threatening.

To a certain portion of the population, the controversy itself made the products appealing. As for those genuinely outraged; what chance that they even own a videogame console? Commerically, their opinions are irrelevant.

No publicity is bad publicity, and that's the reason why. But some publicity is bad business - because those ignorant middle-aged conservatives may not own videogame consoles, but they own something much more important in the business world. They own shares. Not only that, but they have votes; and in some cases, their shares and their votes give them a hotline to the political process which the average teenage (or even 20-something) gamer has no hope of matching.

More than any concern over the financial dealings within Take Two, it's this factor which has led to shareholder unease over the company. Controversy may be selling the company's games today, but to many shareholders, it makes the company seem distasteful. Even more worryingly, it seems like legislation could strike Rockstar's product line at any moment - realistically, this almost certainly won't happen, but the company has made little effort to dissuade its customers of the thrilling idea that the products they're buying could be banned in the near future.

Great for consumers; enough to give shareholders with serious investment in the company nightmares. Hence the oft-repeated insistence that Take Two must diversify past Grand Theft Auto, which has persisted despite sterling efforts from the firm to create a product line-up which goes far beyond GTA.

Sure, in part this is because Take Two's market valuation is more a valuation for a GTA publisher than, say, a Bioshock publisher; but more importantly, it's because Take Two's golden egg is constantly in the news, constantly a source of controversy, and constantly feels horribly, horribly risky to investors.

It will be interesting to see what will happen to Take Two now that those same investors have, in effect, taken charge of the company's destiny. The simple fact is that without the controversy, and the attendant risk, Take Two will not be either as profitable or as influential as it has been in the past - indeed, it's perhaps unkind to say it, but it's hard to see what the company really has to offer as just another controversy-averse, safe-bet publisher.

I suspect that financial good sense will prevail on this one. Rockstar's ongoing assault on the sensibilities of middle America may make shareholders feel uneasy, but it's a commercial goldmine which remains largely untapped.

No publicity is bad publicity; but some publicity is bad business. Rockstar understood the first part of that axim as well as anyone; the trick for the company's new bosses will be to strike the fine balance required by the second.

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