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An inside play to sway video gamers

A cutting-edge title takes many years and millions of dollars to develop in the competitive game industry. That's why game designers, like movie studios, have learned to lavishly court tastemakers, the guys who write for the major blogs and magazines and play a key role in today's big-bucks video game industry.
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In his career as a game reviewer, Ghislain Masson has been to Russia twice, and once to Chernobyl for a promotion of a computer game set in that area's nuclear meltdown zone.

His other junkets include trips to India paid for by Microsoft and a five-day extravaganza in Las Vegas funded by Midway. There was also the shindig near his home base in Paris to promote a game in the Rayman series that included juggling lessons from circus performers.

A little validation from Masson, a writer for the French game magazine PC Jeux, and others like him can help tip the scales in the competitive game industry, where a cutting-edge title takes many years and millions of dollars to develop. That's why game designers, like movie studios, have learned to lavishly court such tastemakers, the guys who write for the major blogs and magazines and play a key role in today's big-bucks video game industry.

Last year, U.S. video game sales totaled $7.4 billion, nearly rivaling the $9.5 billion Americans spent on movies, according to industry figures.

Masson added Washington to his list of world travels last month, to check out an upcoming title from the Rockville-based game studio Bethesda Softworks.

The company flew Masson and about 60 other writers in from as far away as Australia and Japan to give them an early look at the company's Fallout 3, scheduled for release late next year.

Most do not pay their way
In addition to an hour-long demo and chats with the game's designers, the trip included a two-night stay in downtown's swank Helix Hotel, dinner at Logan Tavern and a private party at a nightclub in Adams Morgan. Airfare, hotel, food, drinks and shuttle bus were provided, courtesy of Bethesda Softworks. Although a few attendees paid their own way, most did not.

"What we're trying to accomplish with an event like this is to have the undivided attention of the important people in our industry, that cover the industry," said Pete Hines, vice president of marketing at Bethesda Softworks, whose Fallout 3 will be set in a version of Washington that's been scorched by war. "There are a lot of titles out there competing for attention."

It looks like Bethesda Softworks is getting that attention: Fallout 3 is scheduled to soon grace the covers of 20 gamer magazines, largely as a result of the event.

Bethesda Softworks' parent company, ZeniMax, is privately held and won't disclose the game's budget, but it's not uncommon for the budgets of cutting-edge titles like Fallout 3 to exceed $20 million, including marketing costs.

With this type of investment to recoup, Hines said, his job is to whet the appetites of gamers, and that process starts with getting the press salivating. To build interest in the upcoming Navy SEAL game Rogue Warrior, for example, the company flew writers to Las Vegas, where they visited a firing range and tried sniper rifles and AK-47s.

Washington isn't typically thought of as a hotbed of gaming development, nor was the Bethesda Softworks event the most extravagant, as such promotional events go.

'Been to bigger events'
"I've been to bigger events," Masson noted from his perch in the fourth row of Bethesda's private theater, as the crowd waited for the presentation to start. But the Fallout games hold a special place in his heart because the first major review he ever wrote was for a game in the series.

In the game, which will be available on the Xbox 360, the PlayStation 3 and the personal computer, players take on the role of a character who has spent his or her life growing up in a large nuclear shelter in the northwest suburbs of Washington. It features the voice of actor Liam Neeson as the main character's father who mysteriously disappears one day. The player's mission is to venture out into the radioactive, monster-ridden world and find out where he went and why he left.

The previous Fallout titles, first released a decade ago, are beloved by many computer gamers for their quirky, dark sense of humor. The franchise still has rabid fans who anxiously pore over and debate every scrap of information Hines makes public.

Some fans of Bethesda Softworks' last blockbuster, Oblivion, still stake out the company's front parking lot, hoping to chat up employees and score their autographs. One tried to sneak into the Fallout 3 preview event.

"That's why we have security," the receptionist at the front desk explained.

Perks of the job
A few hours into the promotional event, Mike Reilly, a jovial New York-based reviewer with the Web site Game Revolution drinks a beer at the Helix Hotel bar. He's reflecting on the perks his job affords him. He enjoys the trips and the company of people who are as obsessed with games as he is.

"I love the junket," he says. "I love seeing the herd of nerds, I love seeing the power of geek."

Reilly is wearing a T-shirt for the game Stubbs the Zombie and has a wallet embossed with a vintage Nintendo controller.

But do events like these things just buy good reviews? Nah, says Reilly. If he wrote positively about a game that was a stinker, he would lose his credibility and eventually his audience.

"The reason I got invited is I have readership," he said. "The only way I keep readership is by staying honest, by calling it how I see it."

Rob Smith, editor of PlayStation magazine PSM, was reluctant to declare Fallout 3 a blockbuster so far ahead of its release, but said he was impressed.

Masson of PC Jeux delivered a similar verdict. "I like it," said Masson before the private party, complete with an '80s cover band, kicked off at Chloe on 18th Street in the District. "I want to play it."

Masson had just returned from London for an event sponsored by Sega. This month he flies, on another company's dime, to Montreal.

Staff writer Sabrina Valle contributed to this report.