The Problem: Kuma kicked up a controversy with video games based on the Iraq war. Is it true there's no such thing as bad PR?
Keith Halper always felt that "PR is free advertising." So the CEO of Kuma Reality Games, a New York City-based developer of Web-based video games, launched a massive buzz campaign before releasing the start-up's first product last spring. The game, called Kuma: War, certainly seemed pressworthy. Based on the current conflicts in the Middle East, with scenarios ripped straight from the headlines, the game lets players march in the boots of U.S. troops. Each week, subscribers download a new "mission" -- from fighting Taliban and al-Qaeda forces in Afghanistan to defending U.S. battlefield commanders from assassination attempts in Iraq -- replete with actual images from the battlefield. The publicity, Halper hoped, would establish Kuma as a different kind of gaming company -- one that offered "a new way of experiencing the news" -- and help the one-and-a-half-year-old company attract both subscribers and new business partners.
But as the buzz around the brand grew louder, Halper sensed that Kuma was losing control of its message. A radio reporter for the BBC grilled Halper and one of his key investors, Gen. Thomas Wilkerson, who commanded U.S. Marine forces in Operation Desert Storm, in a segment broadcast worldwide. Won't this have a negative impact, the reporter wanted to know, on U.S. combat troops and their families? "You Too Can Raid an Iraqi Police Station," blared a headline in the British daily The Guardian, which portrayed Kuma as a new kind of war profiteer, "cashing in on a conflict." When Wired magazine asked for Halper's reaction to the capture of Saddam Hussein, Halper admitted that the development was "depressing for Kuma" -- which now had to delay its product launch while developers created a new set of missions based on the news. One angry critic even e-mailed Michael Moore in an attempt to get the rabble-rousing filmmaker and antiwar activist to target Kuma.
And charges of exploiting the troops overseas were just part of the problem. Others were assailing the company -- which has two military advisers on its board and bases some of its scenarios on declassified material from the Department of Defense -- as a propaganda tool of the U.S. government. Says Halper: "It's hard when people accuse you, on the one hand, of exploiting the military and, on the other, of working for them."
To be sure, not all of the buzz was negative, and many gamers were itching to start playing. But it was hard not to worry. After the BBC interview, for example, the company's marketing chief, Sarah Anderson, received an urgent call from Wilkerson. Such politically sensitive questions were bound to come up again, he warned, and Kuma needed to craft a forceful response. Anderson and Halper agreed, sensing that unless they acted fast, the company risked being branded a one-trick pony making a quick buck off the war.
Halper and Anderson soon realized they were in over their heads, that their start-up, which had just seven full-time employees, would need some help. They contacted their PR firm, Los Angeles-based Bender/Helper Impact, which specializes in digital entertainment. Anderson and Halper signed up for a kind of public relations boot camp, in which the PR pros helped them anticipate and respond to tough questions and stick to their own message.
Indeed, Halper never considered Kuma as a "war games" company in the first place. Instead, he hoped to do for computer gaming what shows like The Real World and Survivor did for cable and network television -- rev up consumer interest by introducing a new "reality" category. He envisions a future in which all manner of "news" is available in an interactive game format, and had plans to create new games based on sporting events and crime stories, similarly ripped from the headlines with painstaking attention to detail. But that would be a lot harder if Kuma could not regain control of its message.
Kuma: War launched on March 30, 2004. The first mission: "Uday and Qusay Hussein's Last Stand," a two-part game in which players must clear opposing forces and capture or kill the Hussein brothers, holed up in a Mosul, Iraq, villa. Accompanying the launch was a new advertising campaign created by RDA, the New York City agency famous for marketing the controversial game Mortal Kombat to mainstream audiences. RDA developed a campaign based on images from Kuma: War, touting the game as "real war news, real war games," and calling on players to "re-create the news" and "remake history." While some ads featured pictures of Osama bin Laden or Iraqi police officers, "there was not a single violent image," says Bunny Rivera, RDA's director of brand strategy.
The ads have been running on a number of gaming and news websites, such as Fox News and Gamespy. But others have been skittish to accept them, RDA's Rivera says. The New York Times, for instance, has refused to run Kuma banners on pages featuring war news. Gamespot, one of the most popular websites for PC gamers, asked Kuma to alter one ad's content, which some at the site found "disturbing," according to RDA's media buyers. Kuma denied the request. But the site has run other versions of the banner.
In addition to armchair warriors, Kuma also began courting the actual U.S. troops who serve as the game's protagonists, offering a free six-month subscription to anyone with a ".mil" e-mail address -- generally active military personnel. "It shows we support them," Anderson says. What's more, she adds, input from actual soldiers helps Kuma refine its storylines and make its games more credible. "They write in to tell us their impressions," she says. "We really take those suggestions to heart." The company also is donating $1 from every paid subscription to Kuma: War to the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund, which gives money directly to the families of U.S. soldiers killed in the line of duty -- a relationship with the fund is mentioned in all company press releases.
Meanwhile, Halper and Wilkerson have not shied away from media interviews, and have talked to dozens of newspapers, as well as local and national radio and television stations. Some of the coverage has been favorable. The Calgary Herald touted Kuma: War's recent "mission" set in Falluja in the paper's weekly roundup of consumer technology news. But others continue to view the games as little more than an exercise in bad taste. "Seeing this developer try to cash in the latest developments in Iraq with a new mission leaves me queasy," The Washington Post's John Gaudiosia wrote.
Halper still does not enjoy being the subject of bad press. But he no longer sees it as a threat to the business. For one thing, news coverage, no matter how critical, almost always results in a doubling, and in some cases, tripling of Web traffic. Since its launch, the Kuma: War website has received more than 500,000 unique visitors, and the game software has been downloaded more than 200,000 times. What's more, some big-name entertainment companies have taken an interest in Kuma, and negotiations are under way with retail distributors about releasing the games in a disc format. Meanwhile, Kuma is working on new missions, including one set in North Korea. "We're definitely doing something that is provocative," Halper says. "What we need to do is make sure we take advantage of interest in what we're doing and get our side of the story across."
The Experts Weigh In: Can Kuma regain control of its image?
Turning war into a game trivializes a powerful, traumatic experience. The issue came up when a video game company wanted to purchase the rights to use my book for its game. I didn't want to profit from it, so I declined. No matter how Kuma dispenses its profits, it doesn't alter what it's doing. That it promotes its games as "real" or "journalism" is laughable. There is a profound difference between that and entertainment. I would tell the company: Don't try to act like anything other than a game company. The most important thing is to make a cool game -- that's how people will judge you.
Mark Bowden, author, Black Hawk Down
Reality games may have some place in the market, but I can't imagine how Kuma has a future as a brand after launching with Kuma: War. Giving donations to charities is always worthwhile. But it also can be seen as "blood money," and I think Kuma still risks being seen as exploiting soldiers. My best advice at this point is to turn the negatives into a public debate over how "real" reality games should be. Get into the center of the storm as the company that teaches consumers to ask hard questions.
Marian Salzman, chief strategy officer,
Euro RSCG Worldwide, New York City
Kuma knows that controversy is what's fueling their buzz. It's how you handle the buzz that makes the difference, and I think they're freaking out a little trying to be the "good guys." The idea of "reality gaming" has lots of potential. They shouldn't get bent out of shape by bad press or talk about their brand. Their audience doesn't care if they're the good guys -- they'll care more if it's just the opposite. Kuma should just make another game that blows people's minds. And always ask themselves, "What would Paris Hilton do?"
David Carson, co-CEO, Heavy.com,
New York City