Video game powerhouse Electronic Arts will make its Super Bowl debut this Sunday with an ad teasing the release of its upcoming game, "Dante's Inferno," but though the title hasn't even hit the shelves, it's already stoked a few flames.
Inspired by the epic poem written by Dante Alighieri in the 14th century, the action-adventure game takes players on a blood-soaked journey through Hell to recover a murdered lover.
"Dante Alighieri in his original text basically created a road map for Hell," said Phil Marineau, the game's senior product manager. "That's what the game delivers, the nine circles of Hell re-imagined for this medium."
Though CBS initially axed the original 30-second ad, which ended with the tag line "Go to Hell," a spokesperson for the network confirmed that it will air a version that ends with "Hell Awaits."
The switch prompted a spate of headlines, some of which erroneously reported that the ad had been rejected altogether, but it wasn't the first time that the game found itself feeling the spotlight's heat.
To mirror the game's nine levels of Hell, which represent the various sins of damned souls, Electronic Arts launched what Marineau called a "nine months of hell" marketing campaign, which kicked off last May.
Each month, the company featured a sin, from lust and gluttony to fraud and treachery, with a specific activity.
To represent heresy, the company created a spoof video game "Mass: We Pray," which allowed the faithful to participate in church rituals without ever leaving their living rooms.
During "anger month," EA sent video game bloggers a box that, once opened, belted out one-hit-wonder Rick Astley's "Never Gonna Give You Up," in a twist on the viral Internet phenomenon "Rick-rolling."
Inside the box, bloggers found a pair of goggles and a hammer, encouraging them to release their pent up anger by beating up the box (which was also the only way to turn off the music).
But even Marineau acknowledged that some stunts "didn't go over so well."
To recognize lust, the company created a contest in which attendees of the comic book and arts convention Comic-Con were asked to photograph themselves with so-called "booth babes."
Many attendees did not respond favorably to the challenge to "commit an act of lust" with the "booth babes." The contest triggered a backlash in the blogosphere, a flurry of #EAFail hashags on Twitter, and ultimately an apology from the company.
After the contest in July, EA issued a statement about its "Sin to Win" campaign, explaining its "nine months of hell" campaign and its intentions.
"We apologize for any confusion and offense that resulted from our choice of wording, and want to assure you that we take your concerns and sentiments seriously," the company said.
To promote the game, the company also staged a fake protest in June, hiring groups of people to stand outside a video game conference with picket signs.
With messages like "Hell is not a Video Game" and "Trade in Your PlayStation for PrayStation," the "protestors" claimed to object to the game's glorification of Hell.
After some news outlets and blogs, including The Associated Press and the Los Angeles Times, reported the events as though they were real, EA acknowledged the trick.
But though the protest was conceived in jest, it ultimately led to some real jibes from faith-based bloggers.
"Gamers of all varieties will buy this product if it's, well, actually a good game," wrote Catholic Video Gamers. "So instead of engaging in a shamelessly anti-Christian stunt to promote your poor excuse of a product, maybe you ought to work on making this game, you know, something better than a blatant God of War rip-off and make it, ya know, something worthwhile?"
But marketing stunts aside, the game has also attracted some negative attention of its own.
When it learned in October that the game rewarded players with a "Bad Nanny" achievement after they kill a certain number of unbaptized babies, the International Nanny Association issued a harsh rebuke and encouraged people to e-mail the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) with complaints.
"The whole concept of killing babies is just horrendous on its own, but to add fuel to the fire, the title is 'Bad Nanny,' which I think is unconscionable," Wendy Sachs, co-president of the INA.
Though unbaptized infants are mentioned in the original poem, she said that "the book is a story that's read and digested and put away ... whereas a game like this is stringing the ideas from the story and putting it into an interactive mode."
As for Sunday night's ad, she said, "I think that it's just outrageous that anybody would promote a game that promotes killing babies and rewarding that."
EA's Marineau said the unbaptized babies in the game are more like infant-sized menacing creatures and emphasized that the ad will air after 9 p.m. on the East Coast, in a more adult-focused time slot.
He also said that while the ad's content will be true to the game, "it's not as revealing as parts of the game are."
On the eve of its launch, "Dante's Inferno" has many in the gaming industry champing at the bit.
"This is visually one of the more interesting titles I've seen in a while," said David Riley, a director with market research firm NPD Group.
He also said the Super Bowl spot could be a very good opportunity for the company.
"With a game like this, a Super Bowl audience is definitely a target audience for them," he said. "This is a title that really just generates its own buzz. Once you see a trailer, you just get it."
But others are disappointed that the adult-targeted game will be advertised during an event that will undoubtedly be watched by so many kids.
Jim Steyer, CEO of Common Sense Media, a family entertainment ratings and reviews non-profit, said his group expects this game to be one of the most violent games of 2010.
Recognizing that CBS initially had a problem with the ad, he said, "What's ironic about this is that it's not the tagline, it's what's in the ad."
Even if the content has been softened for a younger audience, he said children under 18 years old will be watching the game with their parents. When they see the ad, they'll want the game and, he continued, teenage boys in particular can become easily addicted to gaming.
"The issue won't necessarily be the content of the ad, but the promotion of an M-rated video game to a family-friendly audience," he said. "That's the fundamental issue.
If parents are watching with their kids, he suggests "diving for the clicker" and switching the channel or using it as a teachable moment.
But others see things differently.
"Products intended for adults have long been advertised during the Super Bowl and other high profile television events when younger family members are likely to be watching as well," said Anita Frazier, an industry analyst with NPD Group.
If Viagra, Cialis, Levitra and beer companies are allowed a shot at an audience that's more than 100 million strong, why shouldn't video game companies, she said.
And, she added, movies and other kinds of media that highlight adult-oriented content can provide valuable opportunities for parents to start conversations with their kids.
"As a parent, I think it's important to take those opportunities to talk to my kids about content and its appropriateness for them," she said. "It's not the network's responsibility to shield my children (and therefore the large audience who is an appropriate target for these products) on my behalf."