Pop quiz: What’s the biggest challenge that video game developers and publishers face today? Congratulations – if you said “discovery,” give yourself a pat on the back. With hundreds of free to play games, digital downloads, online offerings, social network titles and smartphone apps flooding virtual aisles each week, suddenly, it isn’t just about creating great games anymore. Given infinite selection, growing audience fragmentation across platforms and devices and an endless barrage of white noise competing for consumers’ attention, you’ve also got to find ways to instantly stand out from the pack… hence the importance of video game marketing and public relations (PR).
Just one problem: Developers continue to wrestle with appreciating the value of, plotting effective campaigns for, and otherwise wrapping their heads around the magic of video game marketing and PR efforts. This is of chilling concern as the shift to digital distribution and direct consumer relationships intensifies. Even the smallest, most specialized shops are suddenly faced with the prospect of having to think like standalone publishing houses: Skills not necessarily in their wheelhouse. Worse, having travelled from the Game Developers Conference to Festival of Games and toured several continents as a consultant and talent scout for industry-leading publishers and developers alike, a running theme keeps presenting itself. Not only do most game makers say that they don’t know how to drive public awareness to their titles. Many can’t even identify their core audience, beginning the question “if you don’t know who you’re making a product for, why build it in the first place?”
Regardless of whether your motives are altruistic, artistic or commercial though, let’s be sensible: The more people who play your games, the better. Taking the time to target an audience, build a title that meets their needs and craft features that address their concerns and interests isn’t just good business. It’s also a handy way to boost player enjoyment, and keep your development efforts tightly focused, helping minimize the risk of budget overruns, wasted time and overall feature creep. Those seeking a publishing deal also gain the added benefit of being able to better, and more efficiently, present a clear case for why their game deserves one of precious few slots, and better placement, within a strategic partner’s portfolio.
Not only do most game makers say that they don’t know how to drive public awareness to their titles, many can’t even identify their core audience.
Even if you’re simply making a game in the off-hours for friends and family to enjoy, understand: Marketing is not the devil’s work. In fact, to survive the transitions presently rocking the gaming business, designers and marketers need to embrace a new fundamental truth – they’re actually one and the same in today’s increasing value-driven climate. Case in point: Every feature that graces your game – level editors, social video sharing, options to team up and tackle quests, etc. – is in fact a form of advertising and promotion. It’s impossible to underscore the point enough, in a world where increasingly social and mobile shoppers have limited time and budget, and a never-ending range of alternate options to pick from. (Many accessible free or for just pennies on-demand right from a device, e.g. Apple’s 187 million strong-army of iOS gadgets, that’s already nestled snugly everyday in your pocket.)
To wit, splashy billboards, glossy print ads or fancy online banners aren’t enough alone in this era to drive continued excitement and awareness. Rather, today’s most effective form of marketing are games and surrounding features themselves, and the way in which they organically drive players to actively want to seek them out and engage with these amusements. Translation: Video game marketing has evolved far past the age of simple push, pull and viral content creation. In this modern, more enlightened day and age, it’s become virtually indiscernible from the end product itself.
Also worth nothing – we’ve entered into an era where adding long-term value and building/managing customer relationships, not simply driving sales and fuelling market awareness, have suddenly become paramount. To this extent, promoters can no longer afford to act purely as a mouthpiece for the message, nor allow creatives to serve in outside supporting roles alone. Instead, they must proactively work hand-in-hand with (and increasingly begin to think like) actual game designers themselves, just as game designers must think more like marketers – building every feature to have a purpose, whether it’s boosting player enjoyment, growing one’s user base or directly driving purchase intent.
Be forewarned: To achieve maximum return on investment going forward, marketing must be deeply embedded into actual product development, ideally from day one, and viewed as an organic extension of any given title or campaign’s core feature set. Because in its purest essence, video game advertising circa 2011 isn’t about just providing a temporary groundswell of support for a specific title or brand. It’s about creating a persistent, standalone entertainment experience with real, tangible worth unto itself.
Given this sweeping change in focus, it’s also important to note. Promotional content must not only be designed from the beginning to live on in a dedicated, persistent space. It’s vital as well that users be given the tools to interact with, shape, share and make of media what they will – as well as connect and communicate with fellow enthusiasts while doing so. In essence, tomorrow’s most effective advertising campaigns are actually metagames in disguise. And, while we’re at it, will be designed so that users actively and regularly seek them out in order to sate their desire to gain exclusive access/knowledge, a perceived boost in social status or tangible physical reward. Make no mistake: Audience empowerment is the key to success. Unbounded by time, budget or political constraints, your user base can act as an eternal wellspring from which greatness springs. And – more pointedly – serve to drive new customer adoption and content refresh rates far beyond that which is within the capacity of any given agency or enterprise to reproduce.
Still, even more crucial to grasp if you want to survive the sea changes sweeping the business is the following concept. Marketing is no longer a one-way street, where value accrues only to the advertiser’s benefit. To succeed with any meaningful degree of effectiveness, it must also serve as a trusted and transparent vehicle through which the user ultimately feels he or she achieves some degree of participation in (and influence over) the shape of the end-product. In other words, commonality begets community, community begets empathy, and empathy begets enthusiasm. Specifically, the kind money cannot buy, and sort which turns video game customers – or shoppers in any vertical, for that matter – into evangelists worth many times more than their weight in gold.
Because ultimately, no advertising campaign in this day and age can afford to remain stolid or static. Nor can a given marketer, however well informed, hope to understand the ever-changing wants and needs of their target demographic as well as members of said audience itself. Give users (especially passionate ones, the very definition of today’s game players) the opportunity to join forces and colour within the lines of your message, and you may be surprised what happens. They might just be happy to ignite interest in a particular campaign facet you overlooked, reboot a stale initiative or provide enough content and/or inspiration to capitalise on the unlikeliest opportunities.
That said, rather than fear this shift in thinking, it's time we as an industry holistically embraced it, and wrapped our heads around the fundamental change in strategic approach this necessitates. In hopes of opening lines of communications between development and marketing, and giving game industry newcomers and vets suddenly faced with the terrifying prospect of operating as full-service publishers a leg to stand on, I've put together the following ultimate guide to promoting, packaging and selling product in the new gaming economy. (Including new business models that can save your company's skin, give any studio more leverage in contract negotiations, and effectively act as ongoing marketing methodologies unto themselves.) No matter the size of your development team and budget, from zero-cost options to grand-scale strategies, you'll find a wealth of hints, tips and advice contained within.
In the first installment of this multi-part series, we recap the biggest challenges currently facing video game developers, publishers and businesspeople today:
Rising Development Costs: With average review scores in key genres in 2011 growing (FPS – 81%, RPG – 80%, Sports – 82%, Strategy – 85%), it's becoming more expensive to compete on an international level, let alone keep up with blockbuster brands. Launch dates are no longer the end of a developer's work either, but rather the beginning as well: It's vital to increasingly treat games as products, not services nowadays, and account for ongoing spend on servers, DLC, regular updates, etc. Although expected to grow 5X to a $5 billion market by 2015, according to Parks and Associates, the switch to social games won't save you either. From deeper, more traditional gaming experiences on Facebook (see: strategy outing Kingdoms of Camelot's 7.3 million monthly active users) to titles with broader multiplayer connectivity and user-generated content/location-based integration (e.g. Heaven's Diner, which involves quests at actual real-world locales and casual photo sharing), these games are becoming more complex and detailed as well.
Greater Competition for Share of Shoppers' Time/Budget: – An endless flood of games (30,000+ presently available for iPhone/iPad alone, as compared to just 30 retail releases across set-top consoles in May), platforms and devices from Web browsers to tablet PCs are suddenly competing for consumers' attention and disposable income, as are a growing range of work demands and leisure activities. Lest you discount the danger, consider mobile gaming, expected to be a $10 billion market by 2014 according to Futuresource. Not only are smartphone apps killing portable consoles' share of the market, causing it to drop by 15 per cent to just 66 per cent between 2009 and 2010 in the wake of growing iPhone and Android alternatives, per Flurry Analytics. EA Mobile says that 47% of players play at home, and NPD tells us that home is likewise the most popular place kids enjoy apps as well, taking a chunk out of the time that would otherwise be spent with traditional set-top games (Frighteningly, in the latter case, eight out of every 10 gaming apps downloaded for kids are free too). To wit, a product doesn't just have to immediately stand out from the crowd and grab buyers' attention today – it also has to deliver compelling reasons to stay top of mind, and at a rapidly shrinking cost to the end user.
Developers struggle to continue to "rightsize" titles, delivering just enough features to justify the price and please consumers.
Less Shelf Space at Retail: Even the globe's biggest retail chains are devoting less room to boxed product, especially in the PC space, and increasingly focusing their efforts on digital initiatives. GameStop alone plans to spend $100 million on growing its online presence through downloadable, cloud and free-to-play efforts in 2011 – $30 million more than it will spend this year on new store openings or renovations. But along with a drop in space at retail, and in retailers' overall market impact, come ancillary concerns with advertising. Not only is there less chance to promote your game via end-caps or point-of-purchase in physical shops. These opportunities aren't being replaced readily or fast enough on digital storefronts. Yes, you can buy space on the Xbox 360 dashboard at a high premium. But what about platforms like the iPhone, or less sophisticated cellular handsets, where oftentimes promotional ops are limited to the name of the game, a single icon and possibly 140 characters of text alone?
Game Prices Dropping: Over half of all Xbox 360 games in May 2011 will retail for $49.99 or under, and retailers (e.g. those who can track inventory in real-time) can implement price drops in a matter of days, not weeks. Contrast the scenario with that of the average smartphone app, which is either free, or sells as a $0.99 - $1.99 impulse buy – and there's tens of thousands sitting in your pocket ready at any time to choose from. The twin pressures of the rising costs needed to keep up with modern quality standards, coupled with growing fan expectation surrounding getting more for the money, are quickly presenting a vise between which many game makers are being mercilessly crushed. As was illustrated with the sudden freefall in plastic instrument-based music video game titles over the past two years as well, downloadable content (DLC) is now cutting into new product sales too, providing value-priced ways to keep even older titles feeling fresh and new. That's good for businesses prescient enough to adapt to online business models (ironically, even Harmonix, often cited as a casualty of music gaming's collapse, says it's still doing one million in digital song sales a month). But it's also a serious wake-up call for anyone who's still hoping to hock boxed product, let alone on an annualised release schedule. Can't gauge the impact? Allow us to put it in perspective: Prior to recent issues with hacked accounts, the PlayStation Network boasted 75 million players, 70% of whom connected to it each week, and had downloaded 1.4 billion combined pieces of content, with free-to-play MMOs like Free Realms also arriving on the service. In other words, even the traditional console landscape is rapidly changing.
Consumers Spending More Time with Digital, Mobile: Nielsen studies show that household budgets are up, but people are spending less money on gaming. Why? They're going outdoors and socializing more, and shifting interest to cheaper, more convenient outings for mobile devices. With nearly half of all full video game downloads occurring on these platforms, according to the NPD Group, it's obvious that smartphone, free to play, web and online outings present a growing threat. Not just in terms of pricing, but in terms of how much time they're eating up that would traditionally be spent with the involving $50-$60 blockbusters needed to keep large-scale firms afloat. On a happy note, digital distribution is also opening new frontiers: Expected to nearly double to a $4.2 billion market on PC in Europe by 2015, per DFC Intelligence, spot markets such as Romania and South America are suddenly becoming viable concerns for selling digital downloads and virtual goods. Because of this, even niche genres – e.g. war games – once seen as dead can live again, as illustrated by hardest of hardcore themed title World of Tanks' 1.7 million players in Russia alone. The new challenge, though: How to reach players via these territories and new operations strategies, where you may not be accustomed to doing business, and adapt to marketing and business models that may be based on making more from a smaller user base than is typical? Interestingly, gaming is also the top activity on tablet PCs – 84% of owners use them for play, says Google AdMob, more than employ the devices for searching online, checking email or reading news. This would appear to be a positive for the games industry, with nearly a third now using the devices as their primary computer. The Catch 22, however: These devices primarily play apps delivered through dedicated app stores, Flash web browsers and online titles – not the traditional AAA products that have, historically, fuelled grand-scale concerns. Worse, 77% of owners say they now use their desktop and laptop less, driving them even further away from traditional retail product
Branded IP, Game Sequels Winning: Of the top 10 selling games in March, only one (Homefront) was based on a new IP. No secret there: Shoppers tend to go with what they know, and are spending money on trusted and proven quantities – e.g. the well-known games they're certain will deliver high-quality experiences, or that they know friends are also playing, ensuring hours of multiplayer fun and more bang for the buck. Publishers are therefore increasingly shying away from innovation and sticking with the trusted brands, franchises and familiar concepts that they believe will ensure predictable and steady returns on investment. This presents a fundamental problem for small shops or more cash-constrained studios: How does your latest creation compete with more well-known and beloved properties and/or you can't afford the up-front licensing fees or revenue splits needed to secure these deals?
Fewer, But Bigger Titles Having More Impact: Following on the above bullet points, we're seeing greater activity around bigger, more blockbuster games such as Red Dead Redemption or Call of Duty: Black Ops. These marquee releases are starting to become so overwhelmingly powerful at retail that they're actually acting as black holes – sucking in and crushing any competition in their surrounding release orbit. Worse for rivals, games such as COD: Black Ops aren't just being purchased less for what's in the box than not (e.g. online multiplayer components) and constantly being refreshed, so that they never collect dust on the shelf (thereby prompting the need for new games to fill the void, as in the past). With 2.6 million players logging 5.9 multiplayer hours on launch day alone, they're clearly cannibalising time and money that would, in previous years, have been spent buying other products. Also worth nothing: As free to play web based titles such as 3D outing Battlestar Galactica Online (which clocked one million users in just six weeks) become deeper and more technically advanced, expect them to present a growing threat as well.
Convenience Winning Over Size and Scale: How much game is enough? Developers struggle to continue to "rightsize" titles, delivering just enough features to justify the price and please consumers. We're not only seeing this design and business strategy reflected in the launch of social network and smartphone games such as FarmVille and Trade Nations, which continue to steadily roll out regular updates, expansions and iterations faster than traditional gaming titles. We're also seeing the rise of web games like Everybody Edits, a Flash title which went from a minute side-project to growing $10,000/month concern through steady, constant expansion. But the real issue isn't whether or not hybrid titles like MX vs. ATV Alive can succeed by offering a base game at a lower ($40) retail price, then upcharging for content on the back-end, as would a typical online microtransaction-based outing. It's whether, if shoppers have 30 minutes to kill and are in the mood for an online fantasy role-player, it truly matters if they scratch the itch by playing World of Warcraft, on their PC or a less sophisticated iPhone and iPad MMO outing like Order & Chaos Online. In other words – if the key variables are simply "X amount of time" and "in the mood for a medieval dungeon crawl," do shoppers really care how big, beautiful and grandiose the game world is? Or would they be equally satisfied with something cheaper, more convenient, similarly thematically styled and just as enjoyable in its own right that equally satisfies the urge?
Players Have Endless Choice: Digital aisles burst with free and impulse buys, making it harder to justify a full-price launch, and necessitating that game makers increasingly look towards alternate business models to monetise, e.g. subscription fees, virtual goods purchases or upselling users microtransactions on the back-end. But even more troubling is how these trends affect consumer loyalty: If you're paying zero, or next to nothing for a game, what's to stop you from moving on to a competing product? It's well-known that Zynga spends millions in advertising each month managing user churn. And if 67 different Facebook games all promise to allow you to build the city or café of your dreams, and none cost a penny up-front, why not skim or idly browse half a dozen? Note that's before you even ponder the impact of used games, regular add-ons and expansions, and mobile/social/online games that can change at a moment's notice as developers quickly update and iterate them to optimise returns based on analytics and player feedback. Translation: There's no shortage of titles, or competition, to pick from.
Super users pay many times more than what you'd expect for a boxed or monthly subscription game while casual consumers become more fickle and fragmented.
Play Habits Are Changing: On the bright side for traditional game developers and publishers, core gamers are spending as much, if not more time with AAA blockbuster titles as ever. You can clearly see this reflected in the rise of so-called "whales," or super users who pay many times more than what you'd expect for a boxed purchased or monthly subscription in online games such as The Lord of the Rings Online. But at the same time, we're also seeing casual consumers become more fickle, and fragment across devices, platforms and play styles, making these users harder to capture. They may squeeze in a few minutes of Angry Birds on the bus to work, play a little Millionaire City between filing TPS reports and then sit down to enjoy half an hour with Portal 2 before packing it in for the day. Also of note, and deeper foreshadowing: Nearly half of Facebook's 600 million users play Zynga games monthly, and titles like CityVille are attracting 100 million players in just 43 days, making them among the fastest-growing, most successful games ever. Consider what this means to your audience moving forward: We're raising an entire generation that will come to think of FrontierVille as a "strategy game," view Restaurant City as a "simulation," and consider Ravenwood Fair their definition of an "RPG." Think about what this means to your future fan base, and the need to design games with core depth, yet casual accessibility – you know what they say about first impressions. We're already seeing these shifts in thinking reflected on the charts: As of April, just one market leader – Electronic Arts – was a recognisable name from the traditional gaming space.
Fans Are More Informed Than Ever: Thanks to user reviews, online websites, social networks and general word-of-mouth, which nowadays travels at the speed of tweet or Facebook update, there's no pulling the wool over shoppers' eyes anymore. If your game is bad, they'll know in minutes. If you slip up and treat fans poorly, online forums can be ablaze without warning. If a rival developer or publisher decides they want to release a competing game in the same general vicinity, they can quickly do it, and steal your thunder. Knowing this, to stay competitive today, you have only one real option when it comes to marketing: Excite, engage and empower end users, as word-of-mouth is everything in the new social economy.
No Room for Average Anymore: Finally, if you look at what's happening on the game development and publishing spectrum, you'll see much is happening at the poles. At the bottom end of the scale, zero- or low-cost outings such as apps, free-to-play online games and web browser based titles are exploding in popularity. At the high end, smash hit AAA releases are gobbling up the lion's share of dollars, and forcing boxed product to go ultra-premium, pairing first-rate solo experiences with a wealth of value-adds including ongoing downloads, expansions and multiplayer options. Everything in between is getting crushed. Think you can ship a nondescript product for $60 and hope to go platinum? Guess again.
Where does the future of gaming lie? Write in with your questions for games industry analyst Scott Steinberg. Select queries will appear in his next column.
Scott Steinberg heads video game consulting firm TechSavvy, which advises developers, publishers, investors and media corporations on business strategy, product testing and market analysis. A frequent game industry expert witness, he's also the author of Video Game Marketing and PR and host of video series Game Theory. He frequently appears as a technology and gaming analyst on broadcast networks like ABC, CBS and NBC, and has contributed to 400+ outlets from CNN to Rolling Stone. For more, see www.scottsteinberg.com.