How free-to-play has evolved game marketing

Understanding release timing, consumer behavior and analytics has become key, says Crucial Path Media's Dirk Metzger

The gaming industry is in an interesting transition right now, not just in terms of business models, distribution platforms and products, but also in terms of how those products are promoted and marketed. There have been substantial changes to contend with, regardless of whether you're a traditional publisher/developer that focuses on retail, or if you're already deeply immersed in free-to play. Either way, the challenges around marketing and product positioning have evolved dramatically in recent years-and continue to do so at pace.

There are, in essence, several separate factions operating within the gaming industry, but their approaches are vastly different. For the traditional guys, aspects of free-to-play are highly relevant for things like DLC, game patches and continuous support channels, but the finer points of the model can remain something of an anomaly, and there's often a perception that it hasn't proven itself to be sustainable just yet. On the other side, there are folks in free-to-play who don't know what an FSDU, a gold master or first party submission deadline is. Nor will they ever need to.

The challenge for many traditional publishers moving into the free-to-play space is adapting their marketing strategies along with the changing business model. What used to make sense for a box retail title doesn't for an online free-to-play game. Many of the golden rules of what is good marketing practice no longer apply. And regardless of which side of the fence you're on, free-to-play consumer expectations are bleeding over into retail game consumption.

There are a few key areas that have seen the most substantial changes.

Lead Time and Release Beats: Anyone in the industry knows we all love a good game announcement; the developers are proud, the publisher has locked in the forecast, and PR will further boost the pre-sale numbers. Not so with a free-to-play title. There are a few key points to consider:

  • The further out you announce, the less likely that people who read the announce release will play your product. You lose players instead of gaining them.
  • The market is oversaturated with products, with literally hundreds of games announced daily, and it's hard to make an announcement that's newsworthy and noteworthy to gamers. Your content needs to be structured and engaging.
  • In retail, once the box is purchased you already have a strong platform for promoting future DLC. In free-to-play, a player's commitment to your product is likely to be much looser.
  • Building consumer trust and loyalty inform how you position the product. Selling it as something it isn't will only negatively impact conversion and retention.
  • The majority of PR and marketing activities should focus on converting a touch-point to a player. If you announce 6 months out you're not doing your players or your product performance any favours. Users primarily want access.

Another important change is the long-term strategy planning for post-release. Publishers need to have solid content roll-out plans and strategies lined up for literally as long as the game is live, which could be years. Based on this, communication plans and PR can be structured from announcement to release and beyond without losing interest or momentum.

"You need to roll out information piece by piece to sustain the attention all the way up to the actual live date"

The other element to consider when announcing is that you need to have a content roll-out plan for PR and Community before you announce anything. It's the classic symptom of creating a band at high school-no one has written a song yet, but everyone has an awesome idea for the T-shirt. You need the content before you can create demand for it.

You also need to ensure you have a plan for what you're announcing beyond your release statement. If you announce your title is coming but don't say anything else up to release, interest will continue to fade. You need to roll out information piece by piece to sustain the attention all the way up to the actual live date. An isolated release statement on its own is nothing but a bit of chest beating.

KPIs (key performance indicators): One of the hardest things with free-to-play is balancing your return on investment with your marketing budget. Back in the retail dominant days, when you had retailers taking inventory, you could estimate what percentage of the forecast could be put towards marketing. In a free-to-play environment, without any pre-orders, it's hard to judge the purchase intent. You can spend hours and days forecasting, but as soon as you get your first set of real numbers all that is out the window anyway. It's best to map out several scenarios such as high, medium and low and then make sure you re-forecast with the first set of real data you get.

Just as with PR and Marketing, your other departments need a long-term strategy and sustainable setups. So the other large challenge around KPIs and goals is making sure you have the following in place:

  1. Feasible tools to track the data: Data will accumulate over time, people leave and new people join. Proper tools and setups guarantee easy transition, growth and analysis.
  2. A common understanding amongst teams and management on what key definitions mean: This is one of the most common issues in not only the free-to-play industry, but nearly any business that handles data. A glossary is a start, but as the business grows departments and teams will need workshops and regular updates.
  3. The process and ability to react to the numbers and iterate quickly to improve: There's no point gathering the data if you can't interpret it and optimise. This may seem obvious, but many companies gather lots of data that they don't iterate on because the right feedback loop isn't in place.

Often, terms like "retention" and "acquisition" are used, but it varies from company to company how these are defined and sometimes even from product to product. Some measure retention by day, others by weeks or months. Maybe all three are separate data points that need to be measured. Similarly, with acquisition, companies must decide if it is defined by a sign-up, an active player or a download. All these data points need to be agreed. Clearly, making sure you have a glossary of terms and a common understanding internally is critical in building a common language and working towards the same goals.

A good example for looking at definitions is tracking the user funnel from acquisition through retention and monetization. In free-to-play the funnel becomes more of a loop. You want to activate users, convert to paying users and increase your daily active user rate while minimising churn. These are all clear goals, but it also needs to be clear where you determine those data-points are logged and how you measure them.

"Pre-release, the focus should be on community building and PR activity, and post release your media budget should kick in"

There is no wrong or right, it depends on your business model, product and long-term strategy. But what is important for all is that your people understand your KPIs and definitions.

Timing and front-loaded marketing: Another substantial change from the traditional marketing model is how and when the marketing budget is spent. As with PR, it's not only redundant to front-load your marketing with a teaser campaign, it's also not cost effective. Pre-release, the focus should be on community building and PR activity, and post release your media budget should kick in. If you're on a limited budget the best approach is to focus on CPA (cost per acquisition). Work with trusted vendors that will deliver quality traffic and have independent measurement and tracking in place that lets you verify the conversion rate.

The marketing budget should be primarily weighted towards acquiring users vs. brand building. If you can afford to do both that's great, but when trying to establish a new title the first step should be to focus on building your player base. Other elements in the budget should be influencer marketing, PR and community focused activity to grow the core player-base.

There are many continuously moving pieces in marketing a free-to-play product throughout its lifecycle. Therefore, having data that helps you understand your product's performance is a critical element in improving it and causing a positive uplift in numbers. If you can't track what you're doing, you're essentially operating blind. The biggest shift in marketing is definitely that it has become more analytical, and more than ever it's important to understand changing consumer behaviours and adjust your strategy on timings and positioning accordingly.

Dirk (@dirkmetzger) is founder and director of Crucial Path Media, an independent consultancy servicing the online games industry and consumer focused digital businesses.

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Latest comments (3)

Steve Fowler Head of Marketing - Amazon Game Studios Seattle, Amazon4 years ago
Good job Dirk! Spreading the gospel. Fight on friend.

Marketing games as a service is so much more interesting and challenging to me than the old games in a box formulaic approach. Id have it no other way.
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Christian B Senior Product Lead, Aeria Games Europe4 years ago
We donīt know each Dirk but I can only second Steve. Your guidance is spot on from my experience.
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Dirk Metzger Director & Founder, Crucial Path Media4 years ago
Thanks a lot Steve, we're on the same page. Hope things are going well for you at Amazon. Looking forward to catching up soon.

And thank you Christian, appreciate the feedback.
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