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.