Misconceptions in a shifting world of marketing

Misconceptions in a shifting world of marketing

By Nicholas Lovell

August 26th 2010 at 4:14PM

In this weekís column, Lovell looks at how marketing has changed in a self-publishing world

Traditional role: In the world of traditional games publishing, games marketing has one objective and one objective only: to maximize the day one sales of a boxed game. High initial sales not only generate substantial revenues for the publisher, they act as a strong predictor of long-term sales success. Of course this is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Retailers, which have limited shelf space and a strategy of maximising revenue per square foot, rapidly reduce or marginalise under-performing products. By achieving high initial sales, a publisher’s sales team can convince a retailer to keep the game in stock and at a high price.

This approach has a number of implications. Firstly, it means that the lion’s share of the marketing budget for a game is spent in the three months leading up to and shortly after the launch. Secondly, it means that marketing is not focused on building a long term connection with gamers. Instead, publishers are focused on blitzing the market with awareness campaigns. In many cases, the individual marketers do not have any interest in the long-term success of the franchise, but are incentivised to deliver on a short-term target. Finally, it means that money is not spent on generating direct sales (via activities such as web marketing, building databases of customers and maintaining regular communication with gamers); instead it is spent on games magazines and TV spots to raise that all-important initial awareness.

New role: The new model of publishing is much less hit-driven. Many of the most successful self-published or indie games have been ìsleeperî hits, growing through word-of-mouth and positive reviews. Games such as Portal, World of Goo, Tap Tap Revenge or Darwinia had very little marketing push behind them.

But this hides a painful truth. For every self-published game that has succeeded without much marketing, a dozen or more have had disappointing sales. The reality is that marketing is a core skill (perhaps the core skill) for any developer seeking to self-publish.

Perhaps the biggest marketing advantage that a developer has is that consumers actually care what a developer is doing: they have no interest in the corporate suits behind the world’s largest publishers, but they will hang on every word of Peter Molyneux, Will Wright or Shigeru Miyamoto.

(Let’s be honest here, we’re not talking about ordinary consumers; we’re talking about fanboys who, despite the disparaging nature of the name, are an essential audience for creating and spreading the viral word-of-mouth that is so critical to any cost-effective marketing strategy.)

To exploit this advantage, developers have to start connecting with their users directly. They must blog or use Twitter. They must run websites which build up communities who are deeply interested in the work of the developer and then work to build interest and buying intent amongst those users. They need to target the evangelists, what Seth Godin calls ìsneezersî, who will spread the word about their game far and wide. They need to become expert permission marketers.

But before we start on the practical advice, perhaps you’ll allow a little rant about some of the development industry’s misconceptions about marketing.

Marketing misconception 1: We’ve always done the PR for our games

ìIf you've ever heard a publisher’s PR team speaking, they would always say ëthe best person to talk about your game is you.’ My question is always, ëso why are we paying you?’î - Mark Morris, Managing Director, Introversion

Any number of games developers have told me that that they have done the PR for their game. They say that they went to E3 and spent three days in an airless room showing off their game to 100 journalists who queued up to see them. ìSo we know how to do PR,î they say.

Bullshit.

The skill of PR is not talking to 100 journalists over three days; it’s getting those 100 journalists to agree to traipse through your door at one of the busiest trade shows of the year. It involves schmoozing those journalists over several years, paying their bar bill and offering them exciting press junkets. If you really think that you’ve done the PR, ask yourself these three questions:

  • Did you get their business cards? If you don’t know their names and contact details, they’re not exactly an accessible resource.
  • Could you contact them today to tell them about an announcement you are making and have a reasonable expectation that they would cover the story?
  • Do any journalists in the world owe you favours?

If you can’t answer yes to all three questions, you are a long way from having enough PR skills in-house for your game to succeed.

(Note that there are exceptions to the misconception: if you have an awesome game, a fabulous pedigree or have found an angle that gets journalists salivating, PR will be much easier. My point is that PR is as much about hard graft as it is about having a great game).

Marketing misconception 2: If you build it, they will come

Developers are creators. They build fantastic worlds and gameplay experiences which consumers will just have to play. When the game is finished, it is handed over to the publisher, and all of the hard work is done.

Absolute balderdash (or baloney, if you’re an American).

Endless games have failed to sell well despite fantastic critical reception. Even Electronic Arts, a finely-honed marketing machine, has struggled with games like Mirror’s Edge, despite a Metacritic score of 80. Titles like Beyond Good and Evil (Metacritic: 87), Okami (Metacritic: 93), and Ico (Metacritic: 90) have all demonstrated that quality is not the only pre-requisite for sales success.

Similar stories abound on the iPhone, where developers seduced by the tales of riches garnered by the likes of Ethan Nicholas, developer of iShoot, or the success of Simon Oliver’s Rolando have released games that are innovative and polished but have no marketing or viral hook.

 

Misconception 3: Marketing is too expensive for a developer

 

Many developers assume that the mega-publisher approach of throwing huge amounts of money at TV and print is the only way to do game marketing. That’s one way approach to marketing, sure. And it’s one that many overworked/lazy* marketing teams have used. The marketing team puts together a media plan that involves about putting ads in all the usual magazines and websites, deciding whether the game merits a television campaign and maybe putting a little aside for something innovative and quirky: a mini-game, an outdoor advertising campaign, a community website, a PR stunt.

But that’s because many members of a publisher’s marketing department come from the old world, where the name of the game is day one sales. That is not what self-publishing for an independent developer is all about. For an independent developer, marketing is a long-term investment:

  • In a website that encourages the development of a community
  • In regular communications through social networking tools such as blogs, Twitter and Facebook
  • In building long-term relationships with your gamers who will repay you with loyalty (and more importantly by buying your games)

Conclusion

Marketing is a key skill that all developers will have to access in order to make their games a success. That does not mean that developers have to hire lots of marketing people. The role can be outsourced, fulfilled by freelancers or even shared with other developers.

I’m not even saying that you have to work with ìmarketing expertsî. If you are passionate about your game and want to share it with the world, you will find journalists who want to talk to you and you will be able to reach out to consumers through the myriad consumer channels that exist in 2010

What I am saying is that marketing is hard graft. The PR process can be grinding and painful. Making anyone as excited about your game as you are is tiring and dispiriting.

But you love your game. So you’ll do it. It will be as much work as making the game was in the first place. It will be the difference between the success or failure of your game.

And that is something that many developers are still struggling to accept.

Nicholas Lovell writes a blog on the business of games at www.gamesbrief.com.

He is the author of How to Publish a Game and teaches masterclasses on making social games.