As you are almost certainly aware the app marketplace is the toughest and most competitive that has ever existed. Getting on for a million apps with around a thousand added every day. The barriers to entry are so low that anyone can have a go. This creates an immense problem of visibility, as in how do you get any when all the possible channels are clogged up.
Here at Kwalee we have a published iOS game called Gobang Social, which is intended mainly as a technology demonstrator. However we do need some players, so as to demonstrate and test the technology, but we don’t need a full blooded marketing campaign.
One of our solutions is this competition to give away an iPad3 to the most effective player of the game. In marketing terms this is pretty cheap. And it gives our social marketing some ammunition to use. Hence the video.
A huge problem in the app marketplace is gaining visibility. Many hundreds of new apps are released every day, all vying for the attention of journalists and the public. It is immensely difficult to get your app noticed at all. If you go to the forums where the indie developers hang out you can see that this is their biggest problem. As Oscar Wilde said, there is only one thing worse than being talked about and that is not being talked about.
There are two ways out of this that are commonly used, one is to throw money at the problem, to buy visibility. We don’t really want to do this at Kwalee if we can help it. The other is to cross promote between a catalog of existing apps on the app store. But Kwalee only has one app out there, Gobang Social.
Gobang Social is a great fun game to play with your Facebook friends. We developed it as a technology demonstrator, to prove that we could do many different things that are involved in developing and publishing an app. Also as the testbed to create our turn based server technology. This simple, fun game was ideal for the task and enabled us to climb all sorts of learning curves.
However we do need to have players using the game in order to test and develop what we are doing. So we need to do some marketing to attract these people. And as we already know, this is difficult in an extremely crowded marketplace.
Our solution was to create a really wacky video and to incorporate a competition. In marketing terms this was very inexpensive indeed. And it has worked, it has done exactly the job it was intended to do. Not only that, the staff had a great fun day out. And we continued to build our brand image as a company that doesn’t take itself too seriously and which has a laugh.
And just for good measure, here is the product video for Gobang Social, so you can see what our game looks like:
There will be many development people reading this who know exactly what I look like. And I don’t mean in some carefully posed corporate photograph either. I mean in the shambolic, 3D, real world flesh. In fact they will be far more familiar with my ugly appearance than that of just about any other marketing person that worked in the same company as them. The reason for this is very simple and very complicated at the same time. For I am a practitioner of a dark management art call MBWA. An art so powerful that it was behind Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard building the biggest technology company in the world from an investment of just $538. An art that is often unknown by modern managers yet which yields almost mystical powers in those that have the vital knowledge. An art that has also been instrumental in the success of many other companies: Apple, GE, Wal-Mart, Pespsi, Disney, Dell, 3M, Lucas Film, McDonalds and a whole list of the most successful companies on earth.
To understand just a small part of the powers of MBWA in publishing a game that is a commercial success, something we all strive for, there is an essential fact that everyone in the games industry needs to know. And that fact is that if a game has zero marketing it will have zero sales. Given that just telling your mum about it constitutes marketing. You see, development and marketing are two sides of the same coin. Like a rifle and bullet they are pretty useless in isolation yet used properly together they make a lethal combination. But in the real world of the modern game industry this rarely happens. And it is the fault of the marketing people. It is their job to communicate. And in order to communicate they need the knowledge. In fact they need more than the knowledge, they need the passion and commitment as well. Which can only come from visiting the team who make the game they are marketing. Frequently.
MBWA is a acronym for Management By Walking (or Wandering) About. Seriously. If you look it up using Google you will find that it is a well regarded professional management technique. Books have been written about it. And it is well proven to be mightily effective, as the many number one games I have worked on help to illustrate. Yet too many managers in the video game industry do not know that it exists. They hide behind the keyboards in their offices and go to endless time wasting meetings with other marketing people instead. In fact too many managers in the games industry don’t know about lots of well proven management techniques. Which is a pity because MBWA is especially effective when you are bringing together disparate groups with widely differing skills in order to hit the bullseye with that metaphorical rifle. Precisely what we would like to do in game publishing.
And, for the record, it isn’t just the development teams that have had the frequent and dubious pleasure of seeing my ugly face. Nope, there was also QA, central tech, sound, compatibility, licensing, IT, legal and every other department in the company. Why send an email when you can walk over and have a chat with someone and maybe bump into a few others along the way? Do this every day and pretty soon you have the real pulse of the whole company. You know what is going to happen before it does, because this is the sort of knowledge that gives you second sight. And number one games.
So now you can already see that it is possible to do your marketing better by being different and using your brain. Which is why seeing all the television game advertisements before Christmas makes me want to cry. The companies involved would get far better results if they cancelled this waste and put half the money in my pension fund then spent the other half with a bit of intelligence and application. Television is a fragmented and dying medium with dodgy audience targeting and advertising that is easily avoided, yet they still ask you to pay the price of when they were king. So how come our industry wastes all this money? Basically publishing a boxed game has very high fixed costs in development and very low variable costs in the cardboard and plastic that make up the distribution medium. So you can throw money at the marketing like crazy and you are still ahead so long as you are getting incremental sales. This means that marketing managers are given massive budgets to burn through and the only way they can think of doing so is on television. Whereas the reality is that they could create far more sales on a smaller budget without television if they were really forced to.
For instance let’s look at radio. Radio advertising is cheap. And because people listen to the radio whilst they are doing something else they don’t skip the adverts. Plus radio stations tend to be targeted more towards specific demographics. And radio adverts are a lot cheaper, quicker and easier to make than TV adverts. So say you are releasing a game on a Friday. On the Tuesday and Wednesday you can hype it up with “This Friday…….” advertisements. On the Thursday they become “In the shops tomorrow…….” advertisements and on Friday you can do the big “Released today……..” thing, followed on Saturday by “This weekend…….” . So you can engage massive audiences in an event. You can get your messages over lots of times. And you have spent a lot less. It makes a lot more sense to me than some of the TV campaigns I see. And it is just one of a whole myriad of tools that sit in a good marketeers toolbox, just waiting to be brought out at precisely the right moment to do precisely the right job.
Then there is PR. Some people think that this means sending out press releases about what is happening. Poor misguided fools. PR is about managing the newsflow in order to get your key messages over to your target audience as many times and in as big a way as possible. For a boxed AAA console game I like to start a year before street date. Just tell the world the project exists. This is big news so you don’t have to tell them much more. So it is a good opportunity for some juicy quotes to raise the profile of key people. Then you need a release every month, each of which contains genuine news, that gradually reveal what an amazing game you are going to unleash on the world. Each release is planned weeks or even months ahead and each is supported with loads of assets such as videos, screenshots, box art, renders etc etc. And you don’t just send the release to journalists. It forms an article on the game website and on the game blog, it is an exciting new thread on the game forum. It is in an online newsletter and your community marketing team can use it as ammunition to run amok all over the web. You need to use every avenue to spread the knowledge as widely as possible.
Which brings me very nicely to fan sites. You want as many of these as possible for a game as they are each a free marketing department evangelising your game like crazy. But they can also do naughty things that you don’t like. The answer is an accreditation scheme. To borrow an old saying; you want these people inside the tent pissing out, not outside the tent pissing in. You give them a set of simple, clear rules that stop the worst excesses. Then you look after them with a fansite toolkit of resources, with the press releases and with special favours and access. Then about three months before street date you ask, say, the top 5 or so fansite owners to visit the company for the day (choose a school holiday!), chill out with the development team etc. Can you even begin to imagine just how much coverage this is going to get you all over the web? I have been there and seen it and it is pretty impressive. It was to engage online like this (and in many other ways) that I first came up with the idea of having a community marketing department at Codemasters, something that has now been widely imitated throughout the industry.
So now you are getting an idea that marketing can be fun, devious, challenging and immensely powerful. So it is time for me to tell you the biggest marketing secret that there is. Quite simply everyone is far more interested in people than they are about things. That’s it. It is programmed genetically into every one of us when we are conceived and we cannot escape it. Just look at the news. How much is real news and how much just following personalities? Once you understand this you can use it as a very long lever to get your key messages to your target audience with far more power and far greater ease. Once again I know this because I have done it, repeatedly. Make someone famous and you really do change the rules of the game. Everything they say is far more widely believed and the press are pursuing you for content instead of vice versa. People I have made famous have even ended up seeing the Queen and the Prime Minister because of their fame. This is an amazing power. Yet game industry marketing is totally rubbish at it. Which is puzzling to me because we have the examples of the film and music industries that both do it so well.
Another thing that has always worked extremely well for me in marketing is being different, for the sake of being different. If you look at the advertising for certain genres of games it has become extremely formulaic. To the point where, quite frankly, you have put special effort into working out which particular game it is for. And if you have to put that special effort in then so does everyone else, which most often they really won’t bother doing. More marketing spend being thrown away. The basic problem you have as a marketeer is that everyone you want to reach is already being hit by thousands of marketing messages every day. And everyone has developed powerful filters to stop 99.9% of these marketing messages from getting through. Which is why lots of clever people are paid lots of money to come up with ideas that will get past your filters. So just ask yourself which marketing messages you have actually been conscious of recently (it is no good asking which ones have reached your subconscious mind!). Ask which advertisements make up the 0.1% that got past your filters. Most times it will be the ones that are different. It helps if they are zany. And it helps if they include a good looking person (see above). But it is being different that is the key.
So you can see what I am coming round to here. Creativity. A good marketeer needs a huge amount of knowledge. The toolbox that makes his marketing mix is very complex and ever changing and its real world use can be fiendishly complex. But this is as nothing compared to creativity. To be a good marketeer requires creativity in the same way that good game designer needs creativity. Whilst the job that we do is so widely different the fact is that at the very core of what we do it is creativity that makes the difference between those who can do the job and those who excel at it.
I have been prompted to write this by a leader column in the Economist and it is something I have alluded to in previous articles. This is something that has been brought about by changes in the technology of production and of distribution. It is something that will increase further with time. And it is something that effects all popular media. Consumers are buying massive block busters and they are buying niche products. But increasingly they aren’t buying anything else.
In video games the blockbuster are titles like Grand Theft Auto, Halo and Modern Warfare. They are primarily on current generation home consoles. And they can be the biggest media launch events on earth, now running up to half a billion dollars at retail in just a few days. They are more than just games now, they are events in popular culture that touch on many millions of people. And whilst these are good games, this is not what makes them succeed. This is easy to prove because there are equally good games that don’t become blockbusters. And the non blockbuster games sell a fraction of the numbers.
So the games that make it to blockbuster status and the ones that don’t, being of similar quality, cost pretty much the same to make. But there is an immense difference in revenues. The non blockbuster may only take a few million dollars whilst the blockbuster will take many hundreds of millions. So it has become a very high risk marketplace where a single game can make you a fortune, or a thumping loss. Which is a major reason why certain publishers are posting thumping losses.
Of course the defining factor of what makes a blockbuster is principally marketing. In this case manipulating mass conciousness to make a new game a global event of some excitement and importance. The Zeitgeist must be caught, or more correctly, manufactured. People must feel left out when they are not a part of it. And this is not about spending money to create this, it is about marketing as a craft.
If you publish a niche game you are entering a market with many thousand, maybe tens of thousands of niche games. What defines yours is, quite simply, the niche that it is in. So, having walled yourself into a niche it is impossible to attract massive launch sales. But you do have something that the old high street retail model didn’t offer. You have a long tail. As popularised in the book by Chris Anderson. Effectively your sales could continue for ever.
This requires marketing. Remember that zero marketing results in zero sales. But niche games require a different kind of marketing. You need to target the people in your niche. And you need a substantial and permanent online presence, so that people who could be interested will always find your title.
So if you are involved in the game industry in any way ask yourself the question, am I making a blockbuster or a niche title. And if the answer is neither then you are certainly wasting your time. We have seen this as middle ranking publishers with middle ranking titles flounder in the marketplace when a decade ago they could have made a respectable living.
This is really interesting stuff from Doug Creutz of Cowen Group in Gamsutra. He has done some research and analysis which has resulted in this list of the top 7 reasons people buy a video game, in priority order. But be a bit cynical here, it is very well known that people tend to tell market researchers what they think that the market researchers want to hear. But nevertheless this is important stuff for everyone in the industry to know.
Genre. If someone likes first person shooters they aren’t going to buy a needlepoint game. Makes sense to me and you can see that it applies to the older media too, such as books and films.
If players enjoyed an earlier version of the game. The power of brand. But beware, it is important that you maintain the quality of what you publish under a brand name or you can come unstuck. Just ask Lara Croft. But done well it is a license to print money, just look at Modern Warfare, Grand Theft Auto and Halo for your inspiration.
Price. Ah yes, people have to work to earn the money that they spend. And they have lots of choices about how to spend that money. Console games are probably too expensive this generation for the health of the market and people are taking their spend elsewhere. If PS3 and Xbox 360 games were cheaper the market would be a lot bigger.
Word of mouth. This is why marketeers need to create a buzz and why community marketing is so important. People trust what they are told by people they know far more than they trust what a company tells them directly.
Marketing visuals. The industry put a lot of effort into this during the cardboard and plastic retail distribution era, even if the imagery sometimes got a bit over derivative. But now we have moved to online a lot of people seem to have forgotten this. How many iPhone games have great marketing imagery, for instance.
Publisher reputation. Always was worth very little. Sometimes hardly worth printing on the pack. All the effort that went into trying to create EA Sports as a brand when they should have been working on word of mouth.
Review scores. Oh how I laughed. All those self obsessed journalists and their precious review scores and it doesn’t matter. Can Edge magazine survive this? And John Riccitiello’s obsession with Metacritic shown to be a false fixation.
The first are those who don’t know how difficult it is but do it anyway, only to usually fail. Obviously these people don’t last long in business. They had nearly died out until the low cost of entry to iPhone publishing brought whole new swathes of innocents to the slaughter.
The second are those who know exactly how difficult it is so they don’t do it. Instead they churn out sequels and publish their IP on every single platform imaginable. This can make you money, but every brand has a lifecycle, so they are not building any value for the future.
The third group are those who understand the importance and value of creating new brands. They use hard work, skill and craft to nurture their offspring in the world. They persevere through adversity and toil till they have built something of true value.
The biggest problem it when a publisher (let’s say EA) tries to make the transition from the second group above to the third. If a marketing team has lured themselves into the easy security of sequels and licensed products then a new, original IP will come as a complete culture shock. They need to create brand values that have resonance and which work in the market. They need to communicate totally new ideas and concepts to a global audience. The challenge is vast. But then it is never easy to build true value.
At Codemasters I worked on several brand new IPs that went on to be massive sellers and chart successes, the Dizzy series and Flashpoint, for instance. In the early 2000s we had a load of established franchises that were regular money in the bank: Colin McRae, LMA Football Manager, TOCA/Race Driver, Snooker, Music, Micro Machines etc. But we went through a phase of introducing a new brand, of doing all the hard work, then not following it up. Obviously Flashpoint is the most famous of these (an 8 year gap between releases!!), but there were others like Severance Blade of Darkness, Prisoner of War, Insane, Second Sight and Perimeter. All of which needed nurturing and treating as a brand, but which weren’t. So much lost potential.