Game marketing article

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.

Originally published in Gamesauce.