Game Marketing Tips, Analysis, and News

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Crowd Marketing

ArenaNet, the studio that develops Guild Wars, just fired two employees because of a furor that erupted in social media. The Verge covered it well; essentially, an ArenaNet narrative designer was tweeting about how she writes narratives in Guild Wars, and a streamer politely offered some commentary about how he’d like to see things done – and then the whole thing exploded as the narrative designer got angry at this, heated messages were exchanged, the issue became popular on Reddit, and then the designer was brought in to talk to the CEO of ArenaNet who fired her. He also fired another long-time developer who had come to her defense. Now the issue has become politically charged, and while outrage is spread around and amplified some important lessons from this incident may get lost.

The issue is much more complex than that simple summary above, of course. If you’re interested check out the articles on the incident, and especially read through the tweets that precipitated everything, and form your own opinions. I’m not sure if there’s clearcut right and wrong here, but there are important things marketers and game developers should learn, and that’s what I’m going to focus on.

Stepping back a bit, it’s certainly true that many companies expect or encourage or even require developers to interact with the community. Sometimes those interactions don’t go so well, which shouldn’t be a surprising outcome for people whose expertise does not lie in public speaking or community management. Community management is extremely important – it helps keep the audience engaged with your game, it’s a way to learn from the audience, and it’s a good way to try and deal with problems that occur. Like all tools, though, community management can be harmful in direct proportion to its power and utility.

How do you prevent a situation like this one from developing? By hiring good community managers and making them responsible for interactions with the audience, and by preventing anyone in the company from posting to social media or forums on behalf of the company. Employees (and contractors) need to put a disclaimer on their social media profiles and on the email signatures – Opinions expressed by me are not those of the company (there’s better language out there, but this is the gist of it). This is true even of small developers – if you only have a couple of people, figure out who’s better at talking to the public and have that person do it.

It’s great if you want to have other members of the team interact with the community, but the community manager should help with such interactions and oversee them. The community manager can then step in if things get out of hand on either side of the interaction. Here, it looks like the narrative designer got angry out of proportion to the commenter, and then matters escalated from there. (At least, that’s what it looks like from a distance – I’m sure there’s more to the story.) If a good community manager had been overseeing this, the escalation could likely have been defused before really bad things happened (like people getting fired, and large numbers of people getting upset with ArenaNet).

Was the CEO’s response appropriate? Perhaps, but I’d want to know the full story (including the company’s policies, if any, and what had been said before to the employee) before rendering a judgment on the CEO’s actions. Certainly the heated response to a polite inquiry seemed far out of proportion – and the continuing explosion of the developer was unnecessary and reflected badly on the company.

What’s important for other companies is to learn from this and try to set things up so it never happens to them. Marketers (and developers) need to realize that marketing isn’t entirely under their control now – and that’s a good thing. When you’ve got a strong message, an audience can help spread that if they’re treated right. But don’t delegate that responsibility to people that aren’t ready for it. Establish policies for employees about communicating with the public or the press. Have someone skilled at community relations and public relations available to step in and help as needed (even a small developer should know some PR-savvy person they can call in to help when the situation gets nasty).

Keeping your audience engaged with your content and your company is important, but leave it to people who are skilled at dealing with an audience – and who can keep their cool when provoked. Sure, sometimes you will get complete trolls attacking, but that’s when you really need to know how to deal with people like that. Pouring gasoline on them and setting it afire may be emotionally satisfying in the short term, but it’s probably not the best way to win the hearts and minds of the largest audience for your games.

Monday, June 4, 2018

VR, AR, and the Market That's Still Virtual

Last week saw the Augmented World Expo in Santa Clara, bringing together a number of companies and people interested in XR (the catchall term that covers Virtual Reality (VR), Augmented Reality (AR), and Mixed Reality (MR)). While there were big companies like Microsoft exhibiting, there was a distinct lack of companies aiming at the consumer space -- like Oculus, Vive, or Magic Leap. The two companies with the current largest market of AR-capable devices -- Apple and Google -- were nowhere to be found. This show was not focused on consumers.

Overall, the AWE show continues to draw a good crowd and some interesting speakers; the XR market for hardware and software, though, doesn’t seem to be growing much. The AWE show, judging from the exhibitors and the various sessions, is mostly about the various verticals that constitute the enterprise market. That actually seems like a smart decision to me, because the consumer market for XR is pretty much going nowhere fast. VR headset sales have consistently underperformed, and the installed base of even the largest is still just a few million. AR is in the hands of hundreds of millions of people, between ARKit and ARCore, yet almost nobody is using it – even in one of the poster children for AR, Pokemon GO. (That app is a good touchstone for how smart someone is about AR – ask them how important Pokemon GO is. Sure, it’s done very well for Niantic, and helped generate press for AR, but the use of AR in the game is completely cosmetic and can be toggled off easily; it adds nothing to the experience or the gameplay.)

At least on the hardware side, there’s good progress. The hardware continues to get better – faster processing, better displays, lighter, and cheaper – but it’s still hard to see what software is going to drive hardware sales. It’s the classic market development problem for hardware and software – the hardware doesn’t sell without the software, and no one writes the software unless there’s a good hardware base.We are getting to the point (still a couple of years away) where a good pair of AR glasses will be like slipping on sunglasses – at which point the market could explode, if the price was right and there was software people really saw a critical need for.

Digi-Capital's Tim Merel said he thought Google’s AR assistance for Google Maps walking directions was the first really critical use for AR he’d seen for consumers. I’d also nominate furniture placement, like Ikea’s app – I spoke with one of the guys doing that app, and they have plans to make it even more useful. So we are making progress towards useful consumer software for XR, but it’s slow.

Major companies exhibiting at the show included Microsoft, Qualcomm, and Sony. Interestingly Sony was not showing PSVR, but instead some enterprise stuff so unmemorable I can’t even recall what it was. Microsoft was focused on HoloLens and commercial uses. Yeah, who’s going to drop $3,000 for a cool way to play Minecraft? A handful of people, maybe, but not more than that.

One of the potential big players in XR is Magic Leap... but at AWE, it was Magic Leap who? They had no presence at the show, and no mind share in the conversations I was in. Regardless of what miracles can be pulled off with their hardware, they need to have compelling software… at least one thing that people will pay a lot to use regularly. That’s needed to grow VR, AR, MR, whatever kind of reality you’re planning. And I’ve yet to see it. I think it will happen, but the time frame is indeterminate. Magic Leap did show a little bit of what their hardware looks like, but we still don't know the price or the release data -- nor have we seen what you can actually do with it. Apparently their demos have been impressive enough to get over a billion dollars in financing, so you can't count them out. But don't count them in until you know the price, and get details on how the hardware works -- and see some reviews from users.

As for games, which many people seem to suppose are the killer VR app, and a huge potential market on AR or MR, I think that most people are barking up the wrong tree. Sure, games could be cool, but people aren’t looking at the right kinds of features or genres so far in XR games. Worse, no one seems to be building a game for XR that has billion-dollar potential. I think for a game to make $1 billion or more, it has to have a couple of things: A large enough installed base of hardware that can run it (A hundred million at least) and some aspect of play that keeps people coming back for hundreds of hours of game play. Now, that can be in 5 or 10 minute chunks like Candy Crush, or 5 hour chunks like Minecraft or World of Warcraft – but the game has have that sort of innate attraction (and ideally ways to build revenue over time). Nobody seems to be making games with that sort of potential yet for XR.

I do think that with Apple's ARKit and Google's ARCore making AR easier on hundreds of millions of smartphones, that will provide an easy on-ramp for developers to try out ideas. That will make future AR wearables more likely to get adopted faster. Those developers who are learning how to build AR and VR apps now will be in a good position when that market finally arrives. The only trick is to have your development business survive until the larger market arrives...

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

The Struggle For Audience

Lawbreakers, the new competitive first-person shooter for PC and PlayStation 4 from Cliff Bleszinski’s Boss Key Productions, is apparently struggling to find an audience. According to Steam, there’s only about two to three hundred concurrent players on the PC every day, and that’s nowhere near enough to support this kind of effort. Analyzing how this occurred, and how to fix it, should provide some useful tips for developers.

What Went Wrong?
First off, let’s be clear: My analysis of the situation is entirely based on observations from the outside and guesswork. I don’t have any direct knowledge of the development process for Lawbreakers, nor the studio, nor any of the people. So I could very well be wrong in lesser or greater ways about this. However, while the problems I identify here may not be true for this specific instance, they certainly are true for a great many games these days.

First, I’ll venture a guess that this game was developed without a great deal of consideration for marketing, nor with any experienced marketer as part of the team. That’s typical of many indie/small game studio projects – marketing is not seen as something essential to developing and making money from a game. Usually the focus is on design, programming, and art. Consideration for marketing comes much later, usually as the game nears completion. This is a mistake, since marketing efforts will often be more effective with more time to take hold.

Lawbreakers started off with additional challenges – it’s a multiplayer game, for one thing, and it’s based on reflexes. Now, those are not bad things – in fact, some of the most popular games around share those qualities. (Look at League of Legends, for instance, or Overwatch.) But when you need a group of players in order to play, it makes it harder to get started – especially if you’re trying to keep people in the same skill range. That’s why many such games have chosen to be free-to-play – it maximizes the audience by removing a major barrier to play (the up-front cost). Still, you can be successful with an upfront cost – Overwatch has done quite well indeed while charging up front for the game.

Note, though, that Overwatch started with a huge advantage – Blizzard’s massive audience. Blizzard could, very cheaply, notify tens of millions of people who love Blizzard games that Blizzard has a new game – which they did, months ahead of launch, thus building up plenty of anticipation and initial purchases. This crushed Battleborn (developed by Gearbox Games) which could not compete against Overwatch despite being supported by 2K’s marketing.

Another challenge for Lawbreakers is the very competitive market segment that it’s entered. As noted, we have games like Overwatch, and Battleborn, and Titanfall, and arguably related games like Destiny and Call of Duty and others… there are plenty of well-funded, popular competitors that have big installed bases of players. When you’re entering a market segment like that, ideally you’d like to have some significant game features that provide a huge competitive advantage (something players really want but can’t get elsewhere), or a very strong license (like Star Wars or Marvel), or a massive amount of marketing money (and talented marketers who can devote plenty of time to this). Lawbreakers, apparently, didn’t have any of these qualities. More than that, you’d really want to have a strong marketing strategy, and start work building your audience (that is, marketing your game) very early on – soon after you start actually developing the game, in fact. This, to all appearances, wasn’t really done, either.

Fixing the Future
The really important question now for Lawbreakers is this: What can be done now to boost the game’s sales to where it needs to be? Marketing alone may not be the answer, but determining that starts with analyzing the data from the existing Lawbreakers audience. Are only a trickle of new players showing up to play the game? Then you have to figure out ways to bring in many, many more players – and considering a free-to-play version is one possible answer. Are players abandoning the game after playing a little while? Then you need to figure out why – is it that the game is too frustrating to play? Are newbies killed too easily by the pros? Does it take too long to find a match? Analyzing that is critical.

Marketing by itself may not be able to cure all of Lawbreaker’s problems. There may well be game balance issues, or playability issues, that need to be dealt with by the development team. Marketing can help inform some of those decisions with surveys and focus groups, if need be. But the first place to start for Boss Key is to look at all the player data they have now, and analyze that for clues about how to improve the game.

Even with the game adjusted to its best performance, it still may lack enough distinctive features to be an effective competitor in the marketplace (that appears to be Battleborn’s primary problem). Marketing can still help the game reach its full potential, but ultimately the potential for a game is determined by its design. That said, marketing can help – if there’s sufficient budget and skilled marketing talent available. Good marketers can evaluate the situation and set performance goals to see if marketing spending is working.

In a recent interview Bleszinski said they are overhauling the marketing of the game, and looking for a long-term build up similar to Warframe. That requires a steady commitment to improvements and additional content, among which Boss Key says is overhauling the onboarding experience of the game. 

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

How Apple TV Could Dominate The Market

Apple is likely to unveil a new version of Apple TV soon, and the major new features will probably be 4K/HDR support along with a faster processor. Supposedly Apple is arguing with studios over the pricing for 4K movies – Apple wants to charge $19.95, studios want $29.95. Really, this is a battle with no winners, only losers. Who buys movies any more? It’s streaming all the way down. If this is all Apple has for the Apple TV, the product will continue its slow downward slide in market share as Roku and Amazon continue to grow. What’s so great about Amazon and Roku? Look no further than the pricing – you can get a streaming stick for $40 or less. Apple’s TV solution begins at $150. That’s why Apple TV has a 5% market share, well behind Roku’s 18% (as well as Amazon’s Fire TV and Google’s Chromecast).

Apple could certainly dominate in this market if it wanted to – after all, the company has more money than any other company (well north of $200 billion in cash!) and an enormously talented hardware and software engineering team, as well as top-notch marketing. They have the resources, but not (apparently) the burning desire to dominate the TV market.

How could Apple TV dominate the market? Here are 5 ways:

Go Big with Games
Apple has already taken the important step of putting an App Store on the Apple TV, but they didn’t really push the idea. Some game publishers offered games, but nothing really compelling – and Apple didn’t really market the idea of Apple TV as a game-playing device. The problem isn’t the Apple TV’s horsepower (though a more powerful CPU/GPU would also help, along with more RAM) – it’s the lack of good controls. Apple should at least offer its own Apple-branded controller, or better still bundle it in. This could be a controller in the old-school mode of the Xbox, or even a bigger version of the touchpad with a thumbstick or two.

Beyond the controls, Apple needs to take some of its spare change and buy some top-quality exclusives – maybe a studio or three to make sure they are properly done and supported. Nothing moves game hardware better than kick-ass exclusive games. These can (and should!) be based on well-known IP, though you should also take some risks with compelling new IP as well. Throw a billion dollars at this, or maybe two, and you’ll get plenty of amazing games.

Finally, market the living hell out of these games, and push Apple TV as an important gaming platform that every publisher should support. Will this be enough to sell millions of Apple TVs? Not by itself, but if you take the next point seriously, it will.

Slash The Price
C’mon, Apple, if you really want to own the market you have to be price-competitive. You can make plenty of money on software here, but only if you have a huge installed base. Which means you need a low-cost option. An Apple TV stick for $49 would do the trick; you can still have higher-end boxes, but that should be $99 and perhaps $129 for the loaded version with extra RAM and two controllers. What about your margins? Consider those lost margins a marketing expense. If you’ve got compelling softwre and services, you’ll easily make that up.

Offer Bundled TV Channels
Yes, it’s time you stepped up and cut some deals, rather than demanding everyone bow to your will. If Sling and PlayStation Vue can offer bundles, why can’t you? With Apple’s massive power you should be able to offer a compelling bundle of channels at a great prices – or better yet, several options at different price points, ranging from $10/month up to $99/month (don’t leave the high-paying customers behind!). The right prices and collections of channels will make Apple TVs sell very, very swiftly.

Include DVR Capability
Sure, local storage is expensive, but that’s what vast cloud storage and streaming is for. Haven’t you been building out that capability? Give people what they want, and let them time-shift broadcast content. Heck, you can start charging for it after a certain amount of free storage, and probably make another huge fortune just from that. Record 50 hours of programming for free, then it’s $9.99 a month for another 100 hours… keeping adding 100 hour blocks if you like, we’re happy to sell it to you!

Encourage developers to really make use of the App Store, and HomeKit. Add some spiffy devices for the home with some excellent prices – they can be under Apple’s label, or not, as long as the company stands behind them. Bring Siri to the next level, connect all your Apple devices through Apple TV and make it indispensable. Support app developers with marketing , and as the installed base grows there will many great new apps coming to the platform.

You’ll note that I did not call for Apple to spend billions on original content, which is something they are apparently already planning to do. I hope that succeeds, but it will take a long time for that sort of initiative to drive hardware sales. Also, implicit in all of this is that Apple makes a strong marketing effort, much more than limply saying “Apple TV is here” and expecting everyone to buy it. Apple hasn’t done that in the past, perhaps because they realized the product wasn’t worthy of a strong marketing push. Add in some or all of the features mentioned here, and it will be.

Do I expect Apple to do all of these things, or even some of them? No, not really. The company seems content to let Apple TV remain a hobby. 

Friday, August 25, 2017

Xbox One X Sales Don’t Matter

As we approach the launch of Microsoft’s new console, the Xbox One X, there’s plenty of concern being voiced by commentators. “The Xbox One X probably isn’t for you,” blares one headline. Another says it’s “still a tough sell.” There are plenty of complaints about the $499 cost, the slim lineup of exclusive games, the fact that one of the best potential games (Crackdown 3) is delayed until next year. Microsoft’s released a list of about 100 games that will be enhanced in some way on the Xbox One X, but some critics correctly point out that the differences will be minor in many cases – and not really noticeable unless you have a pretty large 4K UHD TV, which is still a rare thing.

Given all that, and the fact that the Xbox One S plays all the same games and retails for only $249, many are predicting that the Xbox One X won’t be a big seller. True, Microsoft has noted that early Xbox One X pre-orders are the strongest they’ve ever seen, but we are given no numbers to make comparisons here. We do know that the PlayStation 4 Pro represents only about 20% of ongoing PS4 sales, which is actually a surprise to Sony that it’s doing that well. So in all likelihood, the Xbox One X will not be selling very well for Microsoft for some time to come, at least not until 4K TVs get more popular, games start to develop more compelling Xbox One X features, and/or the price of the hardware drops.

But none of that matters to Microsoft, I bet.

Why should Microsoft be OK with their new console not selling well? Because the benefits of the Xbox One X to Microsoft are primarily marketing ones not tied directly to unit sales. The Xbox One X (and the PS4 Pro) are primarily marketing tools, not direct profit centers.

Here’s the logic: Both Microsoft and Sony’s newest consoles are, unlike new consoles in the past, extensions of the existing console line, with full software compatibility between the entry level console and the high-end console. (This compatibility is currently mandated by both publishers, and is unlikely to change any time soon.) For both publishers, margins are slim on the consoles compared to margins on software – the incentive is clearly to maximize software sales. A user who replaces their current Xbox One with an Xbox One X isn’t really helping the bottom line, unless they begin buying more software than they did before the upgrade. So, from a purely monetary point of view, it doesn’t really matter what percentage of overall console sales is made up of the high end consoles. What matters is increasing overall console sales.

Here’s where the marketing benefit of the high end console kicks in. Screen shots will look better taken from the high-end consoles. The feature list of high end consoles is definitely premium, and the halo effect extends to the entire brand when you start talking about the teraflops and the 4K output. Microsoft can now boast having the world’s most powerful console, a clear marketing benefit.
The benefits of high-end consoles to players are mostly in the future. When 4K TVs become the majority of TVs in homes, and 4K streaming movies are the standard, then having a 4K console will become even more important. That will take a couple of years.

It’s also possible that high-end consoles will eventually get some exclusive software, and that at some point there will be a more clear benefit to games played on high-end consoles beyond the somewhat better graphics. The greater CPU and GPU power could also be harnessed to improve AI, or to put many more opponents on screen, for instance, or to make the world more responsive to player actions.

For now, though, don’t spend any time worrying about how well the Xbox One X sells, because however well it sells it is accomplishing its purpose for Microsoft. The Xbox One X puts Microsoft in the technological lead and provides a great list of marketing benefits, and should help expand the installed base of Xbox One consoles that Microsoft can sell highly profitable software into.

Monday, July 3, 2017

The Next Generation Consoles Are Coming

Yes, the Xbox One X isn't even shipping yet, and already people are starting to talk about how Sony will respond with a PlayStation 5. Let's just make this simple: Of course, Microsoft and Sony are working on the next generation of their consoles. It's relatively easy to do (compared to previous consoles, where each generation was designed from scratch), and it makes perfect marketing sense as I explained in my last post. The only real issue is exactly when these consoles will be introduced. The likelihood is both companies will be working on designs, updating them regularly, until forecasts show the timing is right for a new console generation. Then, about a year later, the new console can launch.

What features will these new consoles have? By and large, we can predict the feature set fairly well. Any new console from Sony or Microsoft will be based on the current PC architecture and maintain backwards compatibility with the existing line (just as the PS4 Pro and the Xbox One X have done). The most important feature, which will be highlighted in all PR efforts, will be increased graphics power -- we should expect 4K HDR output at 60 fps for most games. Other features? Yes, there will be a number of things like improved streaming, but we're unlikely to see anything that will be too unusual -- that would make it less compatible with older consoles. Likely, VR/AR support will be built in, perhaps wirelessly through a high-bandwidth short-range connection.

Sony will probably go first with a PS5, after giving the Xbox One X a year or three in the marketplace (and to let the installed base of 4K TVs grow). Microsoft may or may not be patient; it depends on how much they think it's important not to let Sony grab the graphics lead again.

What hasn't really changed with the current new generation of consoles, and likely won't change with the next new generation, is the nature of gaming. Sure, everything will get prettier -- but the game play and game types will remain about the same. The top console games will get even more expensive to produce due to the 4K graphics, though -- and that will mean a strong incentive to stick with old IP in new versions, rather than risk entirely new IP.

In other words, I don't think these new consoles will be expanding the market very much for console games. Maybe if they can find something interesting to do with VR/AR/MR... but I have yet to see that. Market expansion and innovation is occurring on mobile, for the most part -- though there's some choice innovation on the PC, even though that platform is actually shrinking rather than growing. Consoles, though, are mostly preaching to the converted.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

PS4 Pro and Xbox One X: Successful Regardless of Sales

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the new consoles from Sony and Microsoft – the PlayStation 4 Pro and the Xbox One X – is that they are successful products for their respective companies whether or not they sell well. How can this be? Isn't a product a failure if it doesn't sell well? Typically, that's true. But the PlayStation and Xbox markets are very different, because being profitable is not about selling hardware so much as it is about selling software.

Console hardware is, in itself, barely a profitable business. The PS4 and the Xbox One S are currently at $249 retail, and there's not a lot of margin there, if any, once all the costs of manufacturing, marketing, distribution, and retailing are taken into account. The money is in software and services. That year-long subscription to Xbox Live or PlayStation Network is mostly profit. Every piece of software sold for either platform pays a healthy royalty to the platform owner (around $7 for a $60 title), and that's nearly pure profit for the platform owner. First-party titles are even more lucrative. And DLC is more profitable still.

So the platform owners want to sell as much software as possible, which means expanding the hardware base as much as possible – which is why margins are low to non-existent on hardware. That makes it easier to sell more hardware, which gives more opportunity to sell the profitable software. The consoles are essentially a required marketing expense where sales cover the costs.

Which brings us to the introduction of more powerful consoles. In the past, a new console meant the company was starting over in creating a new player base and software base, because new consoles were not compatible with old software. This time, it's very different. The PS4 Pro and Xbox One X will run all existing software as well as all upcoming software for their respective platforms. In fact, they'll generally even make the old games look better, and some new games will look really good.

These new, more powerful consoles are essentially powerful marketing pieces for the platform. The platform is no longer the console hardware – it's the PlayStation 4 or Xbox One software platform. The new hardware, while more expensive, serves to promote the software platform. Sony and Microsoft will be showing ads for games displaying all the capability of the new consoles, and that will help sell the software and the older consoles as well.

So it's really not important to Sony or Microsoft what percentage of their console sales come from the newest hardware. There's no particular profit there – PC World tried to build a 4K gaming PC that could match the power of the Xbox One X for $499, and didn't even come close to that price point. What matters is overall sales – and powerful new consoles can help drive the marketing message for the games, which is where the profit lies. Sure, maybe the new consoles will only be a small percentage of overall platform sales this Christmas – maybe 10% or 20% of overall sales. That will rise over time as more people get 4K TVs and the price of these new consoles begins to drop.

Both Microsoft and Sony haven't really made strong cases for buying their new, more powerful consoles over the less expensive ones. They don't need to – the new consoles help them sell more software in any case, and that's where the profit is.