Game Marketing Tips, Analysis, and News

Friday, October 30, 2009

Marketing Tricks & Treats

Halloween is here, and it's another example of a marketing opportunity. An alert marketer is always looking for ways to tie titles to current events, and a popular holiday is a good way to generate some press interest. Halloween is an obvious tie-in for a horror game, of course. But it also works for non-horror games, as in what Champions Online is doing with Blood Moon. Here's a series of events linked to the holiday, tied in with a free-to-play time in order to pull in some new users. It keeps the existing players happy (new content!); offers a free trial for people already interested in Champions Online; and gathers publicity for the game on web sites targeting their key audience. A good example of how to tie into a holiday even when your game isn't directly connected to it.

Now, this did take a lot of effort from product development, which is not normally the case with a marketing project. So marketing needs to have a good relationship with product development in order to pull off something like this... and there's the question of what you weren't able to get done because the product development worker bees were busy with this project. So it's not always the right answer, but it's worth thinking about this sort of idea.


Looks like Nokia has finally recognized reality and pulled the plug on the N-Gage service (posting explaining it on their N-Gage blog here; see news report with analysis here). Of course, they're positioning it as merely a move to put their games into the Ovi Store (Nokia's answer to the App Store), though admitting that any community features for N-Gage games are going away, as are the hardware platforms. One commenter says "It's a sad day for N-Gage fans." Yeah, all three of them.

It was pretty clear to anyone with a cerebral cortex that N-Gage was a flop shortly after launch. Nokia gamely kept trying (note: always assumes puns are intentional on this blog), but they were never able to make the N-Gage anything more than an obscure gaming footnote about on par with Virtual Boy. Playing games on a postage stamp size screen never seemed to attract buyers for some reason. But Nokia continued to pour in money and marketing effort well after the corpse had been buried. The huge booth they had at this year's Game Developer's Conference was an amazing example of marketing dollars wasted. Nokia stocked the booth with a bevy of models in skintight white spandex and spike heels. Naturally there was a huge crowd of guys blocking the aisles around Nokia's booth... all staring at the Autodesk projection screens next door showing new features for 3D Studio Max.

If you can't attract game developers with hot babes in spandex, ain't nothing gonna help you.

Ultimate Edition Marketing

Here's another example of how marketing interacts with product development and profitability. The idea of the Deluxe Edition has been around for quite a while; I remember the hardcover Champions RPG bundled with HeroMaker software back in 1990 or thereabouts. The 90's saw a number of electronic games and paper games in limited release editions with extra features and an extra price tag. The simple form was to throw a few extras in the box (like a miniature or a map or a poster), or just a hardcover version of a softcover rulebook for RPGs, and then charge extra. Gradually this has evolved into special containers, DVD's with "Making Of" documentaries, soundtrack CDs, even such things as night vision goggles and statuary. Now comes the announcement of the God of War III Ultimate Edition bundle... so glitzy it demands a $99.95 price tag. An amazing box, an art book, a documentary, and a whole bunch of special downloadable content.

A few important things to note here. Aside from raking in some extra bucks from the devoted fans, this Ultimate Edition also serves a marketing purpose. It's free advertising... the press release is popping up all over game sites, reminding all that this game is coming up soon. It's positioning... the very existence of the Ultimate Edition tells you that this game must have a large following, and it must be special to deserve this treatment. So even if you don't spring for the Ultimate Edition, you are more interested in this because it's obviously an important title. So this adds value even to the ordinary edition.

Of course, there are some downsides to the Ultimate Edition. Somebody had to spend a good amount of time pulling together all of the elements in the package, so that's an opportunity cost (what else could that staff time have been used for?). These bits have some expense that need to be amortized over the production run, so there are more upfront costs... and hopefully there's enough margin to cover those costs, and the sales of this expensive edition are enough to cover all of the extra costs. There's a risk factor there, and some extra capital expenditures that had to be made. Finally, the DLC was not without cost. Somebody had to put together the documentary, the soundtracks, the skins and other game elements, so there's some staff time in product development that has to be accounted for. At least the DLC doesn't incur any shipping costs.

On the positive side, you'll probably boost sales of the regular edition, and you got some free advertising and some positioning help. Special editions keep getting created, so unless many different companies are deluded they seem to have sufficient value to outweigh their costs. Consider it as another weapon in your marketing arsenal.

Hmmm... I wonder if someone could pull off a special edition of an iPhone game... might be an interesting way to stand out from the increasingly large crowd...

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Gaming Magazines

I forgot to mention that not all gaming magazines are digital... Polymancer is one that still does the dead tree thing. On the electronic side, there's still PC Gamer and some specialty mags for certain platforms. But you'll find far more online editions of magazines (some old mags transformed, some new). The advantage of the paper ones would be its potential to reach a different demographic, actually being in stores where customers might stumble across them.

The internet is great for finding things that you already know about, but it's very hard to find things you aren't aware of already. Game stores and game conventions are wonderful for finding the stuff you think is cool that you never knew about. Which is why it's good to have some presence in those places, to help you get those new customers that can be very elusive.

Businessweek Covers Games

Well, sort of... their cover story this last week was about apps, or as they spelled it, App$ (read the whole thing here). Though as usual, Businessweek manages to be a little unlcear on the concept; they use the term "apps" to refer to things like Facebook games and Yahoo widgets. But the interesting part is how they cover games as an important part of this phenomenon. Zynga's gone from 0 to $100 million in a couple of years, and it's profitable at that... selling stuff inside their games (like buying land inside Farmville).

It really highlights that the problem facing most of the game developers (and other app developers) is a marketing problem. Apple's App Store really sucks at helping you find what your interested in. Just for an example, check out the roleplaying section... it's crammed full of games that aren't RPGs at all (like innumerable clones of Facebook social games). Which makes finding what gamers classically think of as RPGs difficult. Some developers have taken to gaming the system (releasing new versions rapidly mostly to get listed in the new section, for instance) but the problem is bad and getting worse. Some solutions are evolving (like ngmoco's ingame ad network), but until the market matures marketing is a far more difficult problem for most developers than actually building their title. Usually because the have expertise in building titles, but none in marketing, for starters.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

7 Tips for Adventure Game Marketing

Let's talk about marketing non-electronic games for a bit, and specifically the non-mass market games that comprise the "adventure gaming industry."

The adventure gaming industry is a tougher place than ever for marketing efforts. Roleplaying games, board games, card games, miniatures rules... these are generally sold in specialized gaming stores. Some of these products are sold in bookstores and occasionally mass-market stores, but those are rare. The number of full-line gaming stores has been shrinking, and not coincidentally average sales numbers through retail have dropped, and dedicated gaming magazines have disappeared or transmogrified into websites. So the obvious places to market such games (magazines sold to your core demographic) either don't exist or are far more expensive than companies in this business can afford, for the most part. What does that leave for your marketing efforts?

1) Convention marketing. If you've been in the industry for any time at all, you realize how much money you can make at Gen Con and Origins. Selling your products can make enough to cover your attendance costs at smaller conventions too. Even if you don't manage to cover your costs, the benefits of being there can be substantial. Demoing your games, contests, running games, sponsoring games, care and feeding of the fan base... and an opportunity to bring in new fans. Consider ads in convention booklets, posting or handing out flyers, free game giveaways, or other special events. Whatever you do, try to track the results. For instance, if you put an ad in a con program when you don't attend the con, put in a special offer or web address so you can track the response you get. Then you'll know if that $100 you spent brought in at least that much business, and whether you'd consider doing it again.

2) Social networking. If your game doesn't have a Facebook page, it should. Use all the social networking tools to help your fan base connect with you and with your games. The goal is to generate more sales by getting your fans to spread the word to their friends. These tools can also let your fans know about new releases and special deals you're offering.

3) Demo teams. These have worked well for many companies for a long time. If you've got some devoted fans, harness their enthusiasm into attending local conventions (and retail stores) to demonstrate your products. Those social networking tools are great for helping to organize this. You'll need to put together a demo kit, but all of the items in a demo kit will be useful to you in other ways.

4) Search engine marketing. Yes, time to get technical. You can buy some keyword search terms in Google or Yahoo or Bing, and they'll bring traffic to your online store. You can control how much you spend, and it's relatively easy to figure out what your bidding limit should be. (Let's say you have 100 sales per month with an average value of $25 per transaction, and you get 5,000 unique visitors to your web site each month. So each unique visitor is worth 50 cents to you...which means you certainly should bid less than that for your search terms.) Research your keywords; some tools can be found here; your best bet is this. The Google Keyword Tool will tell you how many times the term you put in has been searched in the last month. There's tons more to know about this subject, but properly used you can make a lot of money with search word advertising.

5) Work the web site. Spend some quality time on your web site to add features that attract fans and help spread the word. Discussion boards require moderation, but you may be able to find a trustworthy supporter to help with this. Start a blog about your products. Respond to questions. Provide links to additional resources that your fans might find of interest. All of these things will help improve your traffic and thus enhance your online store sales. Which brings us to the online store... a vital component in your strategy as retail stores become scarcer. Don't undercut the retailers in your store, but you can provide ebooks and additional downloads for your games (free or at a small cost). You can also bundle products... some companies are providing free ebooks for people who have purchased the printed version in the store, through a code printed in the book. Podcasts, videos, CafePress t-shirts... there's a long list of things you can do through your web site, and it's growing all the time. This can be a worthwhile place to put some marketing efforts.

6) Cross-marketing. When you want to expand your fan base, look to fans of other products that are similar. Perhaps you can work with other publishers, not against them. Cross-over scenarios may help sell your products to fans of other games. Try to see if you can exchange links with other web sites, or ads in games. Usually small publishers don't produce enough products to exhaust their fan's buying ability, so it can pay off to work with other publishers. It's even better if you can find a related fan base for a product that's not competitive. Imagine putting in some ads or offers for your fantasy RPG with some other company's fantasy miniatures or action figures... find a way to make it profitable for both sides and you may have a deal.

7) Creativity. Unleash the same creativity you put into game design into your marketing. Don't just hand out flyers for your game at a con; have someone dressed in a costume relevant to your game hand out flyers. Or better still, stage a costumed event that showcases your game, outside the con on the first day while everyone is lined up to get their badges (gotta love those captive audiences!). Make a YouTube video that does something outrageous and interesting (Will it Blend?) to get people looking at your game. Auction off a special gold-plated edition on eBay. Pretend your little boy is in an escaped balloon with a copy of your game... no, maybe that's too creative. But you get the idea.

These are just a few places to start... I haven't even mentioned package design, advertising, PR, channel marketing and a host of other basic marketing moves that are worthy of your time and attention.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

7 Tips for Marketing iPhone Games

Now that there are upwards of 85,000 iPhone apps, and 25,000 iPhone games, the biggest challenge isn't building your game, it's finding an audience. Which is where marketing is supposed to come to the rescue, but this is not an easy task even if you have a lot of money to spend. Given the usual low-to-nonexistent profit margin on iPhone games, and the increasing amount spent on developing games (trying to compete through more spending on art and sound), and the fact that most iPhone game developers are nano-sized companies, marketing budgets for iPhone games are more typically hovering right around zero.

How, then, do you generate some sales for your iPhone game? Here's seven tips that can help you get started. I'll add more details in future posts, but these strategies can point you in the right directions.

1) Make a great game with a hook. Marketing really starts with product development. There are so many games already out there that it's pointless to try to sell a game that doesn't have some exceptional quality. Hopefully it's got great art and sound, and fun gameplay... but if it's just another tower defense game with nothing else to distinguish it, you're going to have a hard time selling it. Either you need some really cool and innovative, fun new game mechanic, or you need some kind of hook to hang your marketing efforts on. What's a hook? Lot's of things... an unusual art design (think Okami), a subject matter that's appealing and not done to death (World of Goo), a license, a new twist... something that is compelling enough that you could see someone writing a news article about it. Then, of course, you go out and find people to write such articles...

2) DFM -- Design For Marketing. Yes, I know DFM usually stands for Design For Manufacturing, where you think about the process of building a product and incorporate those insights into the initial design, thus reducing production costs (and improving profitability). Similarly, you should consider the marketing of the product when you engage in the design phase. Creating a good free version of your iPhone game, and then a paid version with a good reason for the user to upgrade, should be a key consideration when designing. Getting the feature balance right between the two versions is an art. The simplistic way is to build the full game and then disable some features (or limit the pay time or number of levels), but this might not give you a good free version (or a paid version with enough added benefit). Take some time and consider this before you start programming. Ideally you would create your initial design document, then rough out your marketing plan, and see if the marketing plan could benefit from some additional features in the design.

3) Don't neglect the basics. The basics like having a marketing plan. A marketing budget. A web page for the game. A good title that's not tromping on someone's trademark. A good one-sentence description of your game that includes the key feature and creates a desire to buy it. (That should be a short sentence.) All that implies spending some time thinking about marketing, so budget time for that even if (or especially if) you don't plan to spend much money on marketing.

4) Start with an audience. It sure helps if you already have a fan club, because if there's a group of people that already like your work, hopefully they'll be interested in buying your latest magnum opus. Oh, this is your first title and no one knows who you are? Then perhaps in creating a background for your game you can acquire an audience. It's a game about squirrels vs. birds? Maybe you can find a way to interest birders (put in lots of interesting species, or maybe extra points for naming birds correctly). Or plug into the community of squirrel fans (hey, there are web sites devoted to selling squirrel-related products!) If you can find a way to grab an existing fan base of some kind, that makes it easier to attract an initial set of buyers.

5) Work at it. Don't put your heart and soul into building a game and then figure you're done. If you expect to sell enough copies to make back all the time you invested, your odds will improve if you spend some time and effort on marketing. Sometimes, perhaps, somebody gets lucky and sells a bunch of copies because Oprah decided it was cool and featured it on her show. Good luck waiting for that to happen. Most of the time that luck happens to the person who worked really, really hard to make it happen. As Samuel Goldwyn said, "The harder I work, the luckier I get."

6) Persevere. Keep working at the marketing of your game. One of the great things about the iPhone market is you can overcome a bad launch mistake (usually not true for games sold in retail stores). You can always release a new improved version of your game. Or even just a new improved version of your slogan, or your web page, or your ad. Or even just changing the price... one game went from dozens of sales per day to hundreds by dropping the price from $2.99 to 99 cents. Figure out what works for your product and do more of it; figure out what isn't working and try something else.

7) Be creative. Finally, try to be as creative with your marketing as you were in creating your game. Maybe a crazy stunt will get you a headline or two. Maybe that whacky package of oddly connected items you mailed to some key web sites will get you a great article. Maybe a quickie revision of the software to include a scenario ripped from the headlines will get you some mainstream press. Remember, iPhone games don't come in boxes, so your marketing has to be outside the box, right?

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

$25 Million Marketing Budget... A Sign of The Apocalypse?

Valve is expecting big things for Left 4 Dead 2; after selling 3 million copies of the first game (Xbox 360 and PC), they're planning on dropping 25 large for marketing the sequel. Where's it going? According to their marketing veep (as referenced here), the campaign "will include Monday Night Football and UFC television broadcasts, roadside billboards, and popular lifestyle and gaming sites."

Hey, great for them... but maybe bad for other titles. This continues the escalation of marketing budgets. It's getting harder and harder to make the numbers for the biggest titles. The industry saw six straight months of sales declines this year, with September finally ticking up 1%... this after major price cuts on all the consoles. Madden has underperformed this year. It looks like sales declines might be here to stay, so of course the natural first response is to increase marketing budgets. This will make it even harder for big titles to make their numbers, unless they raise their budgets too. Or do some smarter marketing.

But I think the problem may be even more serious. This could be a major shift in the market's expectations for pricing and value and content of game titles. I don't think marketing alone will save the day, nor product development. Some rethinking of business models is going to be essential.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Marketing Game

Welcome to my blog about marketing, games, and the intersection between the two. The game industry is in the midst of several huge changes -- the broadening of the customer base, the rapid rise of digital distribution, new platforms like mobile and social gaming, the increasing difficulty of making a profit on big titles, the transformation of customer media from magazines to digital -- that means marketing games must change as well. Marketing budgets grow larger for AAA titles, TV advertising is commonplace for major releases... and at the same time we see an explosion of games for iPhones that have next to no marketing budget at all. How do you market your game in this chaotic environment?

That's the territory I plan to explore. I'll be covering the adventure gaming industry as well as electronic games; the lines between them are blurring, after all. The same forces that are transforming marketing are also going to shape how we design games, develop them, and monetize them. Everything's in flux, and I hope that we can find some productive ways forward through this changing landscape.

I look forward to hearing from you, and I'll try to keep up a flow of information and ideas to keep the discussion going.