Game Marketing Tips, Analysis, and News

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Flooding Hits Game Industry

So according to this report, 1,099 games were released in 2009. That's electronic games at retailers only, so it doesn't count downloadable-only games and non-electronic games. I don't know if anyone does a count of download-only games, but it would surely be somewhere in the thousands just due to the App store. (Of course, there's the issue of whether or not you count updates...)

The natural consequences of this huge number of releases are clear: games stay on the shelves for less time, since shelf space is certainly not increasing (given the loss of retail chains like Circuit City, one could argue that shelf space is decreasing). Which tends to lower average unit sales per title, which puts pressure on sales prices, all as game budgets for AAA titles (at least) continue to go up.

It's not hard to see why big electronic game publishers have been laying off people, cutting development, and generally feeling the pain. With industry sales lower than last year, there are fewer dollars to go around, and more games to spread them over. It's going to be an interesting year as companies scramble to change their business models, or invent entirely new ones.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Package Copy Fun

As has been my usual holiday practice, I volunteer with the local Toys For Tots campaign. We collected, sorted, and distributed over 5,000 toys and games to needy kids in the local area this year. Part of the fun for me is seeing what's happening in the toy and game market at a grass-roots level. There's always some interesting packages that come along, and this one wins my award this year for the Funniest Package Copy.

Check out the bullet points... "Fully Wonderful" is certainly going to get my attention, but who can argue with "Allare fangle and in high quality"? Certainly, low quality fangles are a recurring issue cited in consumer surveys as a key reason to avoid buying a product.

I am somewhat concerned by the name on the vehicle... "AIGator" sounds like a frightening, artificially intelligent reptile that could be scary for some kids.

This is package copy as art form... isn't "Many colours a lots, selected freely by yourself" a tone poem extolling freedom? I would never have had the boldness to try for such free verse.

It does make you wonder what our packages end up saying in China...

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The High End of IPhone Gaming

Tapulous, creators of Tap Tap Revenge, have told Reuters that their iPhone games bring in around $1 million per month (see the article here). That's some serious revenue... too bad this is not a typical example of an iPhone developer. But it does show what is possible to achieve with the right title, the right timing (being an early iPhone game was a big help) and some good marketing.

Of course, the immediate question any game publisher has is "Damn, how can I do that with my game?" You might expect that as a marketer I'd say great marketing is the answer. Sorry, but I'm also a game designer, and I have to say that I think you need a great game more than great marketing. Yes, you'd like to have both. But make sure you start with a great game. The iPhone market in particular is so challenging (partly because of the sheer number of games) that you have to do something that stands out in some way. The better your game is, the better your chance for success. That is a necessary but not sufficient condition for great sales... sometimes you'll get lucky and a great game will succeed without much push from marketing. But don't just stand around and pray for a lottery ticket... put some effort into marketing and your chance for a "lucky" break will improve.

Microsoft Admits Marketing is Hard

Or, at least, Microsoft says it hardly has to work selling hard-core shooters, but casual games are hard to market. Not surprising given you've built up a huge audience for your games targeted at teen boys of all ages, and you have yet to make much of an impression on the rest of the world. Yes, and all those other potential customers don't read enthusiast magazines or web sites. Looks like you'll have to do some basic spadework at building an audience, or better still, a fan base in other areas.

I sometimes wonder if a lot of the problem the game industry has in reaching non-core markets is because most of the game developers are into the hard-core games and have nothing but disdain for more casually oriented titles. This contempt makes it harder for them to conceptualize and successfully execute titles for other markets. The marketers have some of the same problems... those that are gamers. Of course, the big companies often hire marketers who come from P&G or other consumer-oriented companies, and they don't have familiarity with any games at all. A different set of problems for them...

Friday, December 18, 2009

Writing Effective Copy

There are articles, books and even courses on writing effective copy for advertising and packaging. You probably don't want to spend that much time studying the subject, so here's a few tips to think about before you sit down to bang out some sales copy.

  • Bullet points stand out.
  • Make 'em brief.
  • More than three reduces the effect.
Effective copy gets you message across in a few muscular words. Look for words charged with positive associations, and work and rework the copy to make it sing. Words matter; would you rather have a segment of muscle tissue from the corpse of an immature castrated bull, or a nice thick juicy steak?

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Comical Marketing

Sony has announced that they're making a bunch of comic books available as digital downloads. For your PSP Go, that is... what? You don't have one yet? You're not alone. Anyway, once you have one, you can look forward to downloading digital comics for only $1.99 for a 5-year old comic! Isn't that a deal? Think of how much fun you'll have scrolling around on your screen trying to figure out the panel layout and get the impact of the graphics design for full-page layouts. Sigh.

I'm sure it's probably Marvel here, and other publishers, demanding absurdly high prices for their comics. Look, publishers, these are back issues that are currently making you damn close to zero. Do you really think you're going to get many people rushing to buy comics for $1.99 in a very awkward format? Is this any way to expand your market? You should be flogging those issues for 25 cents apiece... 5 for a dollar, even. You've got bazillions of back issues. Why not try to create some new comic book fans? Then sell them the newer issues for $1, or even $2 for the latest ones.

Digital content is the perfect product to try out different pricing structures. Maybe you'll find, like Valve has with Steam, that cutting your price in half can result in a 3000% boost in sales, which more than makes up for the reduction given that there's no cost of goods (bandwidth is pretty cheap, comparatively).

I shouldn't be surprised at comic book publishers... book publishers are falling into the same trap, as have music publishers. Fixed pricing schemes make little sense for your massive back catalog which is earning you nothing. Why not play with the pricing and maximize the revenue?

Atari Must Save Vs. Lawsuit

Oh, the tangle of licenses and subrights... now Hasbro is suing Atari because (apparently) Atari is trying to sublicense D&D rights to Namco Bandai, and Hasbro doesn't believe Atari has the right to do that. Atari's been having some difficulties lately, and I do have to wonder how it's managed to muddle through all of its twists and turns. The latest news I saw is that David Gardner is no longer CEO; no explanation was given for his abrupt departure (though supposedly he's still on the board). Not even the gentle fig leaf of "resigned to pursue other interests" was granted him.

Of course, I'm still wondering how Atari (the company formerly known as Infogrammes) has managed to survive burdened with over $600 million in debt. There were lots of complicated corporate maneuvers involved, and somehow you could no longer see the which shell held the debt. Then Atari bought Cryptic from Take Two, but what they used for money I'm not sure.

At some point all of the financial manipulations and stock flotations and loan covenants can no longer make up for a failure to create and ship products that make a profit. I just hope that there's a minimum of collateral damage to good people when that happens.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Pay to Play

Social networking games are growing fast, and as usual with rapid growth you get a few growing pains. One of the tricky points is the way users get virtual cash to spend for in-game items. You can, of course, pay money for virtual cash; you can also earn it through play. It's the third method where problems have arisen -- accepting an offer from a third-party (like a Netflix subscription) in order to get virtual cash. These third-party offers are brokered by other companies, and their methodology can be less than transparent. A class-action lawsuit has been filed and companies like Zynga and Playdom are cracking down on the practice.

Here's the latest wrinkle -- an interest group trying to astroturf some opposition to health care reform using this process. So now games are involved in politics... and so is marketing games. We do live in interesting times.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

When Marketing Goes Bad

Microsoft is admitting that they didn't really communicate well about Halo: ODST. In fact, the marketing was bungled. Consumers weren't sure whether it was an expansion pack for Halo 3, or a stand-alone game... which lead to mixed reviews, and questions over whether or not it was worth the price.

Not that it's a complete failure, with 1.5 million copies sold so far. (Most publishers would kill to "fail" at that level.) But given the track record of titles linked to Halo, the upside potential was clearly much higher. It does show that all sizes of companies make mistakes with marketing. The trick is being able to recognize that you made a mistake, recognize it as early as possible, and then do something about it. Marketing is a process, not a one-off event. If at first you don't succeed, then maybe base jumping isn't the sport for you. Wait, no, that's not the saying... something about trying again, that's the phrase I was looking for.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Whither App Sales?

It's been a great year for Apple, now with over 100,000 apps in the App Store and over 2 billion apps downloaded. And Apple gets 30% of each and every one... analysts estimate this has added a cool $1 billion to their bottom line. The story isn't so good for app developers; the vast majority of the apps don't make a profit (irregardless of whether or not they are free).

The situation doesn't look to get any better. Apple seems perfectly content to let things go on the way they are now; there's no hint that they intend to improve the App Store significantly any time soon. I think most of their energy is going into keeping up with the demand for app approval. So don't look for any magical help from Apple to get people to find and pay for your app.

Speaking of which, many developers are saying piracy is a big problem. This hurts not only in potential lost sales, but for apps that use your servers, pirated apps hit your server but pay nothing for the additional bandwidth they chew up. Fortunately it looks like the piracy issue diminishes over time, but it's still another barrier to profitability.

What's an app developer to do? It's wise to look at your development costs and your potential market size, and your competition, and your marketing plan before you embark on your project. Maybe that idea is cool, but not cool enough to make a profit. Or maybe you should hold off until you figure out how you're going to market that app before you start spending money on making it.

Ideally an app would take a small amount of development resource to create, and generate a large amount of interest and sales. Unfortunately, with 100K+ apps around, the odds are better than ever that the most obvious ideas have already been done, and done pretty well. Competitive analysis should be an essential part of your plan, if your goal is to make money.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Whither Adventure Gaming?

Seems to be that time of year for reflection, and a good place to start is where the market is going for adventure gaming. There seems to be some mixed signals. ICV2 reports that third-quarter adventure game sales were good, but certainly if you look at the long-term trends sales just aren't what they used to be for RPG products. The core audience continues to erode in the direction of cheaper, easier entertainment dollar sinks like World of Warcraft. (Cheaper may be arguable, given the monthly cost... but since you don't have to read a 300 page rulebook, I'd say it wins the easier argument.)

Certainly some adventure gaming products continue to perform well, such as Magic: The Gathering and Warhammer, and various collectible miniatures games. There are clearly compelling aspects to the hobby that have not been overtaken by other media.

I see this as a combination of a product development problem and a marketing problem. The marketing problem is a failure to reach a new audience, due to high price points, high complexity, lack of awareness and lack of product availability where the new buyers might be found. The product development problem is similar; products need to be simpler, cheaper, and packaged in such a way that new buyers are easier to obtain. All of this means wrenching changes in business models and game design, which is neither easily achieved nor without risk.

Certainly it's possible to continue making money, as a number of companies do in the adventure game industry. But it's not getting any easier. It would be nice to see some companies with new breakout products expanding the market for everyone. More on this in a future post.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Games as Gifts

If you've still got a chance to make a marketing pitch, you might try positioning your product as a perfect gift item. This works well for deluxe editions, limited editions, and collector's editions. Encourage the gamer to give the gift of gaming to their friends. Maybe it's a chance for them to bring a friend into the hobby. Or give the already fanatic gamer something cool that they don't already have.

For downloadable content, this is a good time to experiment with pricing under the guise of a holiday special. Drop the price for a day or a weekend, and make sure it gets mentioned in sites like Kotaku and Joystiq. Or add a special holiday component to goose sales (Santa Claus written up as a supervillain, available for download? A new North Pole themed level?)

How about putting some gift-suitable items up on CafePress or Zazzle, using the images or themes from your games? Then spread the word by emailing your customers and posting it on your web site. ("The perfect gift for fans of...")

If nothing else, staying in regular contact with your customer base is always a good idea. It'll help make your next marketing push work better.

Thursday, December 3, 2009


OK, I've looked around for a while, and I've yet to find a really good solution to the App finding problem. The problem is that the App Store's sorting functions are rudimentary, and basically if you're not one of the top 100 Apps in a category you may not be seen at all. Apple see themselves as being a store shelf; it's up to each developer to bring people to their App. This is all well and good when you have a tremendous brand or a tremendous advertising budget, but what do the other 99% of the developers do? Yes, there are some Apps to help find other Apps... some websites that review Apps every day... and regular lists of good Apps on some popular blogs.

What suggestions do you all have? Post to the comments, and I'll compile a list along with the things I've found.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Reviews Cause Sales?

An interesting article on Gamasutra about whether reviews, or more specifically the Metacritic rollup of review scores, actually affect sales.  The gist is that, in surveying consumers, they rated game reviews as the least important factor in deciding whether or not to purchase a game.

I still think that using pull quotes from good reviews is a useful selling tool on package copy on on your product splash page; studies have shown that such independent validators of a game's quality influence the buying decision, at least in a retail setting. Personal recommendations are much more powerful in influencing a buyer, so if you can generate good word-of-mouth that's much better than a good review.

Sometimes there's no better marketing than just making a great product.