Game Marketing Tips, Analysis, and News

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Some Day Your Prints Will Come

Printing is one of those things that many game companies have to deal with. For some, in the adventure game industry, it's their biggest cost, and thus deserves their full attention. If you're a small indie game developer of a flash-based game, or an iPhone game, you may have never even considered it. Printing fliers, though, might be a good idea even for purely electronic games, if you have an audience at a convention where likely customers abound. For instance, the Game Developer's Conference might be a good place to find key influencers who would spread the word about your title. You have to be careful about how you hand out or post fliers, in order not to violate the rules. But that's true of any convention.

When you go to buy printing, there are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Get some quotes to compare. If you haven't bought printing before, you may be astonished at how much prices can vary from printer to printer. It turns out that there's a huge variety of equipment to print with, and most printers will quote on nearly any job even if they don't have the best equipment for it. Which means it can be pretty costly sometimes, if they're printing a small job on a press designed for large runs. (Or they just buy the printing from another printer, mark it up and pass sit along to you.) So get quotes from different places.
  • Ask questions. Don't hesitate to ask why it costs so much, or why it takes so long. Maybe there are simple changes you can make to your design that would save you a bundle. (If you want to print a poster, for instance, find out what size sheet the printer is using in the press, and design your poster to fit neatly into that size, or fractions of that size.)
  • Widen your search. Often the closest printer is not the cheapest. If you're doing a book, or a poster, you may be better off buying printing from a distance and paying the shipping charges. Some companies buy their color hardback books from printers in China; that has its own set of issues, but it's certainly commonplace to get book quotes from all over the US and Canada. Generally, printing in the Midwest is going to be cheaper than on the coasts.
  • Get references and samples. If it's more than just a simple flier, try to get references you can talk to and some samples of other work they've done. Cheap is not the only thing you're looking for; quality counts, too.

There's a lot more to savvy print buying than this. It can be worth your while to have a print buyer do your shopping for you; ask around to see if other game companies you know use one.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Followup

Many folks have just returned from the Origins game convention, no doubt exhausted by a long weekend of selling, demoing, and shmoozing. After a day of recovery, it's time to do The Followup. Marketing depends on both putting information out, and getting information in. This week is when you make sure you've got both ends covered.

First, add up all the money you spent on marketing specifically at the show. Fliers? Prizes? Ads in the convention booklet? That girl in the chainmail bikini you hired to stand in the hallway and give fliers to passersby? Add it all up and see how it compares to your sales. Hopefully, you tracked each marketing effort, so you can see what worked and what didn't. For instance, how many of those coupons in the fliers got redeemed? If you add up the cost of creating the flier, did the coupon generate enough extra profit to pay for itself? How about the different flier the girl handed out... did the redemptions cover her costs? This will tell you what tactics to use at the next show, and what to avoid.

Next, what did you learn from the show? What new products were hot, and which were not? Whose booth was great, and whose booth was lousy? Where were people crowding around, and why? Any trends in new products become apparent? Any buzz about industry trends? Make some notes so you don't forget this info. Was there any key thing ou learned that should affect your product development or marketing going forward, and how?

Finally, follow up on all those personal contacts. A quick email is fine in most cases. Someone interested in licensing? Give them the info they needed. Some retailers who want to carry your products? Give them that retailer packet you made up against just such an occasion. Distributors? Call that buyer and get them whatever they need, and don't delay.

The endless marketing cycle continues... and you need to get ready for the next show. It doesn't matter whether you do paper games, or electronic games, or novels... there are plenty of shows, consumer and trade, where you have opportunities to sell your products and build your fan base. Take full advantage of them!

Monday, June 28, 2010

Core Marketing

Word-of-mouth (or keyboard) is the best marketing strategy for small companies. If you have a message that can go viral, you'll get it seen by thousands of people without having to pay for those impressions. How do you get this seemingly magical audience?

You might get lucky, but you should try to improve your odds.

Find the core. Do you already have a core audience for your products? Customers who know your stuff and love it, and talk about it? Great! Make sure that your newest products connect to them, and that they talk about your products. Find out where these customers hang out... is it Facebook? Discussion boards on some web site for fans? Your own discussion boards? Once you've located where they are, talk to them. Tell them what's coming up and why they should care. Maybe it's more of what they already like, or maybe it's a change of pace. Give them some back story, some hints or tips, maybe a special offer. Ideally, drop this info a bit at a time leading up to your release, and then regularly after. Some additional content for free will help move the buzz along.

Create the core. Ah, you don't already have a fan base. You need to create one. Find out where fans of games like yours go; at least, find the most enthusiastic fans. Maybe it's for RPG fans, or Touch for iPhone games. Somewhere, there is already a group of people who are interested in your type of game, and fanatic enough to gather online to talk about such games. (Maybe there are multiple places, depending on the theme or genre of your game.) Find those places and start talking. Ask for their help. Solicit their feedback. Many are happy to talk about games and what they like and don't like. You can pick up some good pointers on how to improve your game. Yes, sometimes you'll disagree with people's opinions, and they may even be hostile. You'll be judged on how well you keep your cool in difficult online situations, so try to avoid a heated response.

If you have crafted a strong marketing message for a good game, the word will get around when you talk to the enthusiasts. Make sure you have new things to add to the discussion on a regular basis, and you can keep the buzz going. Even if you never make this game a huge seller, you're laying the groundwork for the next one.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Nintendo Admits Failure

Nintendo actually owns up to their lameness in WiiWare and DSIWare, their online stores for digital distribution.
 They admit they haven't done a very good job, and plan to do better in some unspecified fashion, at some point int the future. Of course, no mention of this was made at E3, but then again E3 is all about the traditional retail channel and you wouldn't want to piss those guys off by talking about digital distribution.

What could Nintendo do better? Well, offering demos for all of the titles would be a good start. Allowing a wider range of titles would be nice. How about allowing all sorts of price points? Or maybe even making it easier for developers to put titles into the store? Free-to-play titles?

I'm afraid that the high-growth areas in the game industry, like social games and free-to-play games, are just not going to be in the classic manufacturer's strategy plans. They are too cautious about alienating the current retail channel, especially after Sony got hammered for the PSPGo (which attempted to make digital distribution the only way to get games). Of course, the PSPGo had other problems, like a high price point and insufficient flexibility compared to an iPod Touch.

Nintendo has traditionally been slow to adopt any changes in their business model, even as they like to innovate on the hardware side. Of course, their innovations always tend to be very cost-effective; they never push the envelope on losing money on their hardware sales. Nintendo resisted the move to CD-ROM for a long time, preferring cartridges that gave them a better control (and profit margin), even though in the end that let Sony pull way ahead with the Playstation. The Wii didn't offer much of a horsepower advantage over the Gamecube, and no HD support; what it did have was an innovative control option (which Sony and Microsoft are finally getting around to imitating, in a much more expensive way).

I don't think that Nintendo will be a good place for small independent developers to invest resources. The Flash game market, the downloadable PC game market, the Facebook game market, and the iPhone/Android markets are all easier to get into and less expensive to develop for. Marketing is a problem for all of them, but that's pretty much true these days for any game market. You have to develop a brand name and an audience.

I just don't think Nintendo is going to offer any help to developers, whatever changes they make. They have never cared much about third party developers, except as a source of licensing fees. (Kind of like Apple.) Don't expect that to change.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Top Spin Fails To Clear The Net

Nice try, thanks for playing. Activision's CEO attempts to spin the fact that 70% of Activision's operating profit comes from World of Warcraft as proof that their "online strategy" is working. I think it's more than a bit of a stretch to call one game a "strategy", especially when you've never been able to duplicate it. And you acquired it rather than built it. And you've never even tried to duplicate its success in any way.

Gee, perhaps it might be a good idea to have more of those sorts of things... now having a plan to do that would actually be a strategy.

The lesson here is that you shouldn't try to spin everything, because you end up looking stupid. And making the customers think you're stupid. And possibly alienating potential business partners who might think you're stupid.

Bobby Kotick just shouldn't talk to the press. He's not good at it, and it doesn't help his company or their stock price.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Kinect Revisited

Microsoft is being coy about Kinect's lag issues; the lack of responsiveness in this interview was deafening. Concerns are still an issue, as this article on 1Up shows (Rare denies it's a problem, but then says in their Kinect Sports title it's 150 ms, which is nontrivial for action gamers); and showing the Kinect on Jimmy Fallon you can see where lag is still a big problem.

Meanwhile, Microsoft's online store has Kinect priced at $149, so I guess I shouldn't give Microsoft the benefit of the doubt about holding off on pricing. Looks like it's a done deal at the $149 price point. Which seems odd for a device clearly targeted at casual gamers, who can get a Wii for just a little more (if they don't already have one, that is). Hardcore gamers might drop $149 if the hardware made their games cooler, or there were interesting titles that were Kinect-only, but that doesn't look to be true at all, or even possible given the amount of lag. Perhaps you could enhance gameplay a bit with Kinect, but not if your buddy online kills you every time because he's using a controller.

Bottom line: The Kinect looks like a loser to me. It will sell some units, but the Wii was there years ahead and already captured the market, and still has a price advantage. The Kinect will not be for hardcore gamers, and unless it sells a lot of units quickly (which seems highly unlikely at $149), developers won't be rushing to support it... and it will never take off. Perhaps they can incorporate the technology into a next version of the 360 (if there is one), and at that point maybe advances in processor power can make the lag issue go away inexpensively. Until that happens, don't expect much from the Kinect.

Sony's Move? A little better, because at least it offers a $49 entry price (which quickly mounts when you look at all the other stuff you probably want to buy, though... and then each player will need one, too). Lag should not be an issue, so it's possible to see the Move being used for action games. Still, it all comes down to installed base. If Sony can get enough units out there fast enough, developers will support it. I predict mediocre success; more units than Kinect, and another reason to buy a PS3, but not a huge industry boost.

Meanwhile, Wii trundles forward... and if either Kinect or Move starts to look like a threat, Nintendo can drop the price to $149 and stab their grandiose dreams through the heart.

It's kind of sad when you think of all the marketing effort and dollars that went into these motion control devices. That was their best shot? Wasted effort... should have spent more pushing their games. If they really wanted an influx of players, they should have cut deals with social game companies or opened up their download markets even more. That would have been a... smooth Move? Added some Kinect energy to the game industry? I guess Wii'll never know...

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Publishers Weakly

Some thoughts on the digital publishing revolution from Clay Shirky in this interview with Publisher's Weekly. Bottom line: It's coming and you'd better adapt to it. Certainly e-readers are helping in this transition; today we find out that Apple has just hit 3 million iPads sold, with the latest million units sold in 3 weeks. The Kindle and the Nook were just dropped in price yesterday to $189, no doubt partly in response to the iPad. The iPhone's iOS 4 was released yesterday, so now all the iPhones and iPod Touches (around 90 million of them) are now e-readers, too, with the addition of the iBookstore (yes, third-party apps could do that before, but now we should expect it to become more common).

So publishers (whether or RPG books, or fiction, or individual authors) need to actively market to this audience. Product development has to adapt to electronic editions, and certainly marketing needs to change. One important issue becomes how to handle the connection between the paper edition of a book and the electronic edition. Some publishers sell them separately (the traditional publishers); some RPG publishers give you the e-book when you buy the paper book. Some just sell the e-book, and you can order a printed book if you like from a POD outlet.

There doesn't appear to be only one correct strategy here. The best advice is to make sure you spend time thinking about your options, and perhaps try some experiments (maybe with part of a product line) and see what sort of results you get. Speculation is far inferior to actual data when it comes to making decisions that affect your income.

Monday, June 21, 2010

How Not To Market

This web site has a good take on some viral marketing campaigns that were poorly conceived from the start, and ended badly. Not surprisingly, the Splinter Cell promotion is one of them.

Yes, it's possible to get into trouble when you get too creative with your marketing ideas. How do you avoid this? Give your marketing ideas some reality checks before implementing them.

  1. Is it legal? If you're not sure, you'd better check the local ordinances. If you're doing some kind of event, you may need a permit. Or you may need to talk to the local police department and get clearance, or at least inform them of what's going to be happening. Property owners should be consulted; if you're not on their property with permission you could be in trouble.
  2.  Is there a danger? If you have someone dressed up in a military outfit and carrying a weapon or three, even though they may be toy weapons, this should be a red flag. Police might well be called by nervous citizens, and people who wave toy weapons around can get shot. Danger can come from stunts or feats, or it can come from just looking dangerous.
  3. Will this help? Once you've figured out if your stunt is legal and not dangerous, you do have to consider whether it will actually help your marketing efforts in some way. What's the goal of this stunt? How does it translate into added sales? Ultimately, if you can't show how stripping down to a thong, painting yourself blue, and standing next to Apple's headquarters will help make more money from your iPhone game, you shouldn't do it, even if it is legal and not dangerous. Your marketing efforts should be oriented to making money, and you should have a way to measure their effectiveness. If you want to pull a stunt to raise awareness of your product, hoping that higher awareness means higher sales, then measure it! Don't pull some stunt that will make you and your product look bad, annoy customers, or otherwise cause problems.
So have a chuckle reading about this foolish marketing stunts, and notice how application of these three reality checks should have prevented these marketing disasters.

Friday, June 18, 2010

What Should Have Been At E3

I've spent two posts talking about what's happening at E3, and what I think is good and bad. Here's what should have been announced at E3.

Nintendo should have announced, and pushed hard, the fact that the 3DS can store games internally on its memory. This should have gone hand in hand with an announcement of much greater effort into their online stores and entire networking effort. (Friend codes? Come on...) Also, making it much easier for developers to put games together and into their online store, and an embrace of a wide range of price points (including free). Yup, retailers would have been pissed... but with the prospect of selling 3DS hardware with good margins, and that there would still be a solid flow of games into retail channels, they could have been brought around. Oh, and make the same concessions for WiiWare, so that market can open up. Announce an open-arms policy towards iPhone developers, and a set of tools designed to make it easy to bring their titles to Nintendo platforms.

Microsoft should have launched Kinect at $79 with Halo: Kinect packed in. This latest in the Halo series would have been a new story with some new weapons, and all of it requiring the Kinect. Halo fans would have rushed to get this, and it would have meant a really big Kinect installed base by the end of this year. So third-party developers would be strongly incentized to develop Kinect titles, and even Kinect-only titles. Meanwhile, put more resources into Xbox Live Arcade. Microsoft could have announced support for a wide range of price points, including free; made it easier to get approvals and games into the Xbox Live Arcade; and for that matter, open things up to non-game software. They already have a place in the family room; open the platform to apps. Outdo Google TV and the rumored Apple TV before they even get started. Why not have all the best apps from Android and Apple getting ported to Xbox? Good grief, they might even be able to sell Zunes this way...

Sony should have announced their new PSP2 at the show, and it should have resembled the PSPGo. but the price point has to be $199, and Sony would have to throw open the doors of their walled garden to developers. Sony's got music and movies in-house, for crying out loud; they should have an online store to rival iTunes. Download movies, music and games to your PSP2, and a whole range of apps that we're encouraging developers to port from the iPhone or Android. Hell, make the PSP2 an Android device; that would get some energy in there. The PS3 can adopt a similar strategy to what Microsoft should have done: Make it the GoogleTV/Apple TV killer. Better, adopt GoogleTV into the PS3; absorb and conquer. Android apps through your PS3... control with your Android phone or pad... suck on that, Apple! Meantime, show off a killer 3D display enabled game that offers gameplay elements you only get with a 3D display, and an upcoming 3D TV with a PS3 built into it.

Apple and Google should have been at E3, announcing their new living room initiatives... GoogleTV and AppleTV 2, with full app stores, controllable with all their other devices or through Bluetooth, and generating spiffy game graphics with some Wii-class or better graphics.

Now, that would have been some show. Will any of this ever happen? We may see some small steps in those directions by some of the Big Three, as their sales continue to falter. I think the highest probabilities are for AppleTV 2 and GoogleTV to proceed in the direction I outlined. If that happens, the Big Three are going to be facing some serious market share erosion.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

So What's the Good News From E3?

While my last post highlighted the lameness that represents the Big Three's focus at E3, there is hope for the future of the industry. It's just not what's front and center at E3. The good news is about things that are happening off center stage, and the good news is not necessarily for all companies. Here's a few things that stood out for me.

EA is looking to double its revenue from digital downloads. Why is this good news, beyond the obvious help to EA's financials? Because it shows that EA understands where the growth in the industry is coming from, and intends to take advantage of it. Which improves the odds that EA will prosper, which is a good thing for their employees and potential future employees and contractors.

Another piece of good news: The total US electronic game market is over $15 billion dollars... now that NPD  is counting the nearly $5 billion spent on things like digital downloads, subscriptions, used games, and other such revenue. Note that this figure does not include hardware sales; hardware and software together totaled over $20 billion in 2009, and then when you add in the other $5 billion, you get a total of $25 billion. NPD is now counting all the stuff that's hard to count (though it would be nice to know their methodology), and that's important because it's all that hard-to-count stuff that's growing so rapidly. Social games, free-to-play games, DLC, ad-supported games, mobile games and the like are going to be the engines of growth for the game industry. Not $150+ hardware add-ons for existing consoles, or 3D displays that require new TVs costing thousands of dollars.

It's good news to see new game markets emerge where you don't have to have huge amounts of money to compete. Yes, the iPhone market is tough to succeed in... but you can succeed without much money, which is not true of the console market. Indie developers are back, baby. Digital distribution has changed the industry, as have new business models (in part based on digital distribution's lower costs). The next big wave will come when we see iPhone/Android like markets develop for home use on Apple TV?Google TV boxes. Yes, you can distribute games digitally through the existing online stores for all of the consoles (and the DS line and the PSP, too). But those channels still require a lot more hurdles, and therefore expense, than the iPhone/Android markets.

The future looks different, and it looks good for small developers. In fact, there's a tremendous opportunity arising for adventure game companies used to publishing on paper (books, card games, and board games). Electronic platforms with much lower development costs and greater reach are here or coming soon. So the wonderful designs that we've seen in the adventure game industry will finally have a chance to reach the broader market they deserve.

The good news is not for everybody, though. Companies that refuse to adapt to the changing environment will find themselves in trouble. Retail stores will have to find new ways to make money as digital distribution takes away customers, and used games become a shrinking market. Let's hope you're not one of those caught unprepared for these changes.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Big Three Offer Small Change

E3 has been interesting viewed from afar. It's clear the classic electronic gaming industry (console games with a dash of PC gaming, though non-MMO/social/Flash PC gaming has been waning) is in trouble; sales were down 8% in 2009, and sales this year look to be in similar dire straits without a booster shot. So aside from a slew of sequels, what is being offered by the Big Three (Microsoft, Sony, Nintendo) that represents a possible sales jump?

Microsoft is offering Kinect, its motion-control peripheral, for $149, and a dozen titles that look very similar to the Wii's greatest hits -- simple sports. The Achilles Heel of the Kinect is not just the high price point; it's the fact that it sucks up a large part of the 360's processing power, to the point of causing noticeable lag even in the simple games being shown. This means the Kinect will not be of much use to the power gamer, which represents most of the current 360 audience. So Kinect must be aimed at the casual gamer... who's already got a Wii, or for about the price of a Kinect alone could get a Wii (I expect to see the Wii at $149 by Christmas, unless Nintendo wants to continue losing share). The Kinect's price point means it won't get a large installed base any time soon, if ever, which means we won't see any games that require the Kinect... which means even less reason to buy one. Net result: No big industry impact.

Sony is trying a similar tactic with the Move, though at least it's only $49... well, of course, you need to add the Navigation controller for $29.99... and that's only for one player, so you need to double that to $160... and you probably want a Playstation Eye, which is $39.99... so you're looking at $200. Which makes it even more expensive than Kinect and not as cool. And again it's unlikely to be appealing to hardcore gamers -- certainly not from the types of games they are showing for the Move. Sony is also pushing 3D display technology, which has a possibility of appealing to the hardcore... but it's hampered by the cost of the display, which currently runs at $2,000 or more. Sure, Sony will try to push for 3D-capable TV sales, but no one would expect that to be a significant market share for many years. Again, no big industry impact.

Nintendo is throwing all of its weight into the 3DS, which is their new DS-style handheld with a no-glasses-needed 3D display. Nice, but how useful will the gimmick be in actual gameplay? That remains to be seen. Meanwhile, no attention to the Wii's price point or its aging technology, and no hint of any innovation in business models. I think the 3DS may stop the hemorrhaging of DS sales, but it's not going to ignite a revolution. The iPhone 4's and iPads will be busy leading that charge.

The problem for all of the Big Three is that they're seeking to appeal to casual gamers, yet those who are the most likely targets for that have either already purchased a Wii, or are busy playing Farmville or iPhone games. Once Google TV and Apple TV bring inexpensive or free-to-play gaming to the family room, the ability of the Big Three to gain significant numbers of casual players will be next to nil.

Meanwhile, executives at third-party publishers are busy saying nice things about the new hardware offerings and how great it will all be for the industry. Which is the best they can say, given the situation. Meanwhile, they are looking for ways to grow that don't require reliance on the Big Three. Because it looks from here like the console era is drawing to a close.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Origins Trade Day

It's an idea that's been around for many years: Add a trade show to Origins. Well, this year they've finally gone and done it: The Origins Trade Day will occur on Wednesday, June 23rd. There's no extra fee, and retailers will get a chance to talk to manufacturers without swarms of gamers wandering about at the same time. I suppose the manufacturers will have to set up early, or at least have part of their booths ready for this. But it's certainly a good opportunity to add some new retailers for your products without spending a lot extra, assuming you were already planning on exhibiting at Origins.

Trade shows should be handled differently than consumer shows. If you want to make the most of the Origins Trade Day, prepare for it.  Make sure you have fliers ready that showcase what you're doing to help retailers, and explain why your products will sell well for any retailer... and how to sell them. It's also important to listen to what retailers are telling you. Find out why your products sell or don't sell for them. Ask them what's hot in their stores and what's not. What do other manufacturers do for the retailer that really helps them sell products? Make the most of a trade event by making it a two-way information flow.

Marketing's job should include both getting information out to the field and bringing information back in from the field. And then making sense of what you find out, and translating it into better marketing efforts.

Monday, June 14, 2010

The Power of Pricing... Kinect Style

News is coming out from E3 that Microsoft has introduced a new name for Project Natal: Kinect. (A cross between kinetic and connect... better than "Wii" I suppose.) Amid all the sound and fury (a performance by Cirque du Soleil as part of the intro!) Microsoft somehow avoided mentioning a price point. This has been leaking around the internet, though, and it sure looks to be $149... but there will also be a somewhat better version for $189. No word yet on bundle deals with new Xbox 360s (though a new Xbox 360 Slim is also rumored), but the pricing may be better when included in a hardware bundle.

So Microsoft has essentially chosen not to try and grab a significant part of the installed base; at $150 you'd have to be pretty convinced on the value in order to buy Kinect instead of 3 games of your own choosing. Developers are going to be hesitant to spend money adding Kinect support if the installed base isn't significant. And to develop a Kinect-only title would be highly risky if the installed base is small... yet it's precisely that (a Kinect-only title) that would drive sales of Kinect hardware (assuming you had a really compelling title).

It all adds up, in my mind, to Kinect being a non-factor in overall industry terms. It's likely that Move will fall into the same category, though Sony may not charge as much for it. Motion control hardware may be a bit of a fad this year, but by next year no one will care.

Pricing is important, which is why free-to-play is making such a huge impact on the gaming business. Too bad Microsoft couldn't figure that out. Or, more likely, they thought about pricing Kinect at $49 and losing money on every one in order to drive broad penetration of the installed base... and decided that the Kinect technology wouldn't drive additional software sales enough to make up for the money they'd lose on every one. Which, I think, is probably the right call.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Free-to-Play Forecasted to hit $7 Billion

Free-to-play is a business model pioneered in Asia that's taking the world by storm. This article highlights info from analysts forecasting the market to double to $7 billion in revenue by 2015, about twice what it is now. Interestingly, while social games in the US get maybe 1% of users to pay, in Asia games get over 10% of users to shell out money. It's not all virtual goods, either; enhanced subscriptions are another tool used. Again, the game design becomes critically important to this marketing tool, and analytics are key to refining your design. Both design and marketing become a process; your effort shave to be ongoing, informed by the data coming in.

It's very different from the fire-and-forget style of game design and marketing used for decades by American publishers, which is no doubt why bigger publishers have a harder time switching to this model than new, small companies. Free-to-play is a powerful marketing tool that actually puts piracy to work for you. Essentially, your servers end up tracking each individual user, which means piracy becomes useless.

This business model has implications beyond electronic games, though. It could turn the paper-and-pencil RPG industry around. How? Give the rules away, and  sell a steady stream of add-on products. Of course, this doesn't work economically if your products are paper ones sold through retail stores... but it could work if your products are e-books distributed electronically. And perhaps the physical and electronic products could dovetail nicely... it's worth some thought.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

More E3 Musings

The press releases are starting to spread like a massive oil spill from E3, though fortunately in this case no wildlife is threatened. Still, there's the sticky ooze to contend with... in this case, a sludge of desperate hyperbole trying to build up the traditional game industry's prospects. Much of the attention and hope for the future is focused on two hardware trends: Motion controllers and 3D displays. Many in the game industry seem to be expecting these things to cause a surge of new interest and sales in game consoles and games, putting the industry back on a solid sales growth trend. Sure, and if pigs had wings maybe bacon could fly onto your plate, but I wouldn't expect it.

Here's some evidence that, industry hopes to the contrary, the customers aren't exactly itching to spend money on motion controllers. This study shows there's less than 10% of Playstation and Xbox customers intending to purchase either Move or Natal, respectively. Not exactly a massive sales surge. What would it take for these things to be successful? Well, they'd have to be priced comparable to a game ($49 or $59), and include with that price a hotly anticipated game (or a sequel to a best-selling series) that takes full advantage of the new hardware. And then they'd have to market the hell out of it. With all that, you could maybe get 60% penetration of the existing base... and perhaps you'd want to start packing that thing in with the console in time for the Christmas market, so you would know you'd have 100% of future sales with the new controllers. Then you'd better have a lot of help and encouragement and some funding for new games that use your new hardware, and make it compelling for new customers to buy your hardware. Then perhaps you'd get some significant sales increases due to your new hardware. You think it's very unlikely that this will all happen? I agree.

And it's even worse for the 3D display idea. Either customers are going to have to drop $2000 or more on a new 3D-capable TV, and $100 for each pair of glasses, or get a new 3DS which doesn't require glasses. And aside from the ability to more easily generate nausea in gamers, how exactly is this going to improve the gameplay? How well will the 3DS work in a range of ambient lighting conditions, and even if you do get a good 3D effect, how again does it improve gameplay? Those answers aren't obvious.

Maybe E3 will show clearly how these new hardware technologies will transform the industry and put traditional game sales back into a solid growth pattern, instead of trending downward like this year and last year. Meanwhile, business model innovation has been posting amazing growth in the gaming industry: Free-to-play, social gaming, mobile gaming, virtual sales, DLC... and soon Google TV and Apple TV. Much of that sales growth is proven, and the wiser publishers are jumping into it. Look for announcements in those areas if you want to identify companies poised for growth. Companies that ignore those areas in favor of shiny new hardware are the ones taking the huge risks.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

You've Got Marketing!

If you're at all attuned to marketing, you realize that we're soaking in it. We're bombarded with marketing messages in all sorts of media, and even when we happen to glance at a cereal box in our own kitchen. It makes you wonder how to break through all of the clutter with your own marketing messages. Which means that we see lots of marketers trying to sell ways to break through to other marketers. (More confusion reigns...) One of the tools touted is email.

Email is one of those mixed blessing that technology tends to bring us. Yes, it's a wonderful, free way to get important messages from other people or businesses. At the same time, its very nature (free) has led to a vast pollution of spam. Some days you just don't know whether to take your cheap! no prescription needed! Viagra before or after you help that Nigerian businessman get his 56 million dollars into this country. If you think twice before using email to market your products, you're doing the right thing.

Certainly email used correctly will help your sales and not leave a bad impression on your customers. One thing to watch is the frequency. Some companies seem to think that if a little email brings good results, then they should do a lot of it. Perhaps they assume that, hey, if results drop off at some frequency level, we can always just dial it back a little. The problem with that assumption is that many users will have opted out in disgust at that point, never to return. So go easy on the emails to your existing customers. Keep your emails brief, and to the point, and give them information that they will be interested in: New product releases, special deals or offers. Make sure your customers have opted in to your mailing list.

When you think about sending emails to people who aren't your customers, you have to tread carefully. First off, how will you be seen as "this isn't spam?" If you can't answer that question convincingly, you should be prepared to see your company's reputation suffer. Second, where are you planning to get your mailing list? There are lots of places that will cheerfully sell you the use of your lists, and that cost has to be weighed against the potential returns. Are you getting a list of people likely to be interested in your products? Did the names on this list opt in to get emails from companies they don't know?

Bottom line: Email to your customer base, but sparingly, and make it meaningful. Emails to those outside your customer base... tread very carefully.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

E3 Approaches... Apocalypse Nowish?

The big PR extravaganza called E3 Expo is coming up next week. We'll see lots of press releases about new motion control hardware (Move for the PS3 and Natal for the Xbox 360), 3D (Nintendo's new 3DS, 3D output for PS3 and Xbox 360), and many new games. But it's what we won't hear that will be the most important thing going on.

That is the approach of Google TV and the rumored approach of Apple TV revisited. While the first is not out yet, and the second is only rumored, the potential that's outlined should have the console manufacturers and the publishers that depend on them worried. Imagine, if you will, what would happen in Google TV and the new Apple TV provided App markets similar to current iPhone and Android app markets, for devices hooked up to your TV. A wide range of app capabilities, an easy to use interface, integration with existing devices like smartphones and computers... and thousands of games, many of them free or very low cost, playable on your TV with pretty spiffy graphics.

Basically, this could do to the console market what Apple (and now Android) has been doing to the DS market... drain it of its lifeforce and leave it a mere husk.

Yes, consoles would still probably have more horsepower (well, maybe not the Wii)... but outside of hardcore gamers, does that matter? Would Farmville players notice?

The iceberg is looming, and at E3 the press releases will be about their spiffy new desk chairs and how shiny they look. Will we see anything about new business models? The companies working on those will be the survivors.

Monday, June 7, 2010

App Bonanza Expands

As I write this, Steve Jobs is busy telling developers about the new iPhone, and it does sound pretty cool. But the real news that should be getting you excited is not the new hardware, nor even the advent of Farmville for the iPhone. It's the state of the App market. Now there's 225,000 Apps in the App store, and they just crossed 5 billion downloads... and have paid out over $1 billion to developers. Plus, while Apple was showing stats on the growth of the iPhone and its App market, they were showing numbers about Android. They interesting thing is how Windows Mobile, Blackberry and Nokia are shrinking, while Apple and Android are growing at an amazing rate. Why does this matter? Because Apple and Android have easy App markets to get into, and by far the highest volume of App sales... so that's where the money is for developers.

New Android phones are getting pretty amazing, and it's nice to see sharp competition between Apple and other hardware makers. The result is the market for Apps of all flavors is growing fast. Interestingly, there is only a 5% overlap between iPhone Apps and Android Apps, according to Flurry (the leading mobile analytics firm). This surprises me... app developers are missing an easy way to expand their sales. Do an iPhone app, then port it to Android, or vice versa.

And all this App frenzy is even without counting the 2 million iPads sold so far (one every 3 seconds now), and the 17 apps per iPad that have been downloaded to this point. Oh, and PDFs are now part of the iBookstore... and the iBookstore is accounting for 22% of ebook sales from major publishers. Plus they are now allowing individuals to put ebooks up for sale. And the iBookstore (complete with PDF support) is coming to the new iPhone OS 4. So individual authors can now make their ebooks available to the 100 million iDevices out there, or will be able to soon.

Rumors have already started to emerge that Apple TV is going to get completely redone... as an iPhone type device, using that operating system and ecosystem. Imagine being able to buy games and play them on your TV... as Apple finally cracks the console market and completely upends that business, while opening up chances for small game developers to finally reach a huge audience. And did I mention Google TV, which has already been announced and is planning essentially the same thing? I wouldn't want to be Sony or Nintendo or Microsoft right now. They're going to be in LA in a week trying to get the world excited about what's coming for consoles, and meanwhile the world is changing in fundamental ways that they don't address.

Marketing is going to be even more key to this future...

Friday, June 4, 2010

Booster Shots

Once upon a time, most games were fire-and-forget marketing efforts: You put all your resources into a successful launch to maximize sell-in, knowing that after a couple of months (and more recently a couple of weeks) the sales curve would drop off a cliff and the product would flatline. By, then, you would already be deep into the pre-launch preparations for the next product... or looking for a new job.

Now, thanks to the wonders of the internet, games don't have to follow that sales curve. Any game can be given a booster shot of marketing and product development to keep it moving or even bring it back to a full life. This is even true of RPG books, board games, and card games. Sometimes it may require getting product development involved, which can be difficult at times. Some added sales can assuage the pain, though.

What can you do to boost sales? A little downloadable content (DLC) can work wonders. For paper games, this can be new rules, new scenarios, new character classes, or rule variants. While you can charge for this sort of thing, you need to keep in mind that your goal here is to boost sales of the core product. Providing this free DLC is adding value to the core product, which is then what your marketing will stress. "Now (unnamed game) is even better than before, with (cool added DLC)!" If you want people to act faster, make it "for a limited time only -- ACT NOW!" Maybe the DLC is priced at $9.99, but for the moment it's free... you can always keep it that way for as long as it seems to be helping sales. Remember, your DLC has only its cost of production to worry about recouping; there's almost no fulfillment costs, no inventory costs, no transaction costs.

For electronic games, DLC can of course vary depending on the nature of the game. You could just release a new version of the game with added features or content.

The key to a successful booster shot is significant added value to the game, and then getting the word out to your existing audience and to your likeliest customers. Your targets are clear, so the copy should be easy to write. And don't forget that new content is another reason to get new press coverage...

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

7 Keys To Effective Product Copy

While the medium of expression has changed for marketers (from a print-centric world to a web-centric one), one of the most basic things is still key: Creating an effective product page. This may be a page in a print catalog, or a web site, or a Facebook page, or an iTunes description page, or any one of a variety of places. The basic idea is that you have a limited area to describe your product, get a potential customer interested, and close the sale. The specifics of the page size, amount of text, and other parameters will vary according to the medium, but some basic concepts apply in all cases:

  1. Make the title obvious. Don't use an unreadable font; make it large, and it should be clear at a glance.
  2. Make the product position clear. You did pick one, didn't you? (See this for an intro to the concept.) Well, it should be obvious after reading the text... to make sure, ask some people in your customer demographic to read the product page, and then ask them how they would describe the product in one sentence. That sentence should resemble your product position... if not, you need to do some editing. Or repositioning.
  3. Use screen shots. Assuming this is an electronic title... if not, use some artwork. Screen shots are the part of the page people go to first or second, so make them sizzle! The captions are crucial, as studies show they are read more often than other parts of the copy. Use them to drive home your selling points.
  4. Great artwork sells. You did get some great artwork, didn't you? "Great" for a marketer means that it reinforces the product positioning... which means it might be stick figures, if that's what your game is.
  5. Use quotes and awards. These are independent validators of what you're saying, and customers give them more weight than your obviously biased copy. (Yes, you could make them up... but unless you want a career in infomercials, you should be dealing in reality when it comes to marketing... or someday it will bite you in the ass.)
  6. Keep it simple. Adroit use of white space adds impact to the words that are there. Solid blocks of text will be skipped, for the most part avoid them.
  7. Close the sale. Make sure you do your best to get the sale, or the download... don't make it hard to find the way to purchase your product! Make it easy, and get them to act NOW.
Of course, the truly high-level marketer knows when and how to break all of these rules... but makes sure you can implement these well before you ascend to that level.

Virtual Goods, Real Money

A recent survey on digital goods spending has some interesting statistics, well worth a glance to get an idea of what's happening in the virtual marketplace. As you might expect, virtual sales continue to rise, and now 13% of people surveyed have purchased a virtual good in the last 12 months. The iPhone accounts for the biggest share of virtual good sales, with 43% of iPhone owners having purchased a virtual good. This is becoming a huge business; some estimates say it will be $10 billion globally this year. Interestingly, most of that is outside the USA; the domestic market is estimated to be at about $1.6 billion.

Just as interesting are the stats on where these purchases are made.

Type of game or environment where consumers have bought from:
1. A free, web-based game (37%)
2. A social network site, other than a game (31%)
3. A free multiplayer computer game (29%)
4. A game on a social network site (29%)
5. A connected console marketplace (21%)
6. A paid, subscription based multiplayer game (18%)
7. An online virtual world (11%)
8. Other (6%)

Looks like spending is spread over all sorts of places. The game market is evolving swiftly, which means marketing efforts have to race to keep up. It's especially difficult since many of these venues are new to players, and they might not even think to look there for products.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Ads In Games

The evolution of in-game advertising has been interesting to follow. The first strides were a number of years ago, as companies started to push the idea of ads inside of console games that were connected online, so ads could be rotated out. Of course, not all games were suitable for this (Coke billboards in Middle Earth? Hmm, might not be a good fit...), but sports games were a natural since billboards and logos already abound in arenas and stadiums. Still, this was a fairly limited intrusion in the overall picture.

Now we're entering a different era. Advertising in games is set to become more pervasive than not, for several reasons. First, the rise in free games that gain their revenue not from players but from advertisers. Of course, these games are mostly on mobile platforms, but we can expect to see this spread to computers (where they already have a foothold) and eventually to consoles. Such advertising need not be blended into the game setting; it can take the form of a banner, or an interstitial, or a full-blown commercial message inserted at various points. ("This fantasy adventure brought to you by...") Next, the free-to-play games have to have in-game advertising, because they make their money from players buying things inside the games. And how will the players know about those things unless there's some form of advertising?

Mobile and social games will be saturated with advertising, though there will doubtless be some room for content you pay extra for so it doesn't include ads. Somebody's got to pay for the games to be made, somehow. The halcyon days of games without advertising are over. The challenge is for marketers and game designers to figure out how to put advertising in without pissing of the customers.