Game Marketing Tips, Analysis, and News

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. 

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