Game publishers need to better understand how to exploit market research, argues Owen Davis of Evolution Research
A New Kind of Research
Let’s begin by considering how one might invent market research for the video game industry. If you were to invent market research after the advent of the Internet, what would it look like? Take your sample for instance. Would it consist of hundreds of demographically-diffuse, hand-selected, profiled gamers or would it be a handful of geographically-restricted college students pulled off the street?
It’s hard to imagine in a world with such a vast and profoundly powerful computer network that more businesses aren't using the faster, cheaper, and better way of conducting research. The truth about online market research is that it works – it works really well. It has been widely adopted throughout a number of verticals, including healthcare, finance, politics, and film, but there are still markets such as the video game industry that haven't entirely taken to it. Why is this the case?
Part of the reason is a misunderstanding of its applications and its abilities. New online research techniques are not a panacea for marketing problems, nor are they replacements for traditional research. They are, however, a very powerful aid to judgment when properly applied. Ideal online research would consist of a hybrid of traditional and innovative online methods that are unachievable in the offline world. With this understanding of online research, we can start to look at some of its applications.
How to Use Market Research
Market research should be utilized throughout the game development cycle. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it would be foolish to suggest that there's a limited time and place for market research. That isn’t to imply that there aren't times when research is superfluous. Testing a concept description for Will Wright's newest game would be ludicrous. However, surveying a cross-section of gamers to develop a positioning statement that resonates with a mass-market is not.
The point is that we shouldn't conduct research for the sake of research. Instead, we should understand how market research, this exercise of scientific method in business, is indeed applicable at each stage of game development. Below is a rather abbreviated list of some of the applications of online market research in the game industry:
Game Concept Testing - Game concept testing traditionally done in focus groups is better suited for online quantitative research. It is possible to test combinations of textual game descriptions, character renderings, game play footage, or any other collateral of choice in order to make decisions related to choosing an IP to work on, evaluate whether or not development efforts should continue, as well as garner valuable feedback related to specific game mechanics, characters, and features.
Communications Testing - Test everything from game trailers and TV commercials to print advertisements and package designs. Understand what concepts work best and why. By using online sampling effectively, you can choose the best concepts in a short period of time based on hundreds of responses.
Character Design Testing - Leverage the interactivity of the Internet by allowing gamers to visually show you what they want. Gamers are happy to tell you what character concepts they like, but they are even happier to build their own character.
Positioning Statements - Tweak your existing positioning statement to appeal to a broader audience; or, if you’re daring, understand how to position your game for the coveted mass-market audience. Recall that online research is complimentary to traditional offline research and can be used in accord.
Pricing Studies – Quantitative research can be used to develop price points for mass-market audiences as well as niche gamer segments. Although most games have fixed price points, the incremental aftermarket content does not. Leverage online research to identify price sensitivity within cross-sections of gamers.
Focus Groups – Using a hybrid of telephone and internet, focus groups can be conducted online more effectively than in the offline world. Some of the benefits of online focus groups include zero travel expense, demographically-diffuse samples, and significant time and cost reductions.
If you’re not already doing online market research, you need to be doing it. There are myriad market research companies to choose from and some of them are very good. When choosing an online market research firm, three criteria are paramount:
Sampling - I don’t believe I could underscore this point enough: it took a conscious effort to avoid also listing it as criteria 2 and 3. Sampling is without a doubt the single most important factor in market research – online or offline. You need to know where your sample is coming from, period. Not only should you know where your sample is coming from, you need to know how they were targeted and identified as well as how else they are used in other research projects. Over-sampling and panel abuse is one of the self-defeating, dirty little secrets of online market research. You may inadvertently void your research efforts. If you can't obtain a true sample, then you shouldn't waste your money and your time doing market research.
Notwithstanding the difficulties of obtaining a valid online sample, it should be understood that online sampling is incredibly effective and not at all impossible. Once a sample has been identified and profiled, it is possible to conduct market research extremely rapidly. It is not uncommon for studies, once put into the field, to be completed within 24 hours. The implications of conducting a package design test or a positioning statement survey overnight are extraordinary. You will have what you need to make better decisions, faster.
Design - So you found an honest sample but does the design fit the report? Intelligent design is extremely important. A mistake some researchers make is to design the report to fit the questionnaire. Done properly, your questionnaire should be designed to fit your report. Make sure that you choose a market research company that understands your primary objectives. Start from the ground up, so that when you receive your final report, you are more confident in taking the next step with your project.
Online research techniques are also inherently different than your grandfather’s research. Although we can learn a number of things from the countless studies conducted over the years via phone, fax, mail, and in-person qualitative research, we must also acknowledge that this is a much different vessel, and we have to take this into account in survey design. This may sound like a negative aspect of online research but, to the contrary, it can be used to the wise researcher’s advantage. The employment of multimedia and interactive survey systems allows us to gather new data that was previously unavailable to us.
Analysis – Analysis becomes much simpler once you design your report first, but that isn't everything. You should be sure to pick a market research company that understands the game industry if you want to get everything you can out of the collected data. Insights always come clearer to a passionate observer.
Make sure you understand with sound reasoning and conviction why you should be spending your precious budget dollars on research in the first place. Then understand the methodologies used to accomplish your objectives while avoiding the fundamental problems of online market research. The bottom line is that research can help you make better decisions and avoid costly mistakes, but only through solid sampling, intelligent design, and analysis that meets your research objectives.
It’s clearly time for the game industry to leverage the benefits of online market research. As development costs continue to increase in a saturating market, it's critical that marketers maximize what can be achieved by examining true cross sections of gamers throughout development and product life cycles.