Examining Marketing Faux Pas

John Geoghegan -- formerly of LucasArts -- offers advice on formulating the right message for selling video games today

Last week, Ad Watch discussed how PR work is vital to the video gaming industry. This time we will examine the other half of the same coin: marketing. More specifically, we will be discussing what's wrong with marketing in the gaming industry.

Certain marketing mistakes are easy to see for those familiar with the industry's products. Ugly box art, generic magazine ads and TV spots that don't use in-game assets are common. However, some mistakes are more subtle and only easily perceivable to those who work in the industry — things such as the assignment of resources, whether marketing and advertising should be handled in house and the use of newer forms of medium like the Internet.

John Geoghegan, Former VP of Global Sales & Marketing at LucasArts, took time out of his busy schedule (which included a forum during the recently concluded Game Marketing Conference) to speak with us. We discussed common marketing mistakes in the industry, how companies are dealing with (and should be dealing with) the negative PR surrounding gaming and what changes he hopes will be made in the future.

Video game marketers make mistakes...

Certain mistakes in marketing can be crippling to the launch of a title. When a title is delayed, typically the response is negative from the consumer, and often will result in them purchasing a comparable title which is already available. Additionally, launching too soon to a similar title (be it in the same genre or using the same intellectual property) can also shave sales.

"Marketing mistakes in the video game industry are almost too numerable to count," said Geoghegan. "First off, marketing is a strategic tool when used correctly. However, the industry still largely treats marketing (funds it, staffs it and integrates it into product development) like it's a tactical tool. Additionally, some of the most common industry mistakes include vague product positioning, under spending relative to value forecast and advertising that doesn't feature gameplay enough."

He continued, "It's also surprising how little publishers understand that each medium has a minimum threshold of spending necessary to be effective. Too little spending and you don't get seen, too much and you're wasting money. Perhaps one of the biggest signs is too many, mediocre quality titles are put on the market. Now that may sound like a product [problem] rather than a marketing problem but believe me, it's everyone's problem. The future of the industry is the mass market. But if we flood the market with mediocre quality product that is poorly differentiated, then we make it impossible for the consumer to have a satisfying experience. Do this enough times and they will go elsewhere. Consumers have an endless variety of entertainment choices. We need to make sure they prefer ours."

"And would somebody please tell the management at Japanese gaming companies that the Internet is one of the strongest marketing mediums for video games in the U.S.?" added Geoghegan.

...and the industry is under fire...

To say that video games are a hot button issue right now would be putting it lightly. Many states are currently considering legislation against mature games. In fact, in Tennessee State Sen. Kilby went so far as to propose a total ban on the sale of mature games to people of any age. Despite the fact that anti-games legislation has either failed or been struck down several times already for being unconstitutional, politicians haven't changed their agenda. Senators Lieberman and Clinton have also proposed a federal study on the effects of video gaming on the psyches of young people.

The industry's reaction could be described as one of "containment." Speaking about the issue, Geoghegan said, "The video game industry is in a defensive crouch. It has done a poor job of enumerating the benefits of video games. It's almost as if it believes its own bad PR. Sometimes the best defense is a strong offense. As a result, it's time for the industry to start talking about what's great about gaming (and there is sooo much good to talk about) and stop apologizing or shying away from the controversy."

Talking about the future conflicts between the industry and those that would seek to enact laws restraining it, he added ominously, "It's going to get worse before it gets better. No doubt about it."

...but things can improve, right?

In our opinion, the future of marketing in the gaming industry is murky. Innovation has taken a noticeable backseat to sequels and "safer" genres. Too often games are trying to replicate the experience of movies and too often direct comparisons are made between the two very different mediums/industries. With a potentially larger market than ever before looming in the future, we hope that the industry will be able to address the wants of the mainstream without cutting loyal hardcore gamers out of the picture.

"Get the consumer involved early-on in the product development process," said Geoghegan, advising game marketers. "Start with the green light stage and every major iteration of the game. You can't go wrong by doing this. It only results in a better gameplay experience.

"But remember, research is an aid to judgment, never a replacement for it," he concluded.