The Future of Game Marketing
Happy New Year, videogame marketers: Thanks to the industry's constantly fluctuating dynamics, continued year-on-year mainstream mindshare growth and ongoing cultural/technological sea changes, it's guaranteed to be one of the most exciting we've seen since the mid-'90s.
Of course, as with any transition period, the road to superior brand recognition and sustainable ROI is fraught with pitfalls. And no matter how much money you're willing to throw at primetime TV spots, premium print ad placement or lavish point-of-purchase collateral, the question remains the same as ever... At the end of the day, how to make your core message stand out and stick in the minds of everyday consumers?
If there's anything 2006 has proven, it's that traditional methods of getting the point across are quickly becoming archaic. Newsstand sales continue to slide. Overall TV viewership remains in decline, especially amongst younger audiences. Box office attendance is a far cry from its halcyon days. Even the business' basic design philosophy has veered somewhat off-course, leading to the rise of consolidation and countless independent studios' closures. (Not to mention such a vast degree of disconnect with end-users that's given birth to an entire separate, multibillion-dollar casual gaming industry.)
Nonetheless, the simple fact remains—change is good. Good for us, the developers, publishers, investors, creatives and third-party agencies looking to find cutting-edge, cost-effective ways to get the word about beloved IP out. And, of course, good for the consumer, who's becoming steadily more disenchanted and distrustful of the products we promote through increasingly outdated, if still unquestionably relevant, channels.
Sure, you've seen all the headlines and heard the overwhelming buzz about how firms are increasingly looking to in-game advertising and viral solutions to spread the gospel. But in the spirit of staying ahead of the game—not to mention the competition—here's a few novel ways we predict will help everyone from niche to mass-market publishers regain the commercial high ground in 2007.
In today's online, interconnected world, games have become no longer solo propositions, but rather social experiences capable of serving equally well as fodder for Internet flame wars as watercooler chat topics around the office. Perhaps no single title better illustrates this phenomenon than Vivendi's MMO juggernaut World of Warcraft, now boasting 8 million subscribers worldwide. Certainly, some people play for the solid action itself—however, like many of today's gamers, a huge portion of this population is there simply to interact with and get to know others much like themselves. By introducing a human element, a sense of something familiar everyone can connect to, titles such as this continue to attract followings the likes of which most products could only dream.
Call it the reality TV phenomenon: Traditionally, as with big-budget network television shows, most marketing campaigns are, for all intents and purposes, so slick and polished as to often seem foreign to the consumer. (Ask yourself: Do you drive a million-dollar sportscar? Regularly hang out at $500/night hotels surrounded by supermodels? Even have the cash to afford the hardware necessary to run half the titles you see splayed out in special-effects laden extravaganzas at tradeshows like E3?) But strip away the layers of gloss and production, and you begin to see the human element that's inherent to any creative endeavor... The same sense of connection and unfolding drama that's kept us glued at times to programs like The Apprentice and Extreme Makeover: Home Edition or even streaming video sensations such as the "Lonelygirl15" series.
Meaning that in some cases, it pays big to show what's going on backstage as much as in front of the spotlight—a technique you can take advantage of by making the lines between consumer and company more transparent.
Create web portals where customers can interact with peers and in-house representatives, provide real-time feedback on current/upcoming initiatives, learn more about your firm's history and get to know the faces behind the scenes. Offer an ongoing stream of news, supporting assets (e.g. additional characters, items and levels) and special fan-oriented promotions to steadily generate excitement and, by virtue, evergreen promotional/PR hooks. Develop opportunities to turn the same people sitting at home playing your games into brand champions, early adopters and even newsworthy personalities in their own right.
In short, treat your virtual presence not as a simple outpost on the verge of a great wilderness, but rather a gateway beckoning potential buyers deeper into a vast world of your own creation—specifically, one where being a [Insert Name Here] customer means being not just another figure on a spreadsheet, but rather part of something larger. It's allowed businesses like Hudson Entertainment to reach out to today's youth and give even decades-old products new life; firms such as NCSoft to add depth and atmosphere to, as well as eke additional long-term value from, games like City of Heroes; manufacturers like Microsoft to make being an Xbox 360 owner not just a simple admission, but a full-blown lifestyle... And, course, potentially your own start-up or Fortune 500 employer to transcend the stigma of being "just another money-hungry publisher who doesn't give a rat's [censored] about consumers."
After all, it's no longer enough to sell buyers a product and be done with them; instead, you have to welcome them with open arms, treating them like a valued member of the family. Certainly there are costs associated with such endeavors—you can't simply pay consumers lip service by offering up the odd desktop wallpaper or developer interview every 2 months when the mood strikes. But foster a sense of community and a dedicated fan base will continue to support your endeavors and preach the word on a long-term scale, more than justifying the need for additional, dedicated manpower and resources.
Less Talk, More Action
For those of you still concerned with getting a half-page mention in PC Gamer or a brief news byte on GameSpot, we have only the following to say: Wake up and smell the photo opportunity. Despite frequently playing second fiddle to traditional online/print/broadcast media outlets, video content aggregators are increasingly becoming the best go-to solution of choice for gamers interested in learning more about upcoming titles. It only makes sense: Pretty as the prose flowing a journalist's pen may often be, even the deepest feature can only paint a vague portrait of what a game actually looks and feels like. A picture, as they say, is truly worth a thousand words: As with any visual and visceral medium, most games have to be seen in action to really understand what they're all about. And with program time, and therefore exposure, also limited on major TV networks, the best place to get your fill of them is on the Internet.
We'll spare you the usual rigamarole about broadband's explosive growth, YouTube's potential for attracting viewers vs. TV and the dawn of Web 2.0. Let's just point to the simple facts: Rather than read a 2500 word preview, it's much easier to skim direct film feeds from a specific digital diversion courtesy of GameTrailers.com, GameVideos.com or even MTV Overdrive. The time has come for developers and publishers to begin putting as much effort into crafting and branding content for this audience as it does material for retailers and old-guard media standbys. To hire marketers, public relations representatives and spokesmen who will specifically treat these outlets with the same respect as any trade partner. To realize that releasing a teaser video here and there just won't cut it. To understand that gamers want to dig deep into upcoming products, be dazzled and feel that same sense of wonder demo discs and hard-copy samplers used to provide.
To actually (and here's a thought) make use of those snazzy new digital distribution services Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo are all seeing fit to provide.
Don't stop there, either—think about how everything from comedic spots, machinima, guided walkthroughs, holiday/event-themed shorts or even fan-made content can stoke, or preserve, interest in a current or soon-to-be-released title. Or whether all that so-called behind-the-scenes "bonus material" you're offering on DVD wouldn't be better utilized in free weekly giveaways designed to keep generating headlines and interest in your product website. The best part: Gamers are fascinated by everything game-related. Even a couple garage developers fooling around at home with a camcorder, showing off what their usual day is like and they're working on via a series of video diaries or goofy spoofs, could potentially generate huge interest in themselves and their endeavors. What—did you miss the hilarious "Nintendo Sixty Foooouuuurrr" video that appeared in that holiday BMW commercial?
Thinking Outside the (30-second) Blocks
Let's have a little heart-to-heart, shall we?
Certainly, we all know... Blogs are the red-headed stepchild of the journalism world. Professional gaming, despite all the interest it's generating, has yet to justify those big-money contracts leagues have been doling out like free t-shirts at a comic convention. Videogame-based television isn't especially compelling. Independent publishers' game distribution portals, e.g. Paradox's GamersGate and Stardock's TotalGaming.Net, don't have accountants at publicly-traded firms going all woozy. Oh, and casual gaming providers? We don't really feel like supporting those with specially-targeted content branded under familiar names, even where synergy makes sense (see: franchises like The Sims or Dogz) just yet. But let it be known—their day is coming, and soon at that.
Cast the all-seeing crystal ball into the future, and it's not hard to discern that sometime soon—this year, next year, 2010—every single one of these seemingly avant-garde concepts will be commonplace. In the near future, marketers won't stop to wonder whether, say, dropping specially-branded bonus items into a reward-based social gaming experience like Pogo.com's The Poppit! Show is a wise move. They won't pause to think twice about registering a dedicated domain that will act as a hub where passionate fans of certain genres, i.e. adventure titles, can congregate. (And maybe even acquiring a specific editorial provider like Just Adventure or AdventureGamers.com to supply daily content...) Or, while we're at it, sponsoring the next Jonathan "Fatal1ty" Wendel, actually supporting Joystiq the same way they would EGM or, dare we say it, publishing a Need for Speed-branded racer on RealArcade or iWin.com.
Convergence is the future—just not of the sort most envision, pumping millions into ill-advised Hollywood spin-offs without understanding that it's the theme and end-product, not the name-brand talent, which ultimately drives videogame sales. Think leveraging properties in new and exciting ways across emerging mediums, fresh demographics and heretofore orphaned or unrecognized gaming subcultures. The key is to stop seeing videogame marketing as being deliverable in only three core ways: Online, print and television. Rather, we should be looking at it as a grid of dozens of individual dimensions, crafting both the messaging and media so as to hit as many points as possible by focusing on where the lines meet, and, most importantly, blur.