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Video-Game Marketing Teams: A Liability?
by Anthony Hart-Jones on 11/20/12 06:14:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

I have long argued, often against my better judgement, that marketing teams within video-game publishers are a necessary evil.  They know what sells, how to sell it and can often tell you with curious accuracy whether a game is worth making.  

They mess up from time to time, black-balling a game which rewards another publisher for their faith, but the average video-game from a major publisher can be sold to the target demographic no matter how bad it is.  In fact, some really awful games, panned by the critics, are still commercial successes thanks to the efforts of marketeers.

And yet, I am starting to reconsider my position…

First things first, this is not an invitation to challenge or question the marketing team in big publishers.  If you want to get Square Enix or EA backing you, you’ll need to go through the marketing team before you get green-lit.  Even if they are wrong, they can still stop your game.

Okay…  So, let’s talk about marketing gone wrong.

Core Demographic Is Not The Same As Sole Demographic

I play non-core games.  I know, it’s a shock to hear that someone with a decent gaming rig isn’t playing Call of Duty every moment they are gaming, but I like to play casual games.  Not just any casual games, but online jigsaw puzzles and sudoku.

Without a trace of shame, I’ll confess to heading off to Shockwave.com most mornings for some gentle low-stress games.  I’ve been doing it for years, since I was at university studying game development.  I’ll drop into an FPS and frag some zombies or aliens with the best of ‘em, but sometimes I am just after something low impact.  To be honest, a Kakuro complements my morning cereal better than Strogg brains.

One day, I noticed that the kind of games I was playing had been rebranded.  They were now ‘Nick Mom’ games.

Nick Mom?  

Suddenly, I felt excluded.  I was suddenly made to feel like an interloper, like the men who play Princess-Maker and dress up like Sailor Moon at conventions.  I was a little bit suspect in the eyes of the world.

What kind of marketing team sits down in the conference room, ponders the whiteboard and says “let’s alienate our secondary markets!” unless they are on drugs?  Compare this to Popcap, who have the same core market and yet they still market themselves as games for ‘casual gamers’ rather than ‘mothers’ and see no distinction between a person who wants to kill zombies and one who wants to match gems into groups of three.

The answer is “not one I want within 1000 yards of my games” of course.  I don’t want to alienate my players and I’m fairly certain that any marketing team I hired would not want to alienate potential clients.

Honesty Is The Best Policy

Anyone here old enough to remember when a certain big publisher used cut-scene art in all their advertising and on the back of the box?  The marketing was one of the worst ‘bait and switch’ jobs out there, leading to those annoying ‘not representative of game-play’ warning on just about every advert out there in the last decade and a half.  

We learnt our lesson from that, didn’t we?  I mean, nobody would do that again…

Until Assassin’s Creed 3, that is.  The US marketing made it look like all you did was murder British soldiers and even the EU version was so badly skewed toward killing Brits that the special edition was pulled in Europe.  Ubisoft, one of the biggest publishers in Europe, couldn’t sell their game in the same continent as their headquarters.

The developers argued that the adverts were not representative, that it was not ‘f*** yeah, America’ like the videos suggested and guess what?  The developers were right…  Who’d have thought it?  The people who made the game knew better than the people who were meant to be selling it…

As you might know, people don’t like being shown one thing and given another.  In fact, the legal system in most of the world doesn’t like consumers being shown one thing and given another.

There’s No Such Thing As A Dead Genre

The final one.  I’ll keep this short(er) and just ask this; who funded the most recent Broken Sword gamethe latest Tex Murphy game, Obsidian’s Project Eternity and Double Fine Adventure?  It was the players.  In fact, Double Fine set a new record for the most money made in 24 hours through Kickstarter after traditional publishers decided that an adventure game by Tim Schafer, as in Monkey Island Tim Schafer, wouldn’t sell.  

Traditional publishing wouldn’t agree to give them $400K to make the game, because their marketing teams didn’t think it would sell, but the public paid them $3.3-million for it.

Even outside Kickstarter, companies like Skotos Tech maintain subscription-based MUD and MUSH games despite the existence of much more advanced MMO games on the market.

What does all this tell you?

Conclusions

The traditional publisher’s marketing team are not going anywhere quite yet.  They are good at what they do, most of the time.  I’m not saying that they are not, just that they make mistakes.

If they learn, if they embrace the lessons and change the way they think, that’s great.  If they don’t, it sucks, but it’s still better than the alternative of losing them and relying on outside marketing ideas.

We’re an immature medium, we’re still making mistakes.  That’s just life…


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Comments


Andreas Ahlborn
profile image
Let`s not get ahead of yourselves.
What you are trying to say is sth. like: Marketing departments are not infallible. Point taken. I doubt this is a new finding for anyone, but at least you convinced me with your first two examples ("Core Demographic Is Not The Same As Sole Demographic","Honesty is the best policy"). Not so much with the third.

I hate to bring it to you: But that crowd-funding is a valid option for bringing better and fresh products to the market than the average marketing-driven company has yet to be proven, in my opinion.

Reading articles like this:
http://www.cnbc.com/id/48725154/Kickstarter_s_10_Biggest_Success_
Stories
I can`t help to see the common theme in all these projects: they haven`t delivered yet what they promised to do. Instead I hear of some Crowd-funded projects like this ( http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/831303939/hanfree-ipad-access
ory-use-the-ipad-hands-free/comments )that have already gone wrong.

At the moment your statement: "There’s No Such Thing As A Dead Genre" should be altered into "Its highly improbable that with today`s lacking tools of proper development calculation in software/games development, Outsiders can pull off a crowd-funded quality-sidestream-game"

If "Star Citizen" can deliver, what it promised and showcased with the Cryengine (Which License costs alone are rumored to go into the 7-digit range), then I stand corrected.

Stephen Chin
profile image
I'll agree with the first two. The third gives me some hesitation since it seems like it needs to come with some caveats. While certainly the spirit of the statement I think is true, we (as in developers) need to be careful about what sort of lessons and actions we take in regards to those genres. Sometimes, some decisions were made on games (modern, classic, and retro alike) not because they were good decisions but because they had to be made. And often times, our memory is fallible. Lastly, culture and society evolve and we should be careful about the contexts in which older games were made.

I attended a talk by a lead designer on Diablo 3 who brought up the latter point of fallible memory in two different contexts. The first was the most obvious one - the color scheme. That's been talked a lot so I won't go into that. But the second was the gameplay itself. He and the team had memories of fighting through hordes of monsters in this action-packed continual slog of fighting. But when the team actually went back and played the game, they realize that it was nothing like that. That how spawns worked, how monsters acted, what the gameplay was like... was completely different than what they thought and remembered it was like.

One of the points to draw away from that is that we should be careful of the line between creating a game of genre X and trying to mimick it completely.


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