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.
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.
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.
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.
The final one. I’ll keep this short(er) and just ask this; who funded the most recent Broken Sword game, the 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?
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…