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Misleading marketing
by Sjors Jansen on 05/06/14 05:30:00 am   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.

 

Modern society is a pretty strange world. We can have billboards promising us the greatest time of our life in exotic locations. While the people in that so called faraway paradise have nothing better to do than hassle you in the hopes of getting a few of your measly cents. Ah tourism. Had they actually told us what it was like, we would have never gone there. Unless the billboard promisers were clever enough to put a wall between the fly riddled kids and the advertised exotics.


Growth and obfuscation

More and more people are playing and making games. That's a pretty good thing because with more people comes more variation, so there'll eventually be something for everybody to enjoy. It also means more junk and more noise.
I've been keeping up with crowdfunding projects for a while now and compiling weekly overviews, sifting the actual games from the unsubstantial. It's a good place to see the noise, the propaganda and the chaotic nature as it is. I've been doing this mostly because I'm a little concerned with the "ecosystem" of videogame crowdfunding and the game industry in general. It's not baseless.
Too many disappointing products and in the extreme we might be courting another event like the crash from '83. Or perhaps that's already happened and just got masked by things like: the race to the bottom, "free to play" games and day-one patches and such.
Luckily that growth and saturation means more variety, and there are in fact plenty of good games to play. But they can be hard to find. So let's stay focused on the danger for a bit. (Instead of being in one of those horror movies where victims have the long term memory of a muon.)


The disconnect

A problem that is increasing right now is disappointment. Who's going to buy a second full priced game if it's buggy and needs months of patches? How long before people lose interest in buying bundles of bottom priced games they'll never play?

Disappointment is when something doesn't meet the expectations. Which is where marketing comes in. Its goal being to convince people to invest in your product by building up hype, reaching them and raising their expectations. This process includes the press because they need an audience to sustain themselves as well. So they're naturally on the look-out for things their audience could get enthusiastic about. Or better yet, already is enthusiastic about.

There's this saying creators are fighting against obscurity instead of competing against each other. As a creator you need to be loud, have a following and know the right people. One of the latest "interesting" angles being pushed is that of the creator's personality. It's all marketing really.
You can see nobody has any interest in the actual game itself. "Yes we've all seen a videogame before. What else you got?"

I may say that sarcastically, but yes, growth and obscurity drive almost everybody involved in the industry to find another angle they can use. Of course people could just make an original game right? But that doesn't guarantee press coverage because who's to say people will be enthusiastic about this 'new' thing? It often takes a lot of fanfare and bombastic chest-pounding instead.

So we're back to doing what the real world does.
Marketing is a very always-present, invasive thing in our lives.
(If you own a pair of kids and a telly, you'll know this to be inescapable. You can trade in your telly, but your kids are hooked for life, and there's nothing you can do about it.)

To bring the problem and apathy into perspective from a different angle, a sober look at the music industry might help. The endless flood of bands and artists, which of the new faces you have you heard, heard about? And how? This is likely to be different for everybody reading this. Personally I've quickly learned to ignore channels like the radio and music magazines and learn about new music solely through word of mouth and simply trying something out. Is that where the game "ecosystem" is going as well?
It might not fit that well and be that sustainable, since making a game takes a lot more time than making a song.


The way out is through

Criticizing this process often gets countered with the argument that you're not entitled to attention or coverage by the press. It's the way things are. Which is true of course. But it also pushes creators more towards the hype machine and the selling of hot air. It goes hand in hand with growth unless is gets equalized somehow.

There are a couple of great bloggers and youtubers who pour out long lists of new games. As a consumer, that's where I look for new games. I think that helps, but as a creator I also want to try and minimize the amount of fluff. And I hope others will try it as well.

The crowdfunding projects I see often don't show actual gameplay at all. Let alone provide a demo.

So let's see how this project does.
https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/238178285/animalalbum

I've tried to be as clear as I can. I have almost no social network. I will do a round of press emails, none of whom I ever met in person.
If it succeeds, it will succeed on what it is solely.

And if it does, consider dialing down the hype please. Focus on the games, the substance. That's what got us here in the first place right?

--------------------------------------------------

Update:

Since the post just got featured again I wanted to update a little. Kevin Harwood just wrote a very clear blog post on advertising success as well: http://gamasutra.com/blogs/KevinHarwood/20140509/217429/Advertising_Through_a_YouTuber.php

It provides a nice contrast to this post. Are you selling fun & lifestyle? Because in that case, it really doesn't matter which game they're buying right? So it's not really about the game. And also, if most games aren't as fun as advertised it's likely all games will suffer. Take a look at the Wii's 90% crap library and the trouble Nintendo is having getting people to buy into the Wii U again.

Here's some pictures to get the point across:

It's damn effective, but people are not getting informed at all.

If you're interested in more cynical views on marketing, you can always head on over to ukresistance.


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Comments


Kujel s
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Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Myself I've been burned by hype a few times in the past and I've stopped listening to the "press" on games that may interest me. If a game's premise interests me I look at gameplay footage and if I like it I will likely buy it (assuming I can afford it). This method has rarely failed me and I'm much happier not listening to corporate propaganda :)

Sjors Jansen
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Yeah that seems the best way to deal with it. I'm not sure exactly what percentage of games are bought through impulse buys, and what sales are lost by not stimulating that.
But it's probably the large spikey part you see in all sales graphs. So impulse buys and hype certainly seem desirable from everybody that has anything to gain from it, developers, press, publishers.

But the openness and evergreen title approach from Double Fine for instance is very interesting in comparison. But did that all get off the ground through the early Lucasarts games and Tim Schafer's pop-image? (I probably should say buff heavy metal man-image here) Well the games were (and are) all entertaining at least.

And I guess it's a good thing to see Valve reining in a flakey project just now.
http://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/217028/Valve_pulls_game_from_S
team_for_marketing_fabrications.php

Adam O'Donoghue
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Appreciate the links! Always trying to find good digital curator sites so I can find projects of innovative mechanics, themes, and quality execution to investigate.

However, having said that, I find that game culture and journalism has shifted due to the development of social media and marketing. Consequently, people are playing games not just for the inherent experience of the game but rather so they may participate and retain their citizenship amongst the gamer groups, curators, reviews, that they identify with: you can't contribute to a conversation if you don't know the subject of the conversation.

Sjors Jansen
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That's a good point. Boundaries are definitely blurring. And a lot of people seem to be perfectly happy to pay for being part of a community or popular "movement". There are many games that are facilitators first and foremost. But things can collapse very fast as well. We've seen masses flow to and from certain MMO games for example.

Leigh Alexander once mentioned the band Nirvana in one of her articles promoting personality based marketing, so I guess it's appropriate to counter with some lyrics from them:
"He's the one who likes all our pretty songs. And he likes to sing along. And he likes to shoot his gun. But he knows not what it means."

David Serrano
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I think a big part of the problem is development team members and studio execs seem to be disconnected from the fact that the comments, claims and promises they make about games to the media, and or through social media can have a greater impact on consumer expectations than the actual marketing and promotion.

For example, my disappointment with Mass Effect 2 had nothing to do with how EA - Bioware marketed the game. It was entirely based on the realistic expectations I had after playing ME 1 combined with Casey Hudson, Christina Norman, Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk repeatedly making misleading, and in many cases blatantly false claims about ME 2 in every pre-launch interview they did. If they had been honest, I would have played ME 2 with far lower expectations.

Sjors Jansen
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Hmm, that's also true. But interviews are part of marketing campaigns.
I guess Peter Molyneux has become somewhat famous for exactly that, making grand claims and being genuinely enthusiastic. Leading to disappointment later when reality can't keep up.

It's not unusual that there are PR people sitting next to a developer during interviews that tell them what things they can and can't talk about. But I'm not sure if that's what I like as a consumer.. Tricky..

Ty Underwood
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I guess this starts a conversation about merits of games, should things succeed because the pitch is successful and it is popular? Can an honest, bare pitch like yours convey the true meaning of the game enough to convince an audience? Is something being simply original proof enough that it should exist? Things to ponder, for sure.

Sjors Jansen
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Well I hope so since I provided a playable demo. I'd rather have people playing that than reading the text, even though it mostly describes the systems and gameplay features.

But my game isn't very original, that's not what I set out to do.
Most replies I get so far are like: Yeah this game should exist! But I'm not backing.
I'm not sure what that says, probably that the game isn't something they'd play themselves.

If it remains that way I guess the conclusion is that sometimes you simply have to make games on ideology alone if you want them to exist. But I'll be sure to do a short postmortem once the campaign is done.

Jay Anne
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I do not believe marketing is simple enough to reduce the variables to just "how good a product is" or "how accurate the marketing is". In most creative endeavors, perception is often a huge factor in actual enjoyment. If you gave a person the same exact wine poured into two separate glasses, but you told them that the first glass was a cheap box wine and the second was an award winning vintage, there's a good chance that not only would they claim to taste a difference, they may actually genuinely enjoy the fake award-winning wine a lot more. This goes as far as to resemble medicinal placebos. This happens with many creative subjective consumable things: music, movies, food, literature. Perception and societal judgement is a large component of enjoyment, and marketing alone can actually start to change the nature of how your customers interact with your product.

And that's just one of the many ways marketing can make the variables hazy. Another is the way that products can become more than just an object or a tool or a consumable. They can become parts of your identity. In theory, a pair of headphones is chosen for its sound quality, build quality, comfort, and price. In practice, a pair of headphones can be chosen for what it symbolizes and communicates to others, such as your taste in music, your cultural values, etc. This is what drives lifestyle marketing, which can look very silly to a cynical person, but is a very real part of what customers enjoy about products. I don't think a creator who thinks about every aspect of their product should ignore this.

Sjors Jansen
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Hi Jay, thanks for the comment.
I didn't want to give the impression that marketing did not add things to the impression of a product, or game in this case. It definitely does, exactly as you say.

But we're not the things we own. At least I hope that's not how people feel. It's what marketing tends to try for, and it's great if products actually resonate with consumers on a deeper level. But that's up to the game.
If they resonate with the marketing presentation instead, the culture around it and the expectations of it more than the substance. Then it's likely they'll get disappointed.
You can build these marketing lifestyle culture things around toilet paper or mousemats or whatever. The point I was trying to make is that, as a creator, I'd rather see people happy through playing my game, instead of the air I wrapped it in and then be disappointed.
There's been a lot of disappointment lately.

Perhaps interesting:
There's a wine maker who won many prizes for his wine, and he did some small tests among the tasters to show that even the very best wine tasters are inconsistent in what a good wine is.
http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2013/jun/23/wine-tasting-
junk-science-analysis?mobile-redirect=false

Jay Anne
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Good points!

Michael Joseph
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A big driver of game development right now is culture... specifically a culture of making money. This culture has fully invaded (in record time) the indie space as well. "Invaded" may not be a fair description. I use it only to point out there's a difference between artists creating the works they feel compelled to create, and the flood of developers who are just out there to seek the favor of the god Plutus. Permeated or infected might be better. Hopefully indie virtue can resist total consumption.

p.s. Darren Aronofsky's "Noah" is worth seeing.

Sjors Jansen
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That's true, (warpdoor.com is a good place for these free natured games by the way).
I go to a monthly 8 hour game jam, and a lot of designs are the same ideas. Endless runners, cookie clickers, flappy birds. They're easy to make, and the lure to make money with them is really great.
The article I mentioned in the update above describes a pretty clear-cut hard-to-resist method of gaining revenue. But if those youtube bloggers (that I currently like as a consumer for instance) were to go into those practices, I'd very likely stop watching. And it would remove the effectiveness of let's plays and such.

I will check out Noah when I have time, I've seen his other non-short films. Always interesting.

Mikail Yazbeck
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Thanks for writing this. Looking forward to your animal game, I'm a huge animal lover!


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