The other day, I was asked what would have changed if Leonardo da Vinci had a marketing and PR team. Would his creations be different somehow? While he had to deal with prudish patrons and politics, I’m pretty sure that no one came up to him saying, “Our focus group shows that the Vitruvian Man would be more accessible if his gizmo was covered up.” The big question is, “What’s the role of the marketer during the phases of game production?” It’s generally agreed that marketing and PR, when integrated into each level of the development, can be beneficial to the game, the audience and the bottom line. However, disagreement arises when it comes to the details of that role and the level of influence the marketer should have during development.
Production and Marketing
As someone who believes videogames are a form of artistic expression, I believe the vision of the group of creative directors, producers and developers should remain a central focus in the production of the game. The marketer’s job at that point is to understand the aspects of the game, identify the intended audiences, and start listening to them. During the development phases of the game, the marketer needs to capture the needs and desires of the community and communicate those to the development team. The marketer must also disseminate to the community, in a timely fashion, media and information in the forms of dev diaries, concept art and teasers.
Marketers understand that their success is defined primarily by units sold. With that in mind, if the marketer is given too much influence on the direction of the game design and development, there’s a higher potential that the game could drift from the original vision. Too much reliance on focus groups, past successful trends, over-generalization of target audiences and bad assumptions can dilute the vision and create a game that becomes less than the sum of its features. During an interview I had with Paul Bellezza, CEO of The Odd Gentlemen, creators of The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom, he described pitching the idea of a grumpy old pie-thief to a potential publisher. That unnamed publisher was in love with the idea, but suggested that based on market research, he should change the crotchety old man into a heavily armed marine, from space.
Once the vision is set and the game is in development, the marketer needs to generate awareness. Content need to be created, the enthusiast media needs to be pursued, and communities need to be built and engaged. As internal milestones are met, the marketer needs to work closely with the development and PR teams to determine what information and media can be shared. Of that shareable media, marketers identify elements that resonate with the needs of the community and will create the most excitement and distribution potential. As development and production schedules are defined, so is the media release schedule. Resembling an exponential graph where information and media assets ramp up closer to launch, this schedule solidifies the times when advertisements are purchased and retail partners are established.
If the product is right, the engagement and media dissemination can be scaled to the available budget. If the product is a steaming pile of shovelware, few things other than the force of the budget can propel it to success. Last week, indie game developer Stew Hogarth and Gamesbrief founder Nicholas Lovell started talking, first on Twitter and then on the blogs, about the concept of the product, the marketing, and the advertising of videogames. Hogarth argued, if you had no budget for marketing and PR, the product had to be right. Lovell, someone who I truly respect, responded to Hogarth’s blog on Gamasutra calling him out on a fundamental disagreement.
Stew Hogarth was right about the product being the marketing, “You can only shovel a shit product to people if you have lots of money behind it.” However, as is the case with all too many games, if your marketing budget is minimal, the game itself becomes the marketing and it’s up to the marketer to create the narrative that communicates the value of the game, regardless of the budget. Consider Minecraft, which emerged as a labor of love and is now making enough money to finance an entirely new studio nearly three months after its release. In this case, the product marketed itself through encouraging gamers to create, modify and share it through word of mouth and social networks. It was the right product for the right audience and, despite little to no budget, Minecraft exploded in popularity and sales.
Marketing is about Value, Communication and Execution
Lovell quotes The Chartered Institute of Marketing definition of marketing as, “The management process responsible for identifying, anticipating and satisfying customer requirements profitably.” This definition is only half right. It ignores, among other things, the very next point Lovell makes, which quotes Jesse Schell’s Art of Game Design: “The most important skill for a game designer is listening.” I have no quarrel with that, but in a post where he’s talking about the importance of marketing, he’s singling out just one aspect of marketing and not giving due credit to the myriad of other tasks essential in marketing. While listening is essential, it’s just one part of the entire marketing skill-set.
The problem is, while some of the methods are similar, the goals of the designer and marketer are different. The goal of the designer is to use the marketing to create a product that provides value to the gamer. The goal of the marketer is to use the created product to communicate that value to the right audience and convince them to part with their money. Lovell’s most important claim was, “Marketing IS product development. Marketing IS creativity. Marketing IS a vital skill for every game maker. Whether they like it or not”.
This is like saying “The engine is the car, The engine is the aerodynamics. The engine is a vital part of every automobile.” If I were to draw a Venn diagram of marketing and product development and creativity, the overlap would be significant. Yes, marketing is a part of product development, marketing is a huge part of creativity, and, yes, marketing is a skill vital for every game maker. Yet, it’s the goals of each skill that make them separate. That difference alone contradicts the idea that marketing and product development are the same thing.
Advertising as a Subset of Marketing
I generally classify advertising as any form of media that presents the consumer with a clear “call to action.” Simply put, the call to action is the button that says, “Click here.” It’s the voiceover telling the consumer, “Call now,” and it’s the banner ad that tells you, “Come Play, My Lord.” The purpose of media like teasers, trailers and screenshots is to generate excitement and buzz. While I hate piling critiques on a person who I admire, Nicholas Lovell states in his article, “I mean any muppet could spend $1 million on some TV ads, a few magazine spreads and the usual web suspects like Eurogamer and IGN right.”
Could that Muppet research the demographics and purchasing behaviors of the audiences of those selected networks? Could that hunk of singing felt create an online campaign tightly geo-targeted to population statistics and accurately distribute the media budget to the areas that have high concentrations of likely purchasers? It’s doubtful. While I understand the tendency to view spending the marketing budget on advertisements about as accurate as a monkey with a machine gun. While, that monkey will hit the target every once in a while, modern digital media has become so accurate with targeting and reporting, I’d be able to tell you if the ad, “Buy Now!” performs better than the ad “Buy NOW!” (For the record, “Buy Now!” works better, apparently people think the “Buy NOW!” ad’s yelling at them for some reason).
Now that I’ve essentially unloaded on an unsuspecting Nicholas Lovell, I think both he and Stew were mostly right. Integrating marketing during each phase of the game development process can lead to a better game, a clearer message of value to the community, an excellent reception upon sales day, and of course, higher profits. My disagreement was primarily to clarify some of the common fallacies that I’ve tried to address during my career as a marketer. Where do you draw those lines between marketing and development? Are those lines clearly delineated or are they merely fuzzy interactions of overlapping skills?
I call it “making sausage” because when the marketing, product and development teams start the process of balancing the different goals of each team, often, it’s not a smooth process. The creative vision can be compromised with too much reliance on focus group information. The game could be a product of pure creativity and passion and yet have no audience. Technological constraints like game balance and level design can put artificial restrictions on the vision and limit what the marketer can reveal. When the smoke clears and the people are picking shrapnel out of their skin, the vision of the game, balanced with technology and marketing can produce amazing works of art. When they’re out of balance, the game suffers.