June 20, 2018
Playing video games: the best or worst way to spend your time depending on who you talk to. Nevertheless, the industry has continued to grow, and generated $36 billion in revenue last year. Clearly they are doing something right, and doing it well. Video game marketing actually has many similar marketing techniques used for movies, but often go extra steps beyond just a simple trailer or facebook marketing campaign. Increasingly, gaming has also had a shift toward spectating. In fact it’s become so big that Google created an offshoot of YouTube called YouTube Gaming to compete with the online streaming platform, Twitch. These platforms build communities out of games, sometimes communities so large they have their own events dedicated to them (i.e. the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), BlizzCon, Minecon, etc.). So other than the obvious (for the love of the game) how do these companies keep people so invested in video games year after year? Let’s take a look at the marketing behind it to find out.
More often than not, the first interaction people have with a video game is watching the trailer. Like movie trailers (although generally a little longer) these range from about 2 - 5 minutes in length and tend to focus on the story, the gameplay, the game mechanics, or a combination of all three. One of these notable trailers is the “Starry Night” trailer for Halo 3 (credited as one of the marketing campaigns that brought gaming into mainstream media). It manages to not only tell a story, but also highlight the gameplay, and shows off new gameplay mechanics without breaking away from its narrative.
While this can be an expensive form of marketing, platforms like YouTube have allowed even small developers to highlight their talents and put video games on people’s wish lists by having a notable, well-executed trailer. Larger games will often have more than one trailer. The first typically highlighting the story, and the second or more (released generally a few months before the release date) showcasing the gameplay and mechanics (built-in game rules that define the way an interaction within the game works).
Alright, so a trailer doesn’t explicitly generate sales of the game, but video games (like movies) are often sold on the “hype” and community surrounding them. The more excitement surrounding a new release of a stunning game (either visually or gameplay-wise) the more initial sales the game can bring in. Anything after that relies on people enjoying a game and recommending it to others. Often, trailers are more used as a sort of branding tool to get the news out about the game itself and to build an audience interested in the game. Of course, this type of marketing can be challenging to track since this is a form of outbound marketing and relies upon statistics relating to people watching the trailer. This is where the next part comes in…
After a few months, the studio releases the gameplay demo that finally shows what the game is going to look like (roughly). This particular piece of marketing comes in many different forms. If the game is from a larger studio they might have this showcased as a “gameplay trailer” at some of the major gaming events like E3 or GamesCom. At these same events they could also have a playable demo of a section of the game. These demos in particular can drive hype and get people invested in buying the full game down the line. They also help in continuing to build on a game’s community by getting people to talk about the game online.
Short answer: it doesn’t, not directly. However, when a game is to completion usually bigger gaming studios offer people the option to pre-order their game for in-game bonuses. Essentially, people buy the game with the understanding they can be among the first to get a copy once the game is released and often also receive special rewards. This is also why gameplay demos can be incredibly important to a studio because if people respond negatively to the game, the press surrounding it can negatively impact sales once (or even before) a game is released. However, many studios use demos to do QA for what people are and aren’t enjoying about the game, so often it’s understood what is being played may not necessarily reflect the final version.
No longer can many online multiplayer games rely upon a game running smoothly at launch. There are just too many players to account for every little issue working well. Especially since servers could go down for a game at launch rendering (pun intended) the game unplayable. A notable example of this is the re-release of SimCity (2013) on PC which was down the day of its release, leaving many players frustrated and disappointed. To combat this (and often used as a marketing tool) games will offer free beta-testing of an incomplete game. Players of the beta get the chance to offer feedback to shape the game for its release and often receive unique in-game items for participating in the beta. A beta can also play a crucial part in a game’s development since it can shape a game’s community.
Multiplayer Betas are a great way for people to get hands-on with a product. It is understood that the beta version will have very close similarity to the final release of the game, typically only differing in performance optimization, and in-game balance changes. This hands-on experience (done right) can also bring in many more people if the beta-testers praise the game once they’ve tried it out. While online marketing can definitely boost a game’s sales performance it still relies heavily on people recommending that game to others, and a beta can be the perfect base to build a good foundation with consumers and continue to grow and shape a game’s community.
Of course, game developers also understand the importance of the less niche marketing like a solid and fresh social media presence, online advertising of video ads, search and social media marketing ads, and other modern advertising pieces. These can give the essential statistics most game developers need in order to understand if people are actually converting. Most of the niche efforts above contribute to the “hype” but it can be challenging to track actual sales from these efforts and trailers. That’s where these modern pieces come in. They can provide insights as to the best marketing platform that results in sales.
Ultimately, video games are about stunning visuals, interactive elements, and community building. Marketing efforts focused on those three elements are what allows good games to succeed, and can cause equally good games to fail if those elements aren’t handled well.
Because of the nature of the platform, the more chances people have to actually interact with and play the video game, the better. This contributes to building a community around a game and can help with the sales once the game is the complete, especially if there are more touch points with their consumers. Having a strong community for a game can ensure you maintain a fan base for any future content and can keep people playing a video game long after its release. This means more people engaging with marketing efforts and generating more revenue for a game to be completed. And at the end of the day that’s really what it’s all about: communication and engagement.