Retail naysayers would have you believe the good ship ‘boxed product’ is sinking, and salvation lies in the new world of digital games.
But this strange land has perils of its own. It is a realm of different rules and unfamiliar seasons, where developers become publishers and publishers become retailers.
Companies can take solace in the knowledge that – whether releasing their titles on console, PC or smartphones – not everything about the digital space is foreign.
“We try to treat our download titles in just the same manner as a retail boxed copy,” says Team 17’s communications manager Nick Clarkson. “Then we factor in the fast-paced and dynamic nature of digital publishing. The result is a long campaign followed by an extended tail through DLC and promotions.”
Long-tail marketing plans are essential if firms want to harness digital’s unique sales trends.
While retail sales plummet after a week or two, downloads can peak and trough at any time and slow-burn successes are commonplace.
The iPad chart, for example, is often populated by apps that have seen second or third-week surges in popularity, usually driven by word of mouth.
A new IP like current iPhone hit Draw Something is as much a testament to this as a long-running brand like Team 17’s own properties.
“Worms games traditionally have an exceptionally long tail,” says Clarkson. “Week one sales usually account for around 10 per cent of lifetime revenue for a digital Worms game. And carefully planned marketing can extend its lifecycle.”
THE FIRST BYTE
However, as with any retail product, early adopters are vital to kickstarting sales momentum and publishers must support the initial launch.
“We focus on a game’s release but we need also some campaigns for all post-launch promotion or additional content,” says Thomas Paincon, Ubisoft’s digital publishing manager for EMEA.
“Day one, first week and first month sales are crucial. The long tail effect is only valid if you raise first week and month sales to the highest level.”
It’s a strategy that works. Ubi’s XBLA, PSN and PC?god sim From Dust has sold more than 500,000 units since July, and the publisher reports recent XBLA?release I Am Alive is on course to match this.
Choosing the right time to release a game is also important. While the digital marketplace is less affected by the seasonal patterns that steer retail, High Street sales trends still have an affect on ambitious download blockbusters – particularly on console.
“January to September are the best months to release downloadable games because the triple-A titles released over the Christmas period prevent us from being visible in players’ mind,” explains Paincon.
“That is not the right period for consumers to try original games. They want to focus on triple-A games – whereas during quieter periods, it is easier to convince players to test and buy new titles.”
Clarkson concurs: “Weekly sales remain pretty level and consistent throughout the year regardless of seasonal variation. Spikes in sales can be directly traced to promotional activity, either actioned directly by ourselves or as part of an online store’s strategy.”
As with any product release, aggressive and clever marketing is crucial. Competition in the download space is increasing all the time – especially on the already packed PC scene – making it even harder to stand out in online marketplaces than it is on shelves.
Even established players must go the extra mile to maintain their success. Rovio is treating the launch of Angry Birds Space like a Hollywood blockbuster, even teaming up with NASA to promote the game.
Many digital publishers say that websites and social networks are more efficient at targeting their audience than the highly sought ad space available in print and on TV.
Paincon observes that consumer attitudes to new releases are also different, requiring new approaches to advertising: “Downloadable games are seen more as impulse buying – like candies near the cashier store.
“So advertising at the point of sale [Xbox Live Marketplace, PlayStation Store, Steam] is just compulsory. The goal of the advertising is mostly to drive players to know about the brand and the availability of your titles but also to push them to try the demo.”
Clarkson adds that developers need to “adopt a publisher’s mentality” in order to promote their game effectively – and that means targeting the most relevant medium.
“While there is an argument that print media is the bastion of core gamers, I believe online is by far the most effective vehicle for reaching consumers, especially when you consider its global nature,” he says.
“The agility and ability to respond to stories and communications in such a fast manner makes both online and social media ideal channels for Team 17.”
Paincon agrees: “Online campaigns enable us also to monitor performance metrics and be more efficient in terms of ROI.
“We also favour cross-promotion tools such as the Branded Experience Destination tool on XBLA that enable us to communicate one game but also tease our next titles or reinforce titles that have already launched.”
There are also other techniques that don’t fit into the traditional sense of marketing.
Press coverage is still important. Rave reviews propelled indie PC hit Dear Esther into the Top 10 on Steam. Meanwhile, early previews of Alan Wake’s American Nightmare are calling out to lapsed fans.
Releasing a demo can help build anticipation for an upcoming digital game. These are particularly well received in the console space where consumer attentions are more divided between boxed and digital.
“A demo is crucial because on downloadable games you can test the titles in advance,” says Paincon. “From Dust was a best practice in terms of demo. The demo doesn’t need to be a tutorial but should offer a taste of the whole game experience in five minutes.”
Securing a place in download charts is also a great way to raise the profile of both a new game and the company behind it. So it could be beneficial for firms to sign up to the various chart initiatives, such as the UKIE?PC?download chart.
Finally, the big thing publishers can do is team up with the platform holders. Whether that is doing a week of deals with Steam or taking part in Xbox Live’s Summer of Arcade promotion.
“Getting games included in first-party promotions helps,” says Paincon.
“And word of mouth is really crucial for post-launch sales. There is a lot of competition and the goal is to have a clear window for each launch. Support from first parties guarantees you some advertising and marketing support.”