While the industry talks big about games-as-a-service, player engagement metrics and a bright future for subscription services and even streaming, the day-today reality is still somewhat more prosaic.
To put it simply, if you want to make money from your game, the vast majority of titles are still being sold for an upfront price, whether that’s as a boxed copy or at digital retail. A huge proportion of those sales still come over the Christmas period but that doesn’t mean you have to release your game in the autumn in order to prosper.
Sold Out has built its reputation on doing boxed titles in an increasingly digital era, though the company is now managing digital releases as well. MCV met up with marketing director Sarah Hoeksma and sales director David Walker to get their take on managing the lifecycle of your title across the year.
“The important thing to remember is to always put yourself in the place of the retailer,” Walker tells us. “Whether that’s on a digital platform or at physical retail. Align yourself with their way of thinking and understand what their priorities are going to be.”
From the outside those priorities may look like simply building pre-order numbers for the very largest titles in the autumn admits Walker: “We’re hits-driven as an industry, so retailers’ focus will often be on the newest and biggest titles; they’re the main revenue drivers and those key titles will define their year.”
However, the sharp end of the year also has space for games targeting very different segments he adds: “The beauty of Christmas is that it’s not only the gamers who are spending, but the gift-buyers looking for something to wrap up and the new console owners looking to start their gaming library.”
In short the biggest blockbusters aren’t for everyone and many will buy multiple, contrasting titles over the period. Hoeksma provides some examples from Sold Out’s own line-up and explains that Christmas isn’t just about Q4 releases: “We’ve already released most of our 2018 titles and they’ve done very well, but we know there is still a lot of revenue to be made during the Christmas period. To maximise [that opportunity], we have to work out how to leverage our catalogue to make them stand out among the usual Christmas hits,” she adds. “For example, we’re conscious that many of our games released earlier in the year are perfect for families and gift-giving.”
Hoeksma talks up both the couch co-op fun of Team17’s Overcooked 2 and the big movie license of Frontier’s Jurassic World Evolution, aspects which aren’t on offer even from this year’s biggest hitters, such as Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 or Red Dead Redemption 2.
The company will also “keep focus” on Rebellion’s Strange Brigade through price promotion. “Gift-givers love value for money and a great deal, so it’s our job to work with retail partners to encourage both planned and impulse purchases,” Hoeksma explains.
And with canny placement the possibilities are huge: “There is every chance we will sell through more at Christmas than at release,” she predicts. “It’s about understanding the title and the audience. And that extends beyond boxed, even at Christmas. Take our new digital game Big Crown: Showdown, which is a pick-up-and-play four-player party brawler launching this December. It’s at a competitive price point and will be one of those party games greats perfect for this time of year.
“For us, this isn’t about chasing big pre-order numbers,” Hoeksma reiterates. “Instead, it’s about targeting the correct audience and anticipating impulse purchases from players looking for something fun they can easily pick up and play with family and friends online or on the sofa during the holiday period and beyond.”
The holiday season still dominates the sales year but getting the most out of your game at retail, be it physical or digital, is a year-round effort Walker continues.
“While Christmas is a busy time, it definitely isn’t the only time you need to actively manage the lifecycle of your game,” he warns. “Unlike some other companies, for us, lifecycle is often about maintaining a steady sales rhythm throughout the year. With the emphasis being on keeping stock in the chain at competitive prices rather than solely pushing Week One sales.
“It’s about having consistent sales over a longer period of time, as we see with the Escapists, Worms and Sniper Elite franchises,” he explains. “Helping your retail partners to understand your game and looking for opportunities to include your game in different areas or promotions is important to encouraging visibility both online and in-stores.”
He provides a rather timely example for us: “January is all about the sale-rail. Consumer-thinking changes rapidly after the holidays, so even if it’s a small reduction, making sure you’re included in that sale line-up can be important. The key mantra is ‘be visible’.”
And don’t get too focused on Christmas and the sales either, as there are plenty more opportunities throughout the year to push your game, says Walker. “There are always paydays, bank holidays, school holidays, international holidays, important world events like the World Cup, and even the weather to consider. Don’t focus on one area, it isn’t just about Black Friday.”
Black Friday was bound to come up sooner or later, as the increasingly internationally-followed US sales event has become somewhat of a blot on gaming’s sales roadmap. It was roundly criticised two years ago, as it was too close to comfort, coming just after the industry’s traditional early November release spree.
The big guns have shifted to avoid it now, and even smaller titles “should beware competing with consumers buying TVs, tablets and all sorts electronics as well as games,” Walker agrees.
Hoeksma sums things up with some advice: “Know your customer, know when and where they shop, know what motivates them and plug that into your lifecycle plan. You don’t have to be the biggest to box clever when it comes to selling physical and digital games. That’s how we’ve always operated at Sold Out. We create bespoke plans for every game and every retail partner to get the best visibility we can and make it work for everyone.”