For those of us who have been greedily feeding from the trough of games marketing these past few decades, change is a difficult thing to swallow.
As a games journalist working for the larger consumer magazine and enthusiast website producers, almost all my income since the 1980s (something in the region of a million dollars) has come either from people buying games magazines or, via marketing and advertising budgets, from people buying games.
But the systems that have kept me and my kind in ale and pizza these past 20 years are rapidly breaking down. The machine is about to stop.
Today and in the weeks ahead, I’m going to try to examine the forces that are exerting the most destruction on the status quo, and how imaginative, smart, bold marketers can grasp new, inexpensive, effective ways of reaching consumers.
1. The End of Print
Aside from retail marketing spend, specialist games magazines have traditionally been the de facto resource for games marketers. No longer. I find it extremely difficult to imagine a world, five years from now, in which printed consumer games magazines are allowed to survive. Apart from one or two high-priced, coffee-table, artsy books, what on earth would be the point of these things?
Maybe you like magazines and newspapers. But for a new generation of consumers, they are expensive, clumsy, slow and obsolete.
Try to think of a genuine creative advance in the world of video games magazines in the last decade. Compare this howling void with the joyful, colourful chaos of online’s rise.
The magazine market is a moribund sector dedicated to managed withdrawal; to extracting whatever revenues are left, in the most orderly fashion possible. Inevitably, the retreat will turn into a rout as a tipping point is reached. I expect ugly scenes in the next two to three years, as managers frantically make their way to the rooftops, trampling staff writers underfoot, desperate to catch the last chopper out. They don’t want to be eaten alive.
Most publishing organisations have attempted to move their content operations online, with varying degrees of success.
Generally, companies that have been bold, invested correctly and stuck to clear agendas, have made a pretty good fist of it. Think of News International or The Economist.
Those that have been slow, or have displayed sluggish, confused leadership or have focused on protecting diminishing revenue streams have fallen behind. Unfortunately, the latter description covers almost every magazine and newspaper publisher in the world, not just those operating in the games industry.
For almost a decade, the mag publishers have been left standing by those dedicated online outfits that could operate without the drag of protecting their print operations.
For the likes of IGN and Gamespot, the question was always how to create audience and monetize that audience. For Old Print, the question has been more like, ‘how can we save our asses here’.
Old Print has amassed vast bureaucracies dependent on predictable revenue streams. The bureaucrats have been the decision-makers struggling to control change. Their focus has been on sustaining the unsustainable. This is why they are so profoundly screwed. The choppers will pass them by. They will all be devoured by gleeful zombies.
2. Online Distribution of Games
My favourite games machine right now is my iPhone. The three games I’ve played the most this year have been Rolando, FlightControl and Drop7.
I found out about all three via iTunes or from social media; blogs, Twitter, Facebook. Not one of the recommendations came from some third-party dude being paid to communicate with me; some fellow I had paid, via a magazine subscription, for their pearls of advice.
iPhone games, like all games of the near-future, are distributed digitally. There is no iPhone games magazine nor, so far as I know, any commercial websites making vast profits from iPhone game advertising.
If you are a games marketer, the A1 marketing destination of the near future is the same as the one you’re used to. It’s Point of Sale. But instead of being reamed by retailers to place a few posters, you have access to an incredibly sophisticated digital distribution network, like Xbox Live or Steam or iTunes (all of which will probably find a way to ream you instead).
But leaving cynicism aside for a moment, there is no doubt that digital distribution is the marketer’s forum of choice. I recently did not buy Halo Wars or RE5 because I did not enjoy the demos. But I did spend maybe an hour playing the demos, all told. That’s a long time to spend with what is, essentially, an ad. And many of the people who played those demos bought the games and were very happy with their purchase.
For digital products, digital distribution is light years ahead of bricks and mortar.
But games marketing is never going to be a simple matter of posting up a demo and hoping the folks back home have a great time. Marketing and propaganda are art. And there is a whole new movement emerging, based not on established media institutions – on tawdry transactions of cash for audience-access – but on a direct relationship between the vendor and the consumer. It’s going to be incredibly challenging. When you get it right, it’s going to be beautiful.
3. Social Media
Booking ads was for the Others – neanderthals and savages who came before you. It was a matter of indexes and rate-cards and blah-de-blah. Any fool could do it.
But you, dear marketer of the brave new world, are an artist. You have been given an opportunity to create whatever picture you like, dealing directly with the consumer.
It’s a terrifying thought, to abandon so many of those carefully learned professional practices. To move away from the comfort of stats and matrices, into nebulous galaxies of pure ideas and unadulterated honest-to-goodness communication.
The bad news is that we don’t live in the world of Mad Men any more (shamefully, I often wish that we did.) Advertising and marketing is no longer sexy to consumers. It’s dishonest and grubby. Interruption advertising, corporation messaging, slogans, they’re not going to die any time soon. But they remain among us, despised and, insofar as it’s possible, ignored.
Let me put it this way. Do you feel convinced by pretty pictures of products, juxtaposed with some snazzy, carefully wrought piece of prose? Or do you feel that the whole shebang is for suckers?
That’s how your consumer – young, smart, cynical – feels about that ad campaign you just spent six months working up. Sure, some of this stuff resonates – some of it is good enough to be called entertainment – but most of it is just noise. The sales are coming because your product was good, because consumers told each other how damned good it was. All that marketing was just support.
And you know what? If the product had been
sub-par, no marketing in the world would have changed a damned thing.
The consumers just know. Your marketing isn’t convincing anyone, at least not anyone who matters. Count the number of truly shit games that manage to sell well these days. Compare that with the awfulness of many hit games in the golden age of interruptive games marketing.
Substance counts. So how do you communicate directly with consumers without making a complete – ‘all I want for Christmas is a PSP’ – arse of yourself?
There are a number of books I’d recommend. Marketing to the Social Web (Larry Weber) Connected Marketing (Kirby and Marsden) and The New Rules of Marketing and PR (Meerman Scott) all cover the subject admirably.
Their basic message is to think like a journalist; to communicate honestly, clearly and often to your audience, and to rely on the
proselytism of ideas, rather than the number of hits you achieve.
I think it’s brilliant, this idea that none of us, whether we’re EA or just some random guy, needs to funnel our message through anything more complex than a TypePad blog, in order to reach other people. We don’t have to pay to access other people’s audiences. We can create our own.
I’m not saying anything new; of course I realize that. But it’s amazing to me how few people – including those who would most benefit from this stuff – are taking advantage of it.
I get quite Year Zero and Collectivized about this revolution; my eyes shine and my locks wave in the breeze as I stare happily into the blue skies of our future together; Shostakovich blares.
But for now I want to bring all this to down to the actual reality of direct communication with consumers. Because I believe most people are doing it all wrong, and so are wasting way too much of their precious resources on paying to access pre-established audiences that belong to publishing entities that over-charge for their services.
This is why people like Major Nelson are way more effective as journalists (in the truest sense of that ghastly word) than anyone currently working for a games magazine or website. He is talking directly to consumers via his blog, and establishing that he’s a decent guy trying to do a decent job at a decent company.
OK. If you’re standing in a game store deciding between a Konami game and a Microsoft game, the decent-ness of Major Nelson isn’t going to be a huge factor in your purchasing decision. But don’t try to tell me that it isn’t a factor at all. If you believe that, you don’t understand people, and therefore you can’t ever understand marketing.
The games magazines and Big Media are on their way out. Their replacement? It’s Major Nelson, and it’s me and, dear comrade, it’s you.