It’s been a year like no other. In the face of the medical, social and economic crisis that is coronavirus, the games industry of course isn’t the world’s biggest concern. However, that economy isn’t going to stabilise itself and a lot of people have a lot of time on their hands, so launching that video game in 2020 still seems like the right thing to do.
Now, as an industry we’re fortunate to be a stay-at-home form of entertainment and one with a mature digital delivery system (sports and cinemas have it much worse). That said, events still make up a key beat in the marketing strategy of most sizeable new titles, so how best to adapt your approach to this virus-struck year?
We asked a handful of marketers how much impact the loss or postponement of GDC, Rezzed, E3 and Gamescom and many more will impact their plans and what can be done instead to replace that reach.
VP of global marketing Ben Payne, from Human Fall Flat and Bomber Crew publisher Curve Digital, sets out the scale of the problem for us: “Obviously events are a key part of our marketing mix across all our titles, be they new releases or catalogue titles with new content. It is the main opportunity to get our games in the hands of our fans and potential customers around the world. The removal of these events gives us a real challenge as to how we can do that between announcement and shipping date.”
Robbie Cooke, head of marketing and PR at Rebellion, paints a picture of what has been lost from E3 alone: “Every year we fill our press room with hundreds of press and influencers from all over the world, which we would otherwise rarely get access to. In years gone by we’ve had Sniper Elite 4, Zombie Army 4, Evil Genius 2 and more hosted live on the stages of Twitch, IGN, Gamespot, YouTube Gaming and more.
“This is crucial for an independent like us without the option of going it alone like EA and Xbox have. We also know that pound-for-pound, coverage at E3 is better value than almost all forms of advertising we do in terms of reach, so while it’s a big investment, it can be worth it.”
Of course a challenge can also be an opportunity as Sarah Hoeksma, marketing director at Sold Out, points out: “Whilst no one would have predicted the changes that have been forced upon us it is never a bad thing to have to consider new ideas and approaches. It might level the playing field for publishers & devs as these events can have major costs attached,” with even major being an understatement when it comes to the likes of E3.
And Steve Filby from Motion Twin, creator of Dead Cells, concurs: “For studios like us it would be an opportunity, if we had something in the pipeline, as the media hogs will all be running around waiting for the sky to fall and we can get some influencer time for a lot cheaper!”
Rebellion’s Cooke too ponders the benefits of an E3-less June in particular: “Media spend may get cheaper as announcements become more spread out. Depending on the project there might be a chance to own an entire news day, or week, by revealing a game away from the hubbub of E3. We know from previous experience that revealing a game around E3 has both advantages and drawbacks.”
Cooke gives a recent example: “Last year we announced the future of the Sniper Elite series in Spring and were happy with the traction we got away from the noise of May and June. Then we re-revealed Evil Genius 2 at the PC Gaming Show during E3 and it outperformed even the Sniper Elite announcement. We were delighted of course, but there was a trade-off: All those important eyeballs were on the conference livestream and not our own channels. So there’s a definite balance to be had depending on your objectives!”
Of course, the importance of events does vary depending on the title, launching a sequel is very different to launching a new franchise altogether in these scenarios.
“I’ve lost count of the number of times over the years I’ve heard colleagues, be they developers, publishers or platform partners saying “we just need to get this game in people’s hands for them to get it and drive sales’,” says Curve’s Payne. “The results are based on not only play sessions but also data capture, which allows follow up communication to drive customers into our digital stores.”
ONE DAY EVENTING
With the events off and everyone stuck at home, increased influencer spending looks to be the first port of call in this particular storm. But that doesn’t just have to mean spending more and more broadly.
“Influencers are already a significant area of focus for us as they are for everyone, but thinking how we can use influencers and other media outlets to distribute digital keys for our games to our fans is being looked at,” says Curve’s Payne.
“I think we have to be open-minded in how we move forward, and we look to our platform partners also to see what alternatives are available within their ecosystems. Open betas, demos and other ways of getting access to our games are being considered,”Payne continued.
Sold Out’s Hoeksma is thinking on similar lines: “We will look at ramping up how we work with influencers & PR outside of events; considering how we use demos and betas and what we need to do in terms of increased advertising to strengthen awareness.”
While Rebellion’s Cooke doesn’t think the lack of events will encourage fresh thinking: “I don’t think there will be any revolutionary new finds, but yes, that money can be invested elsewhere, whether in advertising, live digital events, greater outreach to content creators, greater investment in headline-driving PR assets, new staff and expertise… there’s a lot of potential to find some new wins, and learn some new lessons, actually.”
PAXING IT UP
The news cycle on coronavirus has moved so quickly, that even the cancellation of E3, something almost unthinkable in any normal year, was quickly relegated to yesterday’s news – though obviously it will be more keenly felt when June eventually rolls around.
“I think we can all readily admit the ‘gravity’ of E3 is a bit self-perpetuating – it’s all we’ve known for so long!” Says Cooke. “We enjoy it as gamers, we enjoy it as a place to meet industry friends and we love showing off new games to the community. For me it’s one of the most enjoyable parts of the job… though I will actually have my birthday with my family in the UK for once and not at the LACC!
“Being UK based, we’re going to need to re-think how we approach North America. It may make us think a little more creatively about how we give press, creators and players access to our games, or how we build communities without events or big third party support.”
Others are not so concerned by the fall of E3, but are eyeing other events with a worried eye.
“E3 was not really even something I was even bothered with as an indie until we started heading out for deal-making on the business side,” says Filby. “So it’s not really been a big deal for us. If they cancelled PAX, particularly PAX West, that would be of more concern to us, as we use those shows for community outreach.”
And it’s not just Motion Twin that feels PAX is the bigger problem: “We have been leaning into PAX more as a strong event for indie games and just had a really successful PAX East,” says Hoeksma. “E3 and Gamescom are great events to announce games at, so we will be looking at alternative ideas. That said we are well aware that the development of games can be unpredictable and schedules change so we are used to contingency planning.”
Of course the closure of so many events may not just affect those who utilised them.
“While everyone in our industry is affected by this, I just want to comment on the event agencies that support the games industry around the world. They are uniquely affected by this development and I hope that they are supported during this time in whatever way is possible and that the long term impact is minimised,” says Payne.
And Cooke concurs with thinking of the wider picture: “Really my heart goes out to the people delivering E3 and other events. The devs making demos, the events agencies, PR teams, freelancers, and everyone else.” Adding that in E3’s case, “the good news at least is that three months’ notice gives some of us a little room to think.”
While Hoeksma has found one silver lining: “I’ll miss catching up with everyone at these events but there is a little Greta inside of me that is happy not so many planes are taking off right now!”
It’s just one way in which the world may not return entirely to ‘normal’ after the trail of devastation left by COVID-19 recedes. And in some ways that may not be a bad thing, both for us as an industry and for us as a species.