Marketing Panel: The experts talk about their changing approaches to game marketing

Making a great game isn’t enough. That’s the brutal truth of the games industry today. Yes, some incredible games have come out of the leftfield, borne up on a wave of grassroots community sentiment, but those games are the exceptions, not the rule, and if you’re looking to make more games in the future then you should probably have a better plan for your current project.

And for those grizzled veterans of the launch cycle, who diligently spend their allotted budgets every year, there’s always something new to consider: a new platform, a new approach. Marketing is fluid and reactive, it looks to find traction in niche enthusiasm and popular culture alike. And the last 15 months have blown apart everything we know about, well, everything. So maybe it’s time for a rethink in your marketing as well.

To that end we’ve got together three experienced games marketers (left to right): Korina Abbott, director and video game marketing consultant at Neonhive; Dan Thomas, head of games services at Etch; and Drew Townley, CEO at Kairos Media.

STAND BY ME

Dan Thomas, head of games services at Etch

Discoverability is undoubtedly an overused term in the industry, but the sheer wealth of content has made it harder for players to find the best content for them. So games now need to not just reach players but also clearly communicate their strengths when they do.

“There is of course, no silver bullet for standing out,” Etch’s Thomas tells us. “As a wise publishing director recently said to me ‘be surprised by success, not by failure’ which although intimidating, is accurate and should be viewed not as a justification to not bother but as an invitation to experiment bravely and frequently.”

Experimenting is first on Townleys mind too: “Creative ideas!” he replies immediately when asked how clients should try and stand out. “Too often we fall back on the same old tried and tested methods of paid, some OOH, some small influencer activity or gifting strategy. It’s simply a case of creative activations, if done right, will separate you from the crowd and give some better ROI. Use of authentic talent in a way that feels natural is a great first step, but should ideally be part of a bigger play,” says the influencer marketing expert.

Neonhive’s Abbott talks up a flexible approach, and one aware of the particular space. “Every project is unique so for some it may be as simple as revising the positioning and ensuring the branding is super strong before we put it out there. For others, there may be huge competitors that we can learn and borrow from. We’re always looking at improving best practices, because this is a fast moving industry.

“While two of the services we offer are press and influencer outreach, which by their very nature are about using our relationships to bring our games to the attention of people who like those types of games, and who can then surface them to a wider relevant audience. Particularly with influencers, we take great care to match the right game with the right creator. The other way we help our client’s games stand out is to work with first parties to secure vital on-store features and events to drive wishlists, pre-orders and sales,” continues the director of the games-focused agency.

Etch’s Thomas speaks directly to developers when describing how players first see their games: “Remember, the first impression a player will have of your game is not the obsessively crafted cinematic opening level of the game that has been meticulously planned, written, tested and perfected. It is the trailer you drop at a big event, the witty banter retweeted on social media, the steam store page they end up on because a friend was playing and they got curious,” or to put it another way, if those marketing elements aren’t communicating your game’s strength, your opening level isn’t getting seen.

“To increase your chances of success, you should surface early indicators as to what might resonate with your audience, test potential touchpoints and refine them continually. You do not need to wait for your game to launch in order to learn which aspects of your game attract attention. A solid trailer is a good starting point, but think about what comes next. What can you do to capitalise on and retain attention to build momentum between announce and launch?

“Too often, we see great reveals followed by months or years of silence which could be filled with micro experiences to keep the audience engaged and invested,” Thomas suggests.

ATTACK VECTORS

Korina Abbott, director and video game marketing consultant at Neonhive

Korina Abbott, director and video game marketing consultant at Neonhive

Not being marketing experts ourselves, among our first thoughts when it comes to investing in marketing is what platform will give the best bang for my buck, the best ROI. Of course, there’s no simple answer to that one, our experts agree.

Neonhive’s Abbot at least informs us we’re not alone in our simplistic approach: “We get asked the question of how best to use marketing budget from many clients. There is no set answer – each budget, game, platform, launch window and developer or publisher is different – so the best platform for ROI can change wildly from campaign to campaign.

That said, she is willing to posit a couple of options: “Overall we are seeing great returns on Reddit and Facebook ad spend across the board, and social remains the most cost-effective awareness driver. But if we had a tiny budget the one thing we’d always prioritise is an eye-catching gameplay trailer. Every time.

“For console launches, it is vital to get the support and buy-in of the first parties to ensure visibility on the stores – this is always the most cost-effective and important part of any console launch as visibility and discoverability is a huge issue for the types of games we work on. Clearly this has been a hot topic recently,” she notes in reference to a number of indie publishers speaking out against PlayStation’s account management of ‘smaller’ titles and promotions for them on the PlayStation Store.

Etch’s Thomas starts on similar lines. “It’s a frustrating answer, but ‘it depends’ is always the case in terms of getting the best bang for buck. Experimentation is key and you need to find out what works for your game. Every game is different and what succeeds online is always changing. Cast a wide net early on, and then narrow your focus based on data and results.

“Paid media has a bad reputation but can be extremely valuable, offering robust ROI metrics and powerful targeting. We have seen good results from Reddit ads for some titles and TikTok is performing well for organic and paid at the moment.

“Alongside any paid or creative campaign strategy, a robust community plan is also key for ensuring engagement and longer-term buy-in from audiences. It can take a lot of time, effort and resources, but through broad experimentation, keen data analysis and thorough community efforts it can be extremely rewarding.”

So, while we shouldn’t generalise, Reddit is certainly a stronger marketing option than you might think. Other, relative, newcomers to the marketing mix are the new short-form video platforms, as Kairos’ Townley explains.

“Organic reach was becoming increasingly difficult to scale through games marketing. With newer platforms offering extreme organic growth through new algorithms, it’s a massive opportunity. TikTok, Snapchat and YouTube shorts all offer this, for relatively small spends and high ROI. This wasn’t the case a year ago.”

Influencer marketing is an increasingly competitive space though. “Publishers and studios are getting more competitive with genre exclusivity and as we come up to triple-A crunch time in H2, we’ll see more #gamepartner social posts than ever before,” Townley notes. So if you’re in a crowded genre (and who isn’t) then be sure to get in early with key talent.

TIME EXTEND

Drew Townley, CEO at Kairos Media

Kairos’s Townley also tells us that the focus is on big moments over longer campaigns. “‘Sponsored content spend is moving to more organic/earned, with quick ‘headline’ wins rather than longer form engagement strategies to maintain a substantial community – whether due to investors or funding, timelines are being crunched more than ever.”

This is counter to the huge bonuses that come through community building, Townley continues: “it doesn’t matter how big a game gets, a dedicated community with positive sentiment will show long term benefits – a find and nurture program is a perfect execution of this.”

Neonhive’s Abbott is keen to impress that marketers simply need more time: “The primary issue we face as an agency is that developers simply do not give enough time to marketing – often approaching us less than two months before launch.

“Even with a team of eight, there are many opportunities and activities that we will simply not be able to provide as the lead times do not allow. This combined with the large numbers of game releases a year, it is vital that developers spend more time on marketing and hire additional help as soon as possible (minimum six months pre launch is the dream) to build awareness and interest.”

Thomas at Etch is thinking long-term too, and beyond the game itself, or even the traditional marketing cycle, something he calls “the extended experience.”

“Games are one of the most creative mediums we get to engage with as consumers. But that creativity is often, mistakenly, limited to the boundaries of a game’s source code, starting when we launch the game and ending when we close it. Why is this a mistake? Because our engagement with a game goes far beyond the times when you’re playing it.

“Our experience starts from the minute we first discover the existence of a game and extends into discourse long after we’ve put the controller down. Thinking about these additional points of engagement is what we call ‘the extended experience’ and offers the opportunity to bring the creativity of games to a *much* broader canvas. Every touchpoint you have with your audience is an opportunity to share some of the unique tone and feelings that your game evokes: Your game’s own unique, special DNA.

“The extended experience is not just an opportunity to improve your marketing and make it feel more cohesive, it’s also a chance to reward the community with content, merchandise and events that they will genuinely enjoy. Animated shorts (Overwatch), comics (Cyberpunk), books (Alien Isolation), podcasts , dev diaries, toys, music, community challenges and ARGs (No Man’s Sky) are just some of the ways to expose some part of your game’s DNA to your fans and to loads of would-be players. The extended experience encompasses everything, from things as simple as a character profile on a website, to a full-blown Netflix series, an audiobook prologue or even an in-universe game on a different platform such as mobile (Fallout Shelter).”

Neonhive’s Influencer Outreach playthrough campaign for the live action title ERICA

FEELING INCLUDED

A key issue that our group brought up was making campaigns more inclusive and diverse. The constant bugbear has long been the white/male cover star for a game that actually allows you to play as a myriad of different people outside of that description. And inclusivity goes well beyond just diverse representation of course.

“Because we work so closely with our clients, we are often having conversations about more than the marketing campaign,” begins Neonhive’s Abbott. “We could discuss content warnings, localisation, alternative controller options, as well as suggesting more colour-blind friendly overall branding, looking at the size and colour of text on a website, ensuring that trailers have subtitles, or simply by adding alt text to image heavy tweets. It can be the small things that make the biggest difference.

“With creators, we look outside of the normal bubble of creators, finding new and upcoming content creators so we can get them involved at an early stage, even if it’s just to have an email exchange and get some stats. One size absolutely doesn’t fit all, we treat creators with 10 watchers with as much importance as a creator with 100k watchers. We do our absolute best not to set a barrier to entry.”

It’s a sentiment that Kairos’s Townley also brings up: “Numbers alone aren’t enough (and shouldn’t be anymore) for selecting influencers/talent/amplifying partners. Campaigns at the top of the list should be looking at a diverse pool of talent that they can thread messaging through.

Most people out there aren’t being deliberately exclusive, offers Etch’s Thomas. “Very few people are aiming for a lack of diversity. What this tells us is that when you have an inclusivity problem, it’s often a result of default behaviours that you’re engaging in.

“In marketing, one of the best activities to root out these biases is to actively revisit your targeting norms – the attributes you’ve picked when determining who to aim your marketing energy at. Many well-meaning teams have a list of attributes which is simply too narrow, and often unnecessarily gated by gender, age or other factors which we know don’t really matter when you drill into the data.

“Instead, focus on interests and behaviours over demographics. Games are for everyone, and every year the stats support that. We’re increasingly seeing the marketing industry move away from the archaic ‘This is our game for boys aged 18-25’ and towards things like “This is a game for anyone who enjoys rich world building and competitive online play”.

Etch’s Metro timeline allows players to interactively delve deeper into the rich history of the Metro franchise, and contextualise the events of Metro Exodus

TAKING YOUR SHOT

In parting Abbott gave us a couple of newer areas to consider, one is getting onboard with a subscription service, rather than obligating the need for marketing, can be a great part of a more ‘traditional’ campaign.

“For console releases, landing day one on either Game Pass or PS+ offerings gives the much needed reach and financial stability to guarantee a game recouping on dev costs and potentially making a profit. These subscription models are offering new ways for developers to build playerbases and monetise,” she noted.

And another even more recent change is also to be applauded, Abbott says: “Steam has finally implemented UTM tracking which is extremely appreciated. Although UTMs are absolutely not new, having more nuanced insights and tracking for our PC launch campaigns has made measuring the impact of marketing activity a lot easier and a lot clearer.”

While Etch Thomas is very keen to return to idea of marketing as a creative extension to the games themselves:

“By thinking about every piece of the puzzle and how they fit together into this extended experience for players, we can start to think about marketing and communications not just as ‘something for the suits to handle’, but as an exciting part of a game’s creative process and an opportunity to invite players deeper into the worlds we create.

“There are hundreds of different potential moments that, if you’re lucky, will give you a fraction of attention from a potential new player. And if you don’t make that experience a considered one, it will still be a consequential one (for better or worse). With many players you only get that one shot.”

About Seth Barton

Seth Barton is the editor of MCV – which covers every aspect of the industry: development, publishing, marketing and much more. Before that Seth toiled in games retail at Electronics Boutique, studied film at university, published console and PC games for the BBC, and spent many years working in tech journalism. Living in South East London, he divides his little free time between board games, video games, beer and family. You can find him tweeting @sethbarton1.

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