Back in the seventies when the two dimensional monotony of Pong was the height of video game technology, who could possibly have imagined how far the computer games industry would come?
As a marker, take new game Saints Row 2, which, upon first glance at its ad campaign, could easily be mistaken for the next instalment of the Die Hard films series. The bold TV advert, featuring brash in-game scenes of vividly rendered explosions and crashes shares more in common with a Hollywood blockbuster than it ever could with Pacman.
Such is the popularity of video games that the sector was valued at £2.5bn last year, its growth fuelled by a broadening demographic of consumers eagerly snapping up the next generation of games and hardware; the Nintendo Wii console, with its widely-targeted products such as Wii Fit affording it an everyman (woman and child) appeal, is the market leader in the UK with 3.6m units in homes since its launch at the end of 2006.
upping the ante
As the quality and quantity of games released has increased markedly, the publishers behind these titles have had to up the ante in terms of their marketing.
Uber’s managing director, Richard Benjamin, insists it is no longer enough for a publisher to simply create a good game – although they’ll be damned by the huge and vociferous online gaming community if their title isn’t up to scratch – but they have to generate hype and demand as well.
“With word-of-mouth being stronger than ever due to blogs, online reviews and more mainstream press coverage, publishers cannot afford to put out a sub-standard product,” he reasons. “Saying that, consumers only have so much disposable income and the quality of titles is not only better than ever but there is more product than ever. This is where we step in. The hype and demand for a title has to be at such a level that a title becomes ‘must have’.”
Benjamin believes video games have become more marketable because – thanks to improving technology – they now have a depth and artistic value on a par with the best movies. “This has lifted the games industry up to a level whereby high-end marketing is necessary to reflect its new status. Many game releases now have marketing campaigns and TV ads at similar levels to the latest summer film blockbuster,” he notes.
Video games are certainly taking a higher profile on our TV screens with bigger, bolder and ultimately better adverts than ever before.
“For me it all started when PlayStation and XBox started to do advertising that didn’t include anything about the games themselves and it was more about the lifestyle and the entertainment factor these products bring to peoples lives,” says Richard Scott, director of Axis Animation. “These commercials stood out. They were daring and exciting and they appealed to the new games buyer who were kids in the early days of the games market but now they are adults and they still play games. It was at that point that things changed for the promotion of video games.”
In a market so competitive though – and a financial climate so precarious – such big budget commercials seem risky for all but the biggest new games releases. But with such demand, is the gaming market recession proof?
Dan Kirby, founder and CEO of DKPM, says that games is a marketing driven industry, “People will just become smarter about how they spend their money.
However, he adds: “There are winners and losers in any recession – and games looks like it may be one of the winners. Why take the family out for an expensive meal, when you can eat in and have a load of fun on the Wii?”
And Uber’s Benjamin agrees: “The gaming market is proving to be surprisingly resilient and pretty impervious to the current climate. People may be cutting back on large investments such as houses, cars and holidays but home entertainment is maybe seen as a tonic to getting through the tough times.”
Still, says Axis’ Scott, it is imperative that games publishers embrace new ways of communicating with their intended audience, and he insists virals and online trailers are ‘hugely important’.
“The important factor in all of this is that the average video game player is a big user of new technologies and new ways of communicating and the publishers have really been able to grab a hold of that. Specialist online games sites and portals give the publishers the opportunity to promote their titles for smaller media costs than would be possible with traditional advertising. This allows them to put the majority of their budget into the production of these materials rather than buying media to distribute them.”
Online distribution means that even if your game doesn’t necessarily have the marketing budget of a blockbuster movie you can still produce a captivating piece of advertising or marketing that potentially reaches huge numbers of people, continues Scott. “Virals and trailers are hugely important for differentiation and stand out. They also provoke comment and feedback and many of the publishers I speak to love that part of it, they can go straight into the games specific portals and forums and read the comments from the consumer long before the product is going to hit the shelves and this just adds to what is long existing community approach to the development of titles.”
“The best way games publishers can create standout is to centre their ideas around a substantive point of difference and communicate it intrusively to a largely indifferent/hostile market,” comments Duncan Slater, MD of Origin.
“It’s easy to know what the task is – communicating it is a different kettle of fish. Generating hype will get you only so far if what you hype bears no relation to the game experience the audience will not only turn off, they’ll turn against you via online forums and sales.
“The games industry has always sought out new channels of communication as a way to intrude into the consciousness of a tough media-literate audience – but, do the channels work? and are they carrying a good idea? – it is not the medium but the message that triumphs. Of course, virals are a great way to punch above your weight financially because the distribution is left up to the consumer. There is an obvious catch here though – they’ll only distribute a good idea.”
DKPM’s Kirby, agrees that online has become a key target area for promoting games. He tempers, however, that with the right approach, marketers can build a real relationship with their user base “in ways that are more dynamic than simple banner ads, email and virals.”
While launching Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare – which was one of the biggest selling games of 2007 – DKPM ran a BETA Programme where gamers were able to access and play advance game code. “100,000 unique consumer codes were made available via key retail and promotional partners, which were then redeemed on a dedicated registration website,” Kirby explains. “Once registered, fans got to play the BETA version of the game for Xbox 360 online through Xbox LIVE.
Massive uptake saw tens of thousands of new opt-in registrants within a few hours of launch, with a dedicated hosting package allowing the site to process upwards of 25,000 unique visitors per day.”
This kind of marketing struck a chord because it actually allowed fans of the series to play the much coveted new game before it hit the shelves. Hype and demand, you might say.