With consumers cutting back on impulse purchasing, the games market suffered a tough time in 2009. But with a glut of big name releases ready for a seasonal launch – and a growing trend towards digital distribution – it is make-or-break time. But how best to target a notoriously fickle market?
With the last glimmer of summer now snuffed out by a blanket of cloud, the looming Christmas market is rapidly crystallising in the minds of retailers. With the video games industry being more seasonal than most the top publishers are already preparing big ticket launches for the all important date.But in a sector that is now saturated with multi-million pound releases, with marketing budgets that mirror the investment in game production, how are the studios focussing their efforts to target the discerning game-buying consumer?Whilst there is no substitute for good old fashioned gameplay many of the larger studios are looking to stack the odds in their favour by mimicking their Hollywood counterparts in the production of big budget cinematic trailers to trumpet their wares, most notably Microsoft with the launch of Halo:Reach.Richard Scott, Axis Animation’s MD, claims games marketing is maturing. “The great thing about games is they appeal to all of your senses and emotions in a deeper way than just a linear narrative, like a book or a film,” notes Scott, “marketing can tap into that emotional connection and investment.“The big AAA titles also compete with those same traditional media types for your money, so take on some similar approaches and a desire for high production values. The current Halo:Reach commercials are a great example of that - they are feature film quality.”Flipbook’s Ben Haworth adds: “With massive improvements to ‘in-game’ graphics, pre-rendered trailers are becoming less obviously the way to go. It’s not helped by the fact gamers don’t like to see graphics that aren’t game play… and are pretty vocal about it. Why create a pre-rendered sequence that looks almost real when a marketing trailer can be created using a live action and CGI mix for the same budget. This way it IS real, it never poses as graphics and is a perfect way to market the story behind the game. Halo:Reach has created a series of three live action movies in their campaign and recently Resistance 3 released a beautifully shot trailer to start building hype by showing the back story.”Capcom’s Dead Rising: Case Zero is cited as an example of a downloadable game which carries the same marketing impact as a TV ad. Available for 400 Microsoft points, the title has been downloaded half a million times in just two weeks. Eschewing the traditional demo it offers players an original adventure based on the full game in what is being seen as a precursor to episodic gaming. It has succeeded in raising consumer awareness of Dead Rising 2 more successfully than even a multi million pound TV ad. Capcom’s UK product manager Karl Reader said: “This style of digital distribution is a win-win scenario for all parties. Retailers will enjoy a surge of pre-orders that traditional campaigns only aspire to. Consumers enjoy six hours of gameplay for a low price.”Scott believes that the key to success is to instigate a two-way dialogue with consumers through grass roots communication and social networking alongside more traditional mediums such as trailers.It is a point shared by Headfirst’s Dom Conlon who told The Drum he believes that interaction is key to successful promotion with marketers, empowering gamers to ‘evangelise’ about the games they love by providing them with the right tools. “Above-the-line spends for the big games are common but often directed at the gamers you should interact with on a more personal basis, rather than at communicating a credible reason to purchase to a wider audience,” explained Conlon. “Listen to gamers, they may have a point. You can spend as much as you like but if the product is mediocre then sales will reflect that.”As Conlon suggests marketing is likely to count for nought if the game isn’t great to play, with no amount of glitzy advertising able to rescue a stinker, as Scott points out: “You can ruin your brand if the buzz you create is grossly exaggerated next to the actual gameplay experience. Fans have the power to very quickly uncover your buzz as BS.”Conlon develops this argument a stage further by asking “If your game is good would you need to ‘create’ buzz?”Joshua Goldstein is president of CPMStar, a US-based marketing network for online content formed in 2001 and acquired by GSN this year. He believes that for retail games, it is best to approach things with a hybrid marketing plan - one prong focusing on the vocal early-adopters on game review sites, and the other consisting of a broader campaign to drive mass awareness. “What works best? Getting your video trailer and key art in front of as many unique targeted users as possible, and getting the vocal early adopters to engage deeply with the product on your site. For online games, it’s a bit different because the marketing efforts don’t happen all at once, but rather over a period of years.”One game which won’t be getting extended playtime this December 25 is All Points Bulletin, the ill fated Real Time Worlds big budget flop. The Drum asked Conlon to sift through the wreckage to try and identify the point of failure. “The industry needs to investigate new development models which create games people want to play and which are not fiscally dependant upon a huge infrastructure. The App model, with all of its retro flexibility and responsiveness, seems to fit the bill at the moment.”In Conlon’s view the untimely demise of Realtime Worlds raises important questions which the wider industry needs to address: “Much of the games industry is built around a high cost development model. It’s like if the movie industry could only release Avatar sized movies but had to release 40 of them a year. The industry cannot sustain this ‘more of the same’ approach, especially as consumers are finding more of a buzz in smaller, more quirky games such as Angry Birds.”A major bone of contention for the games industry remains the new government’s cancellation of proposed tax relief. Some fear it will lead to greater outsourcing but Conlon believes the UK is competitive enough to weather the costs. “It will be difficult and we could see the larger publishers exploring development overseas but this is happening already as cost-cutting becomes tied to ideas of overheads. Ideas, however, are the real value in a game and those ideas cost just as much to produce anywhere in the world.”Not everyone is so optimistic, with Haworth adopting a more negative tone: “This is a huge industry with AAA games having budgets close to blockbuster movies, creating masses of jobs and revenue. It figures that without those breaks some companies will struggle, some will move to find other tax breaks.”However, looking to the future, Scott identifies digital distribution as the industry’s single biggest game changer although he remains doubtful that the boxed product will ever entirely disappear. “Look at LoveFilm, for example, they are battling to communicate to their customers that they are no longer just a DVD through the post company and that they distribute digitally – but getting customers to absorb that message isn’t as easy as they thought.”For his part Conlon is unequivocal, boxed PC gaming will die “quickly”, “it’s just a matter of someone pulling the last plug.”Conlon sees growth occurring in the development of portable gaming, notably tablets and smartphones. The development of motion and 3D gaming are also arenas which will be explored but they will live or die solely on their inherent potential – not marketing puff.Haworth is a 3D disciple, however, and sees the technology as a no brainer for the games industry. “Stereoscopic will probably be one of the big things in the next year. 3D within the film industry is still in the balance, with a backlash already starting, for games though it makes perfect sense. Gaming is an engrossing experience without it. With it, it can only be enhanced.”“I would expect that as consumers become more and more comfortable with purchasing content online,” says Goldstein, “this will drive the cost of content down, increasing profitability for developers. Fewer middle men means more money for the game industry, and more quality content for gamers at lower cost.”The future remains an uncertain place but one thing seems clear, with an ever widening embrace of digital downloads it seems Santa himself could be surplus to requirements.