A term I’ve used in several posts is marketing story. Marketing stories are becoming increasingly important to all businesses because traditional advertising-led marketing is in decline. Despite this, a lot of people in games have only recently heard of marketing stories, and are not sure what they are.
So what is a marketing story?
A marketing story is a tale that you tell to the influential people in your market, which they then tell to other people. The story of who you are and what your game represents becomes a part of daily conversation, which makes people interested and leads to sales. Marketing stories come in many shapes and sizes, but the common trait that they share is their ability to spread.
Marketing stories are not an ad campaign, nor are they lists of features. Well-told marketing stories capture the imagination of the reader. It is often the case that they have an accidental beginning, but smart creators grow adept at figuring how to tell them on purpose, and once they have told one successfully they find it easier to do it again.
Damien Hirst’s shark in a tank, Fable 2’s dog, Lady Gaga’s meat dress, the X-Factor (or American Idol), most of JJ Abraham’s projects and Halo’s 10/10 Edge review are all examples of successful marketing stories.
The smart ones are not just yarns, they are a part of the game itself. They are in the interviews that the creators give, the art style, the game dynamics and so on. Every time that the player encounters the game, its developer or its coverage is an opportunity to tell the story anew.
Components of a Marketing Story
Consumers are so bored of seeing identikit products, services and art that they simply phase them out. What they’re looking for is that which isn’t formulaic because that tells them that the creator of the story is a human being. So successful marketing stories are often unique. There are, however, common components between them, and knowing what those components are can help to guide you in creating good stories.
- A Storyteller
- A Cause
- A Market
- A Vision
- A Creation
- An Enemy
- A Never-Ending Quest
The Storyteller: Modern culture is based on celebrity because we are obsessed with following storytellers. We want to know what they have to say, to follow their example and to connect with them. When I say tells the story I don’t necessarily mean that they sit down on a blanket and relate a tale. What I mean is that they are telling a story by virtue of who they are and how they act and react. Living the story is telling the story.
The storyteller does have to be an actual person. Many game studios are known by their label and it is the label that embodies the story. The actual developers are anonymous.
However it can get harder to make that label really mean anything as time goes by because it starts to become inconsistent or formulaic. Labels can seem leaderless in a way that a human being doesn’t, and leaderless storytelling lacks passion. Connection is best achieved by a flesh-and-blood storyteller.
The Cause: Storytellers stand for something. They might be polarising (Sarah Palin) or all-encompassing (The Dalai Lama), but their cause is something that they believe in. The story thus acquires symbolism, and it is symbolism that resonates and makes the story memorable.
When Introversion stood up on stage to receive an award, and said "We didn't take money from publishers because we didn't want publishers to fuck with our game", they were standing for something. It’s a part of their marketing story. That story is what keeps fans coming back to their forum and playing their games.
Market: Some stories want to be heard, others do not. An artist’s frustration comes from having a vision to share, but nobody in the outside world to hear it. All marketing stories need a market to talk to. Markets are not looking for last year’s innovations. They move, or more specifically they want to be moved.
Seth Godin calls the art of telling a story that moves the market edgecrafting. What he means is that the successful storyteller is not the one who sits in the middle with everyone else, or the one who thinks totally outside the box. She is the one who sits on the edge of the box and pushes the lid. Great marketing stories move the market forward in a direction, but at the same time remaining recognisable enough that the market can relate to it.
A Vision: Worlds are what we make. When making a game, you have the opportunity to pull players into a whole other universe and inspire them with an idea or a game dynamic that changes them forever. Successful marketing stories are all about change. The reason why art is best suited to marketing stories is because all art holds up a mirror to the world and advocates a change.
James Dyson changed the world, so did Mahatma Ghandi, and so did Will Wright. Twice. They each brought a change that was wanted.
A Creation: The marketing story needs a creation. The creation serves two purposes: First, it is the object that the customer can buy, so they become a part of the story. Second, it is the object that grounds the story in something real, and in so doing tells the story.
You need a tangible, reference-able thing that tells your story. Steve Jobs’ view of the world as a canvass for clean and elegant design is nothing without an iPad. The more cynical mind thinks that Jobs’ world view is just a marketing ploy to sell iPads, but actually it’s the opposite: The point of the iPad is to be the proof of the world view.
An Enemy: Enemies matter because they define what the marketing story is trying to change in very clear terms. The most common enemies are the market incumbent, the default choice or the average product. An enemy allows the storyteller to have something with which the market is already familiar and use it as a Devil.
A Never-Ending Quest: Games Workshop created the Warhammer 40K universe in 1987. The story of that conflict has allowed GW to produce dozens of inter-related games. The story of Warhammer 40k will never actually end though. It’s a never-ending quest.
The never ending quality of the marketing story perpetually gives the fans something to aspire toward. A brighter future, a new tomorrow, a Second Coming, or some other event in the distance is the ending that will never actually come. This is important, because once a story ends, it becomes a part of the past.
Authenticity: It used to be the case that managed news and retail channels allowed a storyteller to hold his audience at one remove and show only a public face, but that is not the world in which we now live. Frauds and liars are found out more quickly than ever before, so there’s no point trying to create a fake story that you don’t really care about.
Marketing stories are told more in how they are lived rather than the official version of what is said, so above all you need to be true to yourself and your game.
Marketing Stories and Game Stories
So does this mean that your game needs a background world, a plot and characters? No. A marketing story is not a game story.
In Mass Effect the game story, background and universe are a part of the marketing story because the roleplaying game market likes that sort of thing. On the other hand, Plants vs Zombies is a great example of a game that has a fantastic marketing story without a game story.
Plants vs Zombies’ marketing story is told in the title, the reputation of Popcap, the art style, the way the game communicates to players and the game dynamics. It doesn’t need a game story because it just wouldn’t add anything to the game. Most game stories add nothing at all to the game or its marketing story. They are just cruft.
Why You Need a Marketing Story
It’s not enough to develop and publish a game, to have great execution or game dynamics. There are many games that do that, and they all look the same as each other. Without a marketing story, your game will sit on the pile of also-ran games.
App stores, Facebook, the iPhone, downloadable console games and many other trends are increasing the availability of games and also providing access to developers in a way never seen before. All the jostling for position, copying and low-rent development practises pretty much guarantee that also-ran games will struggle to be noticed. They have no reason to stand out, and so they sink.
The only way to rise above that is with an edgecrafted marketing story that wants to change the world. You need to stand for something, tell a story to a market that wants to hear it, and then live it.
And then keep living it.