For most studios the big problem these days is discoverability. When they make their game, get into the market and try to make sales, they discover that they are just one in a sea of many. They're not on the front page of the App Store, not being reviewed and not attracting fans. Nobody tweets about their game or likes their Facebook page.
So they try every kind of tactic they can think of to get precious eyeballs and clicks. For example: I receive a lot of automated newsletters, tweets, press releases and emails from game makers' publicists. Some even offer me money to write about their game. Similarly, many gaming websites are falling down with automated advertisements begging me to click, to play and to tell my friends.
What they are doing is begging for a response, like Shelley Levine in Glengarry Glen Ross. They need the exposure but the best tactic they can think of is using brute force to achieve it. If they can snag us, they hope, some of us will convert to customers and love them. But nobody loves a beggar.
The Problem With Begging
Rovio used regional App Stores as a way to attain strong chart positions before leveraging that into a US success story. Zynga was the first company to realise that Facebook was really all about the buying and selling of clicks, incentivised installs and cross-promotion. CSR Racing is probably the first mobile game to really understand the appeal of highly lush racing visuals and Gran Turismo-style garage tweaking. It has been a huge success, and now developers think that the secret of success is 15 seconds of interaction surrounded by a business sim.
All of the above successes seem replicable, a mix of positioning and tactics that lead to sales. Having learned the "lessons" of watching other games hit a formula, lots of developers try the same tactics. They position their product, attempt to garner hype through begging for coverage, run advertising everywhere and hit a big fat nothing.
The problem is that they're over-valuing tactics and under-valuing both context and reputation. It seems as though the challenge is discoverability, about process, access points, installs, conversions, sales, metrics and so on. And if solved correctly this somehow turns on the mass market and success is achieved. It's not.
Angry Birds, Zynga and CSR owe much of their success to timing. The first was largely amplified by a novelty effect (as well as being a brilliant game), the second by being the first company to really understand what Facebook was actually about and betting huge on it. And the third by grasping the importance of look in a landscape of me-too games, enough to gain strong positioning in the App Store. None of these paths are reliable.
Begging as an approach does work, but it's a brute force algorithm. It works because the brand dominates user attention so completely that they are unaware of other options, and so that brand becomes the default option. The algorithm is: Punch through the noise with repetition across all media, which leads to memorability and that turns into sales. Keep the message super simple (usually either price or value). Pay for prominent positioning. Rinse and repeat.
If you lack the deep pockets needed to make it work, begging is a mistake. Rather than telling the story that the audience wants to hear, the beggar deploys slogans. Rather than engage with the humanity of the audience and build a network of influencers, the beggar tries to be formulaic and email every blogger they can Google with the same press release. Rather than spending time making their product beautiful and desirable, the beggar tries to manipulate attention.
Is it any wonder that he ends up lost in some apathetic middle?
The Buoyant Marketing Story
My readers sometimes misunderstand marketing stories. They contact me and say "Hey that's a really great post about marketing stories... would you like to write us one about our cool new game in the XY genre with feature Z?" I think they think I mean publicity materials, spin or effective begging. I don't. A marketing story is not a message, a feature, a price point, a sales campaign or a logo. It's an inspirational cause which resonates with a market, and idea which it already believes in looking for a standard bearer to pick it up and turn it into reality.
People who are good at marketing stories never beg for attention. Not because they are too proud or haughty, but because they realise that to do so is a trade-off from which they may never recover. They understand the importance of storytelling as a complete activity, and why authenticity matters.
The marketing storyteller lives the story, showing its values in small as well as big ways. She is generous and open. She finds a tribe that resonates with the cause she believes in, and if not she finds one similar and alters her stance to be more like theirs (not the other way around). She is consistent over the long term, patient and willing to wait for success to come. She strives for distinctiveness, particularly in look, because she understands that most people are visual first, functional second.
Rather than trawling the market for customers, she focuses on converting early adopters into customers for her ideas (and maybe in time for money), and then into evangelists - one at a time if necessary. So she slowly builds a network of valuable nodes whose influential power grows. She's also willing to flip around on ideas that just aren't working and change direction. This is because she's looking for the story which is buoyant.
My friend James linked me to a podcast interview with the ebook publisher Jonny Andrews in which Andrews talks about his success in the market and his method for finding "buoyant" (his term) ideas. As Andrews describes it, for every book he does this:
- Find a topic
- Go to Amazon and look under that topic to see who's written about it
- See what the top selling books on that topic are by Amazon Sales Rank
- If that number is beyond 20,000 then that market is likely too small
- Rinse and repeat
- Publish the ones that fit the above criteria
Most smart left-brained game makers would probably say that works for niches, but not mass market, and go back to begging. Most smart right-brained game makers, however, instantly understand this approach. They get that the mass market is not some big ball of chumps just waiting to be exploited with the right tactic: it's the middle ground between niches, where most people live most of the time.
Andrews' answer on this question of niche versus mass is interesting: Novelty effects aside, what he sees a lot is mainstream success coming from the fringes. Like the early Starbucks, the pattern seems to be that the marketing story gets going first in the fringe and then amplifies its way into the mainstream (for example: 50 Shades of Grey, a niche erotic novel which experienced this effect). What works for books should also work for games. You could use Amazon, Kickstarter, Indiegogo, Appdata or other sources as guides for topics. You could find out which ones seem to be viable.
Then what? If you're left-brained, you probably try to make a game to fit that niche in a cheap manner and use tactics to propel it to success. And you'll likely fail. If you let your right brain in and pick the topic you care about, that's the one whose marketing story you'll most likely live. Over time, you'll eventually succeed.
Big success comes from finding a passionate niche and serving it as a way to carry your marketing story forward. It has to be lived, you have to be generous, patient and consistent. But in the long term it's worth it: you eventually become buoyant. From Doom to Minecraft, it's the stuff that taps into the stories that the market already cares about that matters.
Everything else is just filler, begging for scraps of attention.