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6 Ways to Market Your Video Game without Trailers
by Jay Holden (@_jayholden)
In my previous article Overhype, I tackled the disturbing trend of the increasing number of video game trailers for AA and AAA releases. Here I examine the problem in more detail from a business perspective and present alternatives to revealing a dearth of content for your game via trailers.
Let’s start by performing a short market analysis.
What makes someone decide to buy your game?
As a marketer, you have hardcore fans – the folks who will pre-order the game as soon as they hear it’s by their favorite developer or director. You also have non-buyers; people who don’t play video games or who won’t buy your game for financial or ideological reasons.
Then there’s the big middle. Your cash is in the hands of many of these people. They are the ones who need to hear about your game.
Here’s something few in the industry seem to understand. The problem presented to video game marketers is primarily a problem of discovery, followed by a problem of salesmanship. It is not the other way around. You don’t need to tell people they’re going to enjoy your game so much as you need to tell people that your game exists.
Why does that matter? Except in cases of deception (intentional or otherwise), you will never convince anyone to enjoy your game. You are a company. Convincing anyone of anything isn’t what you do best. The function of marketing in the video game industry is to inform.
How to inform, and what information to present
Game industry veteran Marc LeBlac argues there are 8 kinds of fun. Some disagree, but regardless: we know that different people play games for different reasons. Your game does not deliver all of them. It has a “fun footprint” – the sorts of fun it delivers to a significant extent. The two puzzles in that one dungeon don’t count. In that footprint, half or fewer are where the fun – the game –lives. One of the strongest benefits to establishing a franchise is the ability to immediately communicate what type(s) of fun your game delivers. It’s also why, when games like Dark Souls II or Final Fantasy XIV don’t deliver, developers endure blowback from their core fan base.
It’s important to understand different people can play the same game looking for wildly different kinds of fun. I may boot up a game because I want to experience the narrative, while you want to take in the beautiful environments or music. We want and expect different things from the game. Not only that, but I may want to play a game for different reasons dependent on things beyond the developers’ control. Sometimes I boot up Final Fantasy IX hoping to eek in some more time on my challenging low-level run; other times I just want to relax and mindlessly beat up some monsters, or take in the scenery. So even if your game is in a certain genre – first-person shooter, for example – it’s still vitally important to communicate what sort of fun footprint you present. Bioshock, Halo and Painkiller are all radically different games with different audiences who seek different things in their experience.
Your marketing efforts should communicate the sorts of fun your game delivers, in what quantities, and how well it delivers that experience. The nature of trailers makes them good at presenting certain types of fun. Communicating aesthetics and visual style is something a trailer can excel at. Done well, like this spectacular EVE Online example, a video can communicate its social and expressive aspects too. But what if I just want to chill out and shoot some aliens? Even a game that’s phenomenal for that purpose, like Halo 2 was for me, can’t show a player zoning out in an enticing way. That would be boring. And it can’t do Discovery, either. Video games deliver discovery in a unique, arguably superior, way compared to other forms of media. Oh, that shortcut leads to this bridge? players might conclude after a half hour of Dark Souls. So that’s what they mean by ‘Paleblood Sky!’ we exclaim, upon stumbling on a new revelation in Bloodborne. Discoveries are inherently personal in nature.
As games marketers, we’re left with only a few game elements we can and should communicate to our potential buyers using trailers. This begs the question: How do we communicate fun without trailers?
How to communicate fun without trailers
Ever since Rockefeller named his company Standard Oil – back before quality of oil was anything but and brands as we know them now even existed – the best marketers have understood the value of names and logos. One of the first great modern marketing campaigns written by Claude Hopkins, lauded copyrighter and author of Scientific Advertising, was the tale of Schlitz Beer. After a tour of Schlitz’s distillery, Hopkins marveled at the pains taken to ensure the beverage was pure. Even though every major competitor went through the same process, none had expounded on the effort it took to obtain clean water from 300-feet-deep wells or the expensive air purifiers cleaned twice a day. When Hopkins wrote the ad and told this story, sales of Schlitz Beer went through the roof.
Modern companies like Apple know how to harness the power of these details and present them in a compelling way so consumers know the laborious process that goes into designing its products. It’s this spirit the games industry is missing – a way to entice players with the story behind a video game’s creation. Sex sells, but lust pre-sells. In today’s video game marketing landscape, it’s all sex.
Six ways to create buzz that aren’t trailers
Let’s run through some numbers from Youtube. Video interviews with Hideo Kojima, most famous for the Metal Gear series, pull in about 300,000 views. Fabled Peter Molyneux? Half a million. Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto – two to three hundred thousand. A recent interview with Markus “Notch” Persson generated 1.2 million views. Videos featuring talks with John Carmack, lead programmer for Doom, Quake and others whose contributions to games has waned recently, still get well over 100k. Think only the big players generate interest? An interview with the Titan Souls team Acid Nerve pulled in 20,000 views. Twenty thousand views is nothing to sneeze at considering the title was the studio’s first ever release.
Interviews with producers or lead designers are excellent ways for a developer to get in front of their audience and talk about the portions of the game they can’t show in a video. Designers can pinpoint how they get inspired and draw comparisons to other games or media so players better know what to expect from the game they’ll be buying.
2. Leverage legacy and studio identity
Big-name brands, franchises and individuals in the games industry can breed trust and respect from a dedicated circle of fans. When advertising a game, leverage the brand and pedigree of the developer. Always have a page dedicated to the developer’s previous works on the game’s website. Anyone who’s on a forum or searching for a game in the company’s library should see an advertisement for the upcoming game. Games that never would have succeeded by any other name did so because of the franchise behind them.
3. Behind the scenes
A passion for video games is common among gamers. Plenty already have jobs in the industry, and many more want to get in. Behind-the-scenes and “making of” videos not only help your core audience understand more about the way the developers work, they help you reach an audience that’s searching for ways to improve their skills. Indie developer Ska Studios has gathered over 1,000 followers owing mostly to its Salt and Sanctuary development stream.
4. Concept art/illustrations
We all know how much a picture is worth, so let your concept art speak for itself. Releasing art, polished or not, grants a small window into the look and feel of your game without revealing as much as a trailer. The opportunity for players to imagine how they’ll fight this monster they see sketched out or how they’ll interact with that bejeweled NPC shouldn’t be underestimated; just watch this video with 200,000 views to see how much concept art can have an effect on your game’s exposure.
5. Music recordings
Music has historically taken a back seat to gameplay and story reveals, which – though those are vital in moderation – is a shame. Core gamers everywhere can remember a time when symphonies by the likes of Nobuo Uematsu, Yasunori Mitsuda and Martin O’Donnell graced their ears. While recent works have been great in their own right, the level of exposure to and reverence for video game music from developers feels like it has waned. The nearly 200,000 views on Sony’s soundtrack recording session of Bloodborne’s phenomenal score speaks volumes (and the fact it drew more views than one of the game’s trailers is even more telling – but that’s another story).
6. Mini-game or Easter Egg hunt
Does your game have a mini game? Something like Triple Triad, Tetra Master or Blitzball from past Final Fantasies? Here’s an idea: put it on your website. If it’s fun, people will play it. If it’s not, you get free feedback so you can re-think it before the game’s launch. You could even allow players to connect their Gamertag or Steam/PSN ID so when your game goes live, players receive little in-game rewards for having played your minigame before release.
Or, if your game doesn’t have a mini-game, an easter egg hunt could lead players on a search for a secret message, hidden content or in-game rewards that aren’t available to everyone. A coded message on your website, clues scattered throughout your videos or interviews, etc will work. This feels especially relevant to games like Bloodborne, whose narrative is discovered in hidden bits and pieces arranged carefully in its harrowing world. Rewarding hardcore fans and deepening casual fans’ appreciation can benefit developers tremendously and attract a lot of press attention.
Great marketing campaigns tell a story. And like the best games, outstanding game marketing campaigns use all the tools at their disposal. Using each of the 6 methods above plus a couple of great trailers can show your audience exactly what to expect from their purchase and why they should get hyped. Do this and your campaign will keep the game’s mystique while building confidence and sales.
Jay Holden is a marketer by day and video game commentator by night. You can reach him on Twitter at @_jayholden or follow his unofficial Bloodborne account @BloodborneGame.