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Moving targets: Promotional strategy in the age of emerging gaming platforms

Posted by Timothy Loew  February 8, 2013 03:26 PM

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By Emma Clarkson, community manager, Stomp Games

Without careful planning, a video game marketing campaign can risk being remembered as disastrous rather than groundbreaking; there’s no shortage of blog lists of the worst campaigns in gaming history. Yet it is more challenging than ever to put together a smart strategy for marketing games.

Search rankings of the best video games of 2012, and you’ll see the reason: more and more that are played not on consoles, but on smartphones, tablets, and Internet browsers. With evolving platforms like those, there are both new opportunities and unforeseen challenges for developers: tighter budgets, wider audiences, and more fluid development cycles.

Whether you make games for a living or just play them for entertainment, successful titles on emerging platforms have made one thing clear: traditional business models and methods of promoting games just won’t cut it anymore.

Many mobile, tablet and web-based games today achieve success on budgets that seem impossibly low. The key to understanding the success of games like Braid, Minecraft, and Tiny Wings is in the way most gamers hear about them. These games get publicity via critical acclaim and peer recommendations, rather than traditional, ad-based campaigns. Games resonate differently with the audiences of popular content sites, taste-making bloggers, and well-established news sources, and each of these audiences plays a role in the promotion of lower-budget games. Press coverage via these three types of online outlets is like a three-legged stool – depending on two of the three isn’t going to work. Also, do your homework! Seeking publicity through these websites means understanding what resonates with their readers.

While budget plays a huge part in the success of a game’s promotional strategy, another major shift to consider is today’s timeline and life cycle of the most popular games. Many online games launch to a wide audience while still in early beta, relying on player experiences and reactions to drive the direction of ongoing development. However, the most dramatic shift from more traditional game development to today’s browser-based and mobile game offerings is the relationship between the game you’re developing and the audience of gamers you assume will play the game.

In traditional game development, market segmentation, and target player definition are crucial factors in a game’s promotional strategy; that is logical in a console environment, where a player must choose to spend hard-earned money on a game in order to play it. A marketing campaign at any stage of a game’s life cycle must reflect the target audience, as that audience is assumed to be the driver of profit for the game.

A customary game launch is committed to a target demographic long before embarking on a marketing campaign, and it may not be feasible or even possible to shift gears and change direction in response to consumer reaction. Developers on today’s emerging platforms still must define an ideal marketing target for a new game, but must also have a flexible strategy after it kicks off. Many games on new platforms start a marketing campaign by casting a wide audience net, then assessing the response of each demographic contained within, identifying the different market segments that are most interested in engaging with the game. What doesn’t work for one segment of players might resonate successfully with a different group, stretching a small budget by using it much more efficiently. Even big-budget marketing campaigns work best when tuned for maximum efficiency in targeting the right audience with the right message.

Traditional high-cost, maximum-awareness game campaigns have generally been focused on the weeks leading up to a game’s release date, spending most of the budget on flashy events and top-tier media placements. Many of today’s games have lives well beyond the launch date, so marketers must have a plan to sustain marketing in alignment with an ongoing game-as-a-service. In addition, in response to the ever-changing environment of game promotion, video game marketers have learned to be more flexible in all areas of strategy, which as it turns out is a tactic that has spilled over into best practices in advertising all kinds of products. A successful promotional strategy needs to continue to be flexible and responsive to changes in the market, and adaptive regarding target demographics. As Dave Bisceglia, co-founder and chief executive of The Tap Lab, said in a recent interview, “Your business plan will be a living/breathing document that is in a constant state for flux. If it isn’t, you’re doing something wrong.”

There are many paths a game developer can take toward a successfully promoted game. Understanding the nuances and connections between the different paths is the key to choosing the right strategy for the game at hand.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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MassDiGI 8-24 287w872.jpgThe State of Play, organized by MassDiGI, features stories by digital and video game developers and business insiders. Follow along @mass_digi.

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