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The End Of Games Marketing As We Know It

By on November 25, 2011
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This post was originally published as part of a regular series on gamasutra. It is reproduced here with permission.


Retention is the key measure of success for a free-to-play game. This fact should send a frisson of fear down the spine of games marketers and salespeople across the globe. The truth that their skills are becoming much less valuable in the parts of the industry that are growing, rather than those that are in terminal decline.

Don’t We Need Customers?

All games need customers. Free-to-play games are no exception. How free-to-play games acquire customers, when they ask them to pay and how much they charge them are fundamentally different.

The reason is fundamental: in the world of free-to-play, all customers are different; in the world of packaged goods, they are all the same.

Let’s explore that idea in more detail. When I walk into a GameStop or GAME, the sales assistant can’t scan my brain to work out how a big a fan I am of each of the games in the store. They have no idea if I would be prepared to pay $200 for copy of BioShock signed by Ken Levine or if I have so little interest in the game that I’d only buy it if was priced at a single dollar in the bargain bin.

As a result, marketers and retailers set the price to maximize revenue based on what the averageperson will pay. The amount that customers pay is fixed at a single price point (or perhaps two if there is a Collector’s Edition), so generating revenue becomes a matter of increasing volumes of sales, not in offering a continuum of prices from free up to thousands of dollars.

In fact, the day one launch is absolutely critical: the finance director of a major games publisher once told me that he could predict the lifetime sales of a game to within 10,000 units based on the results of the launch weekend.

Hence the focus on launch hoopla, on event marketing, on generating massive pre-orders and generally trying to shift as many units as possible on the first weekend.

Free-to-play Games Are Different

Free-to-play games are not about launch. A traditional games business cares about getting money out of a customer upfront. Sure, the designers care about building a long, compelling, interactive experience that wins plaudits and prizes, but the commercial team just cares about getting that $49.99 out of the gamer. If they don’t like the game, tough, the publisher already has their money.

(See Pat Garratt’s excellent piece on why publishers manage the review process so carefully for a clear explanation of this process).

A free-to-play game lives and dies on whether it can persuade people to spend money over and over again. On whether it can move players along the curve from freeloaders to minnows to whales. On building long-term retention mechanics into the game.

There are many places where this can go wrong. A free-to-play game can be very dull in the first 20 minutes (this is particularly true when it is made by a team that has graduated from AAA). It can fail to keep people coming for a whole week. It can lose people at many places on the journey.

And every time you lose someone, you lose a player who might become one of your biggest fans. Who might evangelize your game to his or her friends. Who might spend £1,000 on a single item.

Marketing is no longer about the launch. There is no point in a massive launch event that drives millions of players into a leaky funnel. Instead, it is about using metrics, analytics and insight to find the areas of your game that are not working and fix them on a rolling, iterative schedule. The marketing team becomes integrated into the development team, not a silo far away.

If you work in marketing for games, I would suggest that you start retraining. If your skill is managing journalists, building hype or holding parties, that need is urgent.

Marketing is becoming measurable. This is great news for the games industry. It might be terrible news for some individual marketers.


About Nicholas Lovell

Nicholas is the founder of Gamesbrief, a blog dedicated to the business of games. It aims to be informative, authoritative and above all helpful to developers grappling with business strategy. He is the author of a growing list of books about making money in the games industry and other digital media, including How to Publish a Game and Design Rules for Free-to-Play Games, and Penguin-published title The Curve: thecurveonline.com
  • You make a good point about Platinums. I often talk about Collector’s Editions, but not the later ones. Thank you.

    I agree with the leaky funnel point. I emphatically don’t think you should “ask” players. Sorry if I gave that impression. I think you should allow the players to show how much they want to spend. I agree that there is a world of difference there.

  • “The reason is fundamental: in the world of free-to-play, all customers
    are different; in the world of packaged goods, they are all the same.”

    I think you’d find that packaged goods marketers would disagree that all their customers are the same. The fact that a range of prices are offered at that point – from the $200 collector’s edition through to $20 classics edition (ignoring second hand sales) – indicates an awareness that these customers aren’t all the same.

    You are correct that it is a numbers game though – the retail store aims to sell to as many people as possible while the F2P organisation aims to maximise the amount earned per player.

    Of course, the actual challenge in your above model to avoid the “leaky funnel” is _correctly_ identifying what needs to be fixed and how. Asking players might not be the most accurate way of finding out – they’ll have an opinion, but what they say might not accurately reflect what the real problem is.

  • My guess is that you are working in a free-to-play environment already. Many games marketers (particularly those who read Gamasutra) are still focused on AAA launches. It sounds to me as if your marketing team is full of people who have already made the transition.

  • Guest

    I am not sure what other video games marketeers are doing, but certainly in my experience we have become far more specialised – our marketing team takes shape with acquistions managers, those focused on facebook ads essentially – optimising 100s of ads with intricate attention to detail. Engagement marketeers who focus on in-game retention mechanics closely with the game designers (essentially reporting back to the designers on what they need to redesign or optimise or include in the next iterative milestone according to what their analytics suggests) and then you have monetization marketeers who are essentially Revenue officers solely focused on in-game purchases and promotions massaging relationships with 3rd party vendors.