Breaking The Wheel

A picture of Sun Tzu's the Art of War, which, it turns out, is an amazing book about marketing.

Marketing Games: Sun Tzu And The Fine Art of Succeeding Before You Begin

Marketing games. Some people consider it a necessary evil at best.  At worst, it’s the root of all of the industry’s ills. But what is marketing? The problem is that most people don’t know – and don’t realize they don’t know. And if you don’t know what it is, you can’t effectively develop a marketing strategy or manage the people who do so. You can’t ask your marketing department the right questions if you don’t know what the right questions are. So, before we dive into the functional aspects of marketing, let’s formalize our understanding of the field.

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Marketing Games: Sun Tzu and the Fine Art of Succeeding Before You Begin

Stop for a moment and ponder this question: “What it marketing?”

You might think that marketing is advertising and public relations. Or maybe you think it’s driving sales to and through retailers.

Those things are certainly functions of marketing, but they’re the end of process. If you think marketing games means sales and ads, you’re looking at the tip of the iceberg – the last 10%.

You want to know what marketing really is? Then ask Sun Tzu: “The victorious army wins its victories before seeking battle; an army destined to defeat fights in the hope of winning.”

THAT’S what marketing is.

Or to put it differently, if you wait until you are done with your game to worry about things like pricing, target audiences, platforms, and advertising, you are, as Sun-Tzu says, fighting in the hope of winning. You are taking a round peg and trying to find the nearest, most compatible square hole. Effective video game marketing is laying the groundwork for success, not hoping for it.

In short, marketing games isn’t just the end of the development process. It IS the development process.

By Reading This Post, You’ll Learn:

  • A formal definition of marketing
  • Why game development falls under the umbrella of marketing
  • Why marketing is an iterative, interconnected process, not a linear one

But I’m not one of those slimy, unscrupulous corporate types!

When many people think of marketing, and marketing professionals, they probably think something like this:

But here’s the thing: if you make games, you work in marketing. Shigeru Miyamoto? Works in marketing. Hideo Kojima? Marketing. Will Wright? Marketing. David Jaffe, Cliff Bleszinski, Ken Levine, Sean Vanaman, Ed Boon. Marketing. Every single one of them.

The hell, you say. But it’s the truth. I’m not saying their creative output is the product of a spreadsheet somewhere. Or that they work in, or for, or at the behest of marketing departments. I’m saying that they work in marketing. As David Packard, co-founder of Hewlett-Packard, once said “Marketing is too important to be left to the marketing department.”

And I can say that they work in marketing, with 100% confidence, because here’s what marketing actually is (courtesy of Alexander Chernev of the Kellogg School of Management): “Marketing is the art and science of creating value by designing and managing successful exchanges.”*

Value. Not profits or revenue. Exchanges. Not sales.

In short, marketing is the practice of developing offerings that create value, and then managing the process which realizes that value on BOTH sides of the exchange.

And if the old adage is true, if no one ever sets out to make a bad game, then we are all on a mission to develop games that create value. Ergo, we all work in marketing.

Value != Money

You might find this ironic, but one of the biggest themes that business school drilled into me is that money is NOT the be-all-end-all of value. Money is but one form of value, and often not the most important.

Sure, money is nice and it’s easily transferable (or “liquid” in business jargon). But in and of itself, it’s actually not that valuable. Because money by itself doesn’t actually do anything. It just sits in a bank and gathers interest. But it can be exchanged for or invested in things that do have value. People, or intellectual property, or communities, or new products.

So effective marketing isn’t myopically focused on money. The goal is to create value, which means different things to different people. To a gamer, value is appraised in terms of entertainment, or experience, or challenge, or a sense of community. For a game developer, value can be measured in brand (either the studio’s or the game’s) or reputation or future opportunities. For a publisher, value might be having a more balanced release slate or a more diverse set of investments or access to a new market of gamers.

So the linchpin of an effective marketing strategy is deciding what form of value your game should provide for you, what form of value it should provide to your partners (publishers, platform holders, retailers), and what form of value it should provide to players.

You Mad, Bro?

If what I said above bothers you, I humbly suggest you re-frame your definition of marketing. Stop thinking about marketing departments. Don’t think about Chief Marketing Officers, or guys in suits, or Jay Beruchel’s character in the Robocop remake. Yes, those people all exist in the field of marketing. But I’m not saying you are, or should aspire to be, one of those people.

What I am saying is that product design and development fall under the marketing arts. It’s not a matter of motivation or title. You are making something with the intent to sell it. And that’s what marketing is.

So if you’re going to be marketing games anyway, why not learn how to do it intentionally? As my father loves to say, if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right.

So What Is Marketing?

For many – I’d bet most – game developers (and indeed most people), marketing games looks like this:

A diagram of what people generally think marketing isHowever, effective marketing for a game would look more like this:

A simple marketing mix for a game

In other words, marketing isn’t just a group of distinct, sequential activities that happen at launch. It isn’t just a series of tactical exercises designed to move units. Marketing games is an amazingly interconnected and interrelated network of collaborative decisions. And those tactical decisions need to be organized around a central strategy.

The strategy you establish, and the way you align your tactics to support that strategy, is how you lay the ground work for success. It’s how you succeed “before seeking battle.”

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An Example of Effective Marketing Strategy

The best example of effective marketing strategy for a game I’ve seen is Dark Souls. I’ve explored this at length in my post “Strategic Design: Why Dark Souls is the Ikea of Video Games” but here’s a visualization of how an effective marketing strategy is a web, not a path, of interlocking activities.

I don’t know what the actual calculus was at From Software – whether the effort was this actually deliberate or if they stumbled into it. I’m trying to find out. But the intentionality is almost beside the point – the choices From Software made all added up to one big and (dare I say it) synergistic** network of decisions.

A diagram of the various marketing elements that led to Dark Souls' success

Understanding the Web

To give you some examples of how this network takes shape:

From Software’s experience influences:

  • The type of game (what are we good at?)
  • The target audience (who is our typical fan?)
  • The platform selection (what technology are we familiar with?)
  • The design (what do we know how to make well?)
  • The choice of publisher (who knows how to sell the kinds of games we make?)

The target audience influences:

  • The design (what do they want that nobody else is giving them?)
  • The positioning (how do we present the game?)
  • How and where to drive awareness (what sites do they visit and what types of ads would get their attention?)
  • The target platform (where do they play?)
  • The choice of publisher (what publishers have cache with them?)
  • Sales potential (what’s the addressable market size?)
  • Branding (what brand would resonate with them?)

The platform selection influences:

  • The design (what types of mechanics and experiences work on this platform?)
  • How and where to drive awareness (what sites do platform users visit and what types of ads would get their attention?)
  • The choice of publisher (who has experience with certification and distribution on this platform?)
  • Sales potential (what’s the addressable market size and what’s the level of competition on this platform?)

Sales potential influences:

  • Design (how much can we invest in this game and still turn a profit?)
  • Publisher (who is the optimal partner for this sales potential?)
  • Awareness (how much can we afford to spend promoting this?)

The Brass Tacks

Marketing isn’t just ads or sales or sleaze-bags in swanky offices. Marketing is how you align and balance all of the tactical decisions in order to maximize your chances of successful value creation. And theses decisions are not a linear sequence. They are more like an elaborate soup: fluid, interrelated, and most successful when the independent elements are aligned and balanced. Hence, the arrangement of these decisions is known as the “marketing mix“.

And carefully thinking through your marketing mix is how you succeed before you launch.

That doesn’t mean you need to have to be dead-on right out of the gate. That’s an unreasonably high bar. You will need to gather information, test your assumptions, and course correct along the way. That’s to be expected. But in order to know what assumption to test, you need to think of the strategy behind your actions.

Further Reading If You Enjoyed This Post:

Strategic Design: Why Dark Souls is the Ikea of Video Games

Five-Forces Analysis has Grim Tidings for Free-To-Play on Mobile

Game Marketing Strategy

So what now?

Now, we get to work. Over the next series of posts, I’ll walk you through how to actually accomplish this heady mix of activities. We’ll start at the high level strategy and move deeper in to the tactical exercises: choosing a target audience, positioning your game effectively, and on to advertising and distribution. With quite a few stops in between. Next up: designing a marketing strategy!

Key Takeaways

  • Marketing is not ads, awareness and sales
  • For a formal definition of marketing, I prefer Chernev’s: “Marketing is the art and science of creating value by designing and managing successful exchanges.”
  • Every aspect of your design (features, platform, pricing, publisher, target audience, etc) is a function of marketing
  • The way these elements interact and reinforce each other is called the marketing mix
  • The goal of effective marketing is to establish a marketing mix that provides the highest chance of success

Click Here To Read The Next Post In The Series!

Return to Video Game Marketing table of contents

 *Chernev, Alexander. Strategic Marketing Management, 8th Edition (Kindle Locations 141-142). Cerebellum Press. Kindle Edition.
**Sorry to bring it up, but synergy, despite it’s awful fucking name, is an incredibly useful concept. Synergy is jivey business speak way for saying “more than the sum of it’s parts”. The way to think of it is a really balanced team in an RPG. Any one character is effective on it’s own, but their complimentary attributes makes them way more powerful as a team.
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“Marketing Games: Sun Tzu And The Fine Art of Succeeding Before You Begin” by Justin Fischer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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