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Players Are For Life, Not Just For Christmas
by Tadhg Kelly on 01/21/10 08:31:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

Probably the most critical problem that most game makers share is that of not understanding their customers. Publishers often throw huge resources into developing and publishing a game, advertising it, and doing PR for it etc, only to have it fail in the market. And then they blame external forces for this (market conditions, piracy, the recession, whatever).

The mistake that they are making is failing to build a compelling story. Not a game story, a marketing story.

Every succesful console platform ever has basically worked because it embodied a great story. The Wii is not just a device that handles gestural controls, it embodies a story of inclusive gaming for middle class suburban people who find videogames scary. The Playstation used to be a story about a kind of rave generation cool (before becoming a negative story of brute force). Xbox is a partially successful story of connection, a story which Dreamcast also tried to tell but was too soon for.

Stories apply to big game consoles and small indie titles alike. World of Goo is a great little game and also a story of idiosyncratic indie success. Darwinia is a story. Castle Crashers is a story.

Compelling stories draw players in. They make them long term customers, not short term consumers. Why? Because people like to be a part of something.

The publisher model basically thinks of players like the sea: they think they have no memory and are essentially in search of distraction. This is not at all the case. Players want to be members. They want to belong. They want to vote with their wallets for the guys they believe in.

This is why the most important thing that any game maker can do is to get the e-mail addresses of their players to build a club. And then treat those e-mails with respect and not as just another advertising channel.

Lots of players out there want to be members of your treehouse. How hard are you making it for them? Could you make it easier?
Twitter: @tadhgk 

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Sander van Rossen
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I couldn't agree with you more ;)

Glenn Storm
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I agree that marketing (also the box cover art, title, even the layout of the game manual) is a story that needs to be compelling, easy to grab, but even more importantly, easy to tell. Apart from viral marketing, marketing in general needs to translate well to a compelling water cooler story that your audience can relay to others; and I believe that's the "Because people like to be a part of something"-part you mentioned. It is a presentation that begets presentation. Thanks for this thought, Tadhg.

Daniel Mafra
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It reminded me about some old studies concerning brands and archetypes. If the game itself cannot be (more than hold) a good story, something that is alive more than a product itself, then the chances of failing will rise. More than that, being a story is part of marketing itself, if you consider some integrated, careful and brand-oriented marketing, not just some pushing-to-the-retail season and holidays strategy. This is where brand-marketing could meet games authorship in a stronger force.

Anyway, to tell a story, whatever it is, you need good tools. For indies, go for PR and buzz strategies. But good stories must came out of the games, otherwise, it will be only good lies.

Advertising is already full of it.

Bart Stewart
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Some good points here.

I agree completely on selling by telling a story that's compelling. (Sorry... couldn't resist. :) I'm actually reminded of the Taster's Choice commercials from the 1980s featuring Anthony Head. When the first one aired, it blew people away because it told a fun story featuring magnetic characters and *it didn't give away the ending*. This commercial wound up being so popular that it inspired sequels. (They're all available on YouTube for those who didn't get to see them when they first aired, and they're still fun to watch.)

Whether it actually sold more coffee, I don't know. I'm pretty sure it sold more than would otherwise have happened, though, and that's the point. By wrapping the product within a compelling story, as opposed to just saying "it's good coffee and you should buy it," part of the draw was that by drinking that coffee, you were in on the story. You got to be part of the group of adults who appreciated the potential value of having the right coffee on hand.

I'm not an ad exec by trade, but I've been told that "tell them a story" is still a crucial element of most advertising. Watch a few TV commercials even today and see which ones stand out to you -- I'll bet most of them tell a story.

So why shouldn't games follow that successful strategy in their marketing?

One thing I'm not sure about is whether everyone can be swayed by a good story because they "want to be a part of something." Certainly there are some gamers who, like fans of Taster's Choice, enjoy feeling like they're a part of the group of people who are riding the wave of a phenomenon. That probably accounts for most of the popularity of World of Warcraft and Modern Warfare 2. These gamers can be marketed to with a compelling product story.

But I don't think every gamer fits that model. I've run into plenty of people who pretty obviously don't give two hoots in a holler about story-based marketing. They buy a game if it has the features they care about, or if friends they trust recommend it, and that's it. So should developers/publishers consider some other kind of marketing that could appeal to these gamers?

Finally, for all the benefits of telling a strong story as a marketing hook, it's possible to come on too strong. A massive media blitz -- with TV commercials and posters on buses and a comic book prequel and a line of action figures released before the game even launches -- may leave people wondering why, if the game is so good, it needs to be pushed so hard.

So yes, publishers can probably win by creating a story around how cool it is to be part of the select group that buys a particular game. But care should be taken not to oversell the people who become members of this group -- once they've bought the product, the key is to build on that goodwill to stoke interest in your next product, not to keep trying to resell the same product over and over again. Treating their email addresses with respect is a great first step toward that balance point, but I suspect more is required.

I'd enjoy hearing what someone who's done this kind of marketing thinks about these ideas.

Dave Endresak
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I think it's also worth remembering that no level of story hook is going to make up for disappointment in the product itself, or even in the so-called membership/community of people who bought the product. No one wants to be part of a group where their preferences are treated as inferior to certain vocal members, or even by company reps. Nor do most people want to be part of a community for a product that has obvious flaws that become apparent within days or weeks of its release, especially when the flaws are excused, not addressed, or otherwise ignored by the publisher(s) and developer(s). In such examples, the story becomes a very bad memory, very quickly.

Ed Alexander
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I hire voodoo doctors to curse you and your kin if you opt me onto a mailing list before I can opt out of it.

That said, I am a part of the Atlus Faithful mailing list because, well, I <3 Atlus. Their community relations department deserve a raise for being so awesome. They know who their audience is and they're in touch with them, not afraid to shed the typical stone cold corporate image to reach out and be a "real person" to their faithful.

From Atlus to the Atlus Faithful on Halloween.

"Demon's Souls + All Hallow's Eve = Additional tears (also, pure black tendency)

The Old One's power grows, Faithful. If you were thinking about playing Demon's Souls this weekend, you may want to tread even more cautiously, because it’s very likely that you’ll find yourself facing pure black world tendency. This means that your already mighty foes will be even more powerful, while you will be weaker.

That’s right, Faithful… WEAKER. On the bright side, there are secrets in many areas that are tendency dependent and would otherwise take a lot of time to access, and the loot drops are much better with pure black tendency.

Little consolation when you’re getting slaughtered, we know, but still… Expect the effects to last through the weekend, and most importantly, HAVE FUN!"

My favorite quote was from a CM on their forums who delivered the line, "We don't know how long this dark tendency will last, but we do advise those prone to controller-into-LCD syndrome to proceed carefully."

Pure. Awesome.

Every publisher should take notes of Atlus. They go a long way to be a little more personal with their audience, and for that reason, I will always be Faithful.

Tadhg Kelly
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Textbook example of what I mean Ed.

Tricks to con people onto mailing lists and the like never work.

Andre Gagne
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Is that what makes CCP/EVE so awesome? Have a look at their "Dev blogs", which they try to get every player to read. Or at that rate, look at the last patch notes, someone snuck a tongue in cheek joke in there.

It's like they realize they're managing a virtual world populated with people rather than a pool of players. Or as one player put it, the average EVE player knows more about what EVE runs on [how EVE is made] than the average WoW developer...


Meredith Katz
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Yes, this 100%. Atlus always works to engage players like that. I remember seeing an announcement they made once about game delays... [fishes through gmail]

"Unfortunately, a few Atlus titles will have to be slightly rescheduled as to their date of release, but the changes will be minimal. Also, every working day for us passes in constant fear, terror, and paranoia with the knowledge that our primary computer is now plotting to destroy us," commented an Atlus engineer on the subject of release date changes and the now-sentient supercomputer with a hunger for manflesh. "

It's all about engagement.