Surviving High School: A Mobile Survivor Story
July 17, 2008 Page 4 of 4
Over The Top
Both Centerscore and VGM expected great things from Surviving High School '07, since it was a much better version of a game that had already tasted Top Sellers success. However, due to a logistical glitch, the game was released on Verizon in mid-October 2006.
When determining placement on Top Sellers, Verizon Wireless counts the total number of downloads during the previous calendar month; as a consequence, games that haven't been out the full month are at a serious disadvantage when census time rolls around. This accounting idiosyncrasy cost SHS '07 dearly. The game performed well in its weeklong debut in the What's New category, but not well enough to make up two weeks of lost ground.
Having missed its first and best chance, VGM was going to have to get SHS '07 into Top Sellers the hard way - with clever marketing, sales acumen, and a whole lot of arm-twisting. But even though VGM was growing fast, it hadn't yet been accorded top-shelf status by Verizon, and that impeded the distribution team's access to the carrier's understaffed games department.
In the mobile games industry, the usual causal relationship between marketing and sales is turned on its head; instead of seeking out products they've seen in advertisements, consumers tend to buy whatever is at the top of the deck. Thus, truly effective marketing targets the carrier operatives in charge of distribution, who are the publishers' real customers. The trick is to get those reps, who are constantly bombarded by requests, to pay attention.
In January 2007, VGM's marketing team decided that the company would get the best bang for its promotional dollar by running a campaign on MySpace. At a time when other large publishers counted on cross-marketing from big console game launches and advertising on mobile games sites, this was a fairly unorthodox strategy.
Still, it was innovative enough to fit for Surviving High School '07's requirements. The company had found a viable sales angle, no matter what the demonstrable return on investment was.
Happily, VGM's Surviving High School MySpace campaign turned out to be more than just an interesting story. VGM and Centerscore went all out for the campaign page, cooking up themed IM buddy icons, wallpapers, two different interactive applications, and a special raffle that would write five lucky participants (and their likenesses) into special episodes of the game.
More than 10,000 MySpacers became friends with VGM's Surviving High School profile, generating about 100,000 page views over the lifetime of the campaign. The page became so popular with SHS fans that it turned into a permanent hub for content and discussion; Centerscore still consults it on a regular basis for fan feedback.
This marketing coup helped VGM's distribution team secure prime placement for Surviving High School '07 on Verizon. The game spent a week in the carrier's "topslot," meaning it was the very first item on the download deck, and then followed that up with an extended tour of the Featured Games category.
From there, Surviving High School '07 began its year-long stay in Top Sellers, and fans began downloading episodes like crazy - more than 10,000,000 episodes over the life of the franchise, at last count.
Conclusion: A Puncher's Chance
What conclusions are to be drawn from the Surviving High School story? One possible reading suggests that Centerscore and VGM just got lucky. It took Centerscore five years of trial and error to come up with a concept that had real hit potential, and even that game didn't go very far until VGM applied significant resources to it. That sounds more serendipitous than systematic, doesn't it?
There's no question that Centerscore's winning formula involved more than a pinch of good luck. On the other hand, the company was always in a position to capitalize on whatever breaks came their way, which does not seem like such a coincidence.
Centerscore took chances on new concepts as early and as often as it could afford to, which was appreciably more often than other developers its size, thanks to its founders' painstaking stewardship of their business.
Plus, the firm placed its bets systematically, so each successive failure got closer to the center of the bullseye. Over time, these scientific guesses produced a fairly accurate picture of the market's sweet spot.
Just as importantly, Centerscore was aware of its limitations. It stayed independent just long enough to produce its magnum opus, after a long iterative process that probably would have been squashed under a publisher's supervision. It then traded in some of its operational independence for the resources that would take that product to the next level.
These lessons aren't just for the mobile games space. They also apply to gaming's new kids on the block - the latest "emerging platforms," like social networks, iPhone, and Flash - or any other industry where the contours of the market haven't yet settled down.
Creative brilliance isn't the only way to the top; patience and execution can also give any company a puncher's chance, if it can recognize when and how to let fly.
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