Steve Allison is Midway’s Chief Marketing Officer. His games industry started back in 1994, with San Jose-based Accolade. “That was my first job out of college, working as associate brand manager on Hardball,” he told Gamasutra in an interview at Midway's Chicago studio.
“It was a good learning experience. Three-fourths of the marketing team got fired after I got there. I ended up being the only marketing guy, besides my boss. It was pretty interesting.”
“Then I worked on the re-launch of the Test Drive series,” Allison says. “Love it or hate it, but we had great success there.”
After an acquisition by Infogrames, Allison, now Director of Marketing, moved to open the Los Angeles office. Infogrames would then purchase Hasbro and GT Interactive before being renamed Atari, with Allison taking the Vice President of Business Development role at the newly named company.
Allison’s team assimilated the majority of the GT properties, including the Unreal Tournament launch, and Neverwinter Nights for Hasbro. Allison continued to launch major titles and series for Atari such as Enter the Matrix and Driver 3, until the later part of 2003, when Midway appeared with a job opportunity. “It was the right opportunity at the right time," he said.
To Vet an Idea
The product development talent at Midway was some of the best Allison had seen. “Not only from a design standpoint, from a technical standpoint. They just had not been making the right kind of products internally.”
“We spent the last couple year re-inventing out product strategy and product line. With the cost of development so high, we need to make sure it’s got the highest possible potential. We have a company that we’ve engaged,” Allison reveals, “To vet concepts, the potential of concepts.”
“We’ve probably tested about fifty concepts,” Allison continues. “It’s a format that’s just one page, that doesn’t give any acknowledgement to the execution or graphics. ‘How big is the big idea?’ It’s very projectable. We’ve tested some of Midway’s older stuff, we test our competitor’s stuff in the mix.” This testing process costs about $20,000 per title. “We’ve spent almost a million bucks testing concepts. We’re only making games that are in the upper quartile.”
“God bless everyone in product development," said Allison. "Product development folks are so focused on things they think are cool, that we end up with every game concept as post-apocalyptic shooter, robots, mechs. There is a place for that, but there’s a place for a couple of those games. We’re going to see ninety-percent of those games fail, and ten-percent make it.”
Making the Numbers
Another element is how the product reaches customers. “I think we’re going to play with a lot of digital distribution stuff,” states Allison. “But I don’t think it’s going to rule the day for five or six more years. It will never replace stores.”
“They predict this huge growth for our business,” he continues. “The only way that happens is if retail stays the same, and digital distribution happens, and the Wii is just as successful as the PS3 and Xbox 360.”
Marketing That Pays For Itself
Allison says that PR is the most cost-effective marketing on the planet. How do you leverage PR? You make everything you do an event, and you cut advertising costs through simple media exposure. “If I got Dwayne [Johnson] on Spy Hunter, I’m going to get him on broadcast. We’re going to put him on a press tour when we launch the game.”
Allison also cites Lawrence Taylor appearing on ESPN for a ten-minute segment. The cost of that, on a media basis, would be around $1.5 million. “We had to spend ten grand, ‘here’s your appearance fee,’ and a PR guy had to go with him for a week. Ten grand [or] a million-and-a-half…” Allison continues, “It works the same as a commercial, basically.”
“I really care about PR more than anything.” Allison declares, adding, “There is no 'one-size-fits-all' marketing plan for games.”
“Every game,” Allison says, “you go in with a blueprint. We make every team plan for a demo.” They also plan to have certain deliverables for certain gamers days, and for other press needs. “As things take shape, you customize it on a title-by-title basis.”
Beating a Dead Vibe
Allison also believes that Midway is in the middle of a big change in image. “If you ask someone about Midway, they’ll say Mortal Kombat, Spy Hunter, Rampage. They still don’t say, Stranglehold, Unreal Tournament, Psi-Ops. We have a long way to go.” Allison hopes the new releases will drive that new identity.
“I don’t want to be identified as the fighting game company, or the shooter company,” said Allison. Instead, Allison wants people to look at Midway releases, and say, ‘I know it’s going to be a good game.’
“We killed Fear and Respect,” Allison explains, “because we have enough data-points to know the hood thing is basically dead. It would be dead before it came out. And you don’t want to come out on a dead vibe.”
Another strategic move is for Midway to publish Lord of the Rings Online, developed by Turbine. “We’re working closely with them,” Allison says. “That’s a big investment. We may have some other announcements in the future. It’s got be the right kind of MMO. Just doing some random MMO is not smart.”
“To me,” continues Allison, “Doing Lord of the Rings is a big idea that’s worth taking a chance on.” Is Midway doing the billing and collecting for LoTRO? “No, not yet. But…I can’t say anything.”
“We want to be in the space," he says. "We will be in the space; with the right thing, at the right time."
Steve Allison ends our interview by summarizing his ingrained belief in the powers of marketing.
“Doing a good job in marketing means the game takes care of itself when it gets to stores," he says. "When you execute perfect marketing, the retail piece is a snap."