Once, market researchers determined how many games publishers should release in a given period of time, for which platforms, in which genres. But the discipline of understanding consumers has become more sophisticated than ever, and it's platform-agnostic. Consumers are attracted to games by context and occasion, not by rigid segments.
Thats what EA Games' group VP of marketing strategy Laura Miele has learned in her 16 years with the publisher. Notably she originated the company's business intelligence team in 2004, born from a desire to improve sales forecasting in a time when investors began feeling like some predictability might be key to making games a desirable sector.
"A lot of it was trying to offer better transparency... it was about being a little more sophisticated as a business and trying to understand what was happening in the marketplace," Miele tells us. "Forecasting is really interesting, because at its very core, understanding the implication and correlation of something as it relates to a sale... there are so many different inputs that can happen."
Before she was a marketer, she was an investigative reporter, efforts Miele says help inform her understanding of how to gather market intelligence. Her work is the sort that's rarely examined in-depth, although much discussed in the games media and community; many often discuss the extent to which market research influences publisher product plans and timing, or whether it inhibits developer creativity, or how much Metacritic scores really do predict sales.
About that: "Metacritic is a reliable sales predictor in broad ranges, but I don't think if [a game gets] an 88 instead of an 86, we should expect to sell 100,000 more units, or something like that," Miele opines. "There are things in tipping points -- sales of things in the 70s versus things in the 80s and 90s, there is definitely a correlation."
It's more than running business by spreadsheets, she says: "Having some subjective input and gut instinct... the art and science together is really important."
Her business intelligence team evolved with the addition of an economist; the group created models around correlation about factors like licensing, the competitive landscape, and various business trends. An opportunity to do category management at Wal Mart, Best Buy and Target also provided the opportunity to learn more about hardware forecasting and audience-sizing, and when Miele had the opportunity to return to the marketing group thereafter, she felt she had some learnings to bring back with her.
"It's been an exciting evolution, because we really have been able to enable our creative teams to be even more creative and informed without feeling restricted by the marketing mandates we might have," she says. "We understand what consumers want more, and can develop more meaningful product features and better messaging."
The prejudice goes that marketers supposedly research popular feature sets and then "force" devs to apply them across an entire product portfolio whether or not they suit, just because those features seem to be selling well. That's no longer the prevailing wisdom, and as obsolete is the idea of strict consumer types, too, Miele says.
"It was common for companies to segment the marketplace," she says of a few years back in marketing strategy. "Like, there's an Xbox 360 shooter consumer, or you have a PS3 sports fan consumer. And I knew that's not how people were consuming content."
Suspecting that occasion was the most important factor drawing a consumer to one game over another, Miele went in-depth. "It's a far more intelligent way for us to look at the market, to look at consumers' motivations and needs," she says. "We deployed a very progressive consumer segmentation study, and it helped us categorize consumers in a way that was more about why do they play games, what do they get from the experience."
"We went into people's homes," she continues. "I went on a couple of these trips, and we asked 300 consumers across the globe to take all their games, place them on the floor and sort them... not a single consumer organized them by platform or genre."
Instead, players picked their favorites for given situations; beloved games depended on mood, or whether there were others present, or whether they wanted to play online or not. Preferences had nearly nothing to do with genre or platform or previously-conceived notions about demographics and feature sets, but rather the time, mood and context in which people liked to play.
This means "we aren't just beholden to, 'okay, we need 30 iPhone games and here's a trend here we have to go chase," Miele explains. "We're really just understanding the dynamic of the consumer, and that really liberates our teams."
Instead of feeling restricted by marketers, this approach brings marketing into better concert with developers, who Miele believes have been longing to be better informed about what their audiences want the most.
For example, in examining the audience for the Dead Space brand, a study revealed that one limitation that might be preventing the critically-acclaimed title from breaking out into the wider mainstream in a big way was that it was just too scary for many people to play alone. Audiences enjoy horror and thrills, but jump-out-of-your-seat experiences are commonly shared with friends or significant others.
"That's how co-op was introduced," Miele says. "Cooperative play was the ticket; that is the key need and motivation for consumers. I genuinely believe that there's a deep strategy that isn't just about a checklist of, 'this game did quite well and it had co-op in it, so let's put co-op in this.'"
She also believes the Visceral team had a "phenomenal" time working on the co-op, which has added an additional dimension of gameplay for Dead Space.
After some time working on EA's Play4Free label, under which Battlefield is the marquee, Miele also says marketers in the core space can benefit in a big way from looking at the free-to-play space, a complicated infrastructure of acquisition and retention that's data-driven -- developers can adjust for major bottlenecks, and those are learnings AAA designers can benefit from, too.
As a result of those infrastructure studies, Battlefield won a Google Zeitgeist award, the first time a game had won that particular measure of brand awareness -- even over the iPhone. "It was incredibly exciting, because it was a validation of, 'let's be smart when we're talking to our consumers," Miele says.
"We can develop persistent content and services, and stay engaged with [players] over time. I think that's an incredible opportunity -- it is reinventing the paradigm of the high-def product offering," Miele concludes.