Category: marketing

Execution is marketing

Tadhg Kelly of What Games Are recently posted about the need for games to have a marketing story. While his overall point is a good one, I have to quibble with a comment he made in a follow-up post:

The hard part isn’t execution. […] The hard part is creating and living a marketing story that makes people pay attention, because there is no list to tell you how to do that.

Duke Nukem Forever ... for real this time?

For real this time?

For one thing, execution is hard. Having good tools and developers is necessary but not sufficient; it also requires perseverance, effective communication, and high tolerances for risk, rejection, and criticism. But there’s another reason execution is challenging, and it relates to Tadhg’s second point: your execution is part of your marketing story.

If your execution is poor, you’re effectively marketing only to that subset of your audience willing and able to hear your story amid the cacophony of bad word of mouth. The near-mythical Duke Nukem Forever is one cautionary tale: its story at this point is almost entirely about its troubled execution. You could argue that its execution has been so bad that its story has garnered more attention than a successful game would have, but that’s not a result I’d try to reproduce.

Minecraft: Blocks all the way down

Blocks all the way down

Minecraft, on the other hand, demonstrates how execution can make a positive contribution to a marketing story. Part of what makes its story so compelling is that Notch was a one-man wrecking crew for much of its development; had it been a AAA title produced by a more conventional team, reactions to the game likely wouldn’t have been nearly as strong.

While those are extreme examples, execution matters to nearly any game’s marketing story. It’s not just the choice of indie or not, though our decision to build Bastion: Call to Arms as a three-person, self-funded team certainly influences how we talk about it. It’s that players will also construct their own stories based on their experience with a game. Whatever your intended narrative, players will create competing tales of woe if your game is sufficiently buggy, unbalanced, or user-unfriendly.

Executing well is one way to make it more likely that your game is the hero rather than the villain of those tales. That in turn makes it possible for your own marketing story to be heard, especially if it complements or amplifies the stories of your players.

Dragon Age has been a fascinating game for me on a lot of levels.  There’s a gold mine of meta-game stuff to talk about here, enough so that I’ll probably save some of it for a later post to avoid the unseemly activity of me blabbing your ear off. Your health is always foremost in my thoughts, gentle reader.

To begin with, how the game came from being a dark horse to one of the hottest RPGs in 2009 is a great story in marketing (and the fact that it is a great game, but we all know being a great game is sometimes not enough). Though we started getting hints that this would be the next Baldur’s Gate around E3 2004, the game quickly fell back into the shadows and we went on with our lives, rocking out to other Bioware and Bioware spinoff titles like KOTOR2, Jade Empire, and Mass Effect. By the time 2009 rolled around, Dragon Age had been all but forgotten, and most of us when we heard the word “Bioware” started salivating in Pavlovian proportions with sci-fi visions of Mass Effect 2 and The Old Republic dancing through our heads. Then out of freaking nowhere emerges the Dragon Age team, an artifact of a bygone era. They brush the dust off their collective shoulders, blink into the harsh, foreign sunlight, and cry out, “Hello world! We are almost ready to give you a new fantasy game, full of angry, angry characters! Are you ready to rawwwwwwwck?”

To naught but the sound of a dog barking in the distance. Oh, crap.

Enter the publisher, EA, wringing its hands and saying, “This ain’t good, yo. We gotta step this up.” And to EA’s credit, they come up with some pretty neat tactics to drum up interest. Suddenly we start hearing about an online, Flash-based prequel game and a downloadable character generator, both of which will unlock unique items in the full game when it is released. My curiosity about this (ahem) brand new RPG is piqued. And then, the coup-de-grace: players who buy new copies of Dragon Age and Mass Effect 2 will get a unique item unlocked in both games. Sold.

The rest, as we know, is history. A history of awesome. The story told in the game is on par with Bioware’s best. The new engine is remarkable (with some uncanny valley creepiness, especially during Leliana’s song, but I digress). Combat on the PC is tactical and enjoyable throughout the whole game, which is much more than I can say for my typical RPG experience, but more on that in another post. If you’ve been waiting for a good RPG for a while and haven’t picked up Dragon Age do so. And get the PC version if you have the hardware for it. I’m sure glad I did, and I’m not sure I would have if EA hadn’t stepped up to the plate and figured out innovative ways to give the game the attention it deserved.

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