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.