The 'fab four' game marketing maxims to live by

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[The GameDiscoverCo game discovery newsletter is written by ‘how people find your game’ expert & GameDiscoverCo founder Simon Carless, and is a regular look at how people discover and buy video games in the 2020s.]

Time for our second newsletter of the week. I will be leading this one off with a truly terrible opinion piece on why GameStop’s stock price shenanigans are inspired by the trading patterns of Animal Crossing’s Stalk Market. Gamers! (Just kidding.)

It’s actually starting with this:

Four indie game marketing maxims to live by

Just wanted to use the first part of this newsletter to highlight this Tweet from Hannah Flynn (communications director for Failbetter Games of Sunless Sea/Skies fame), who is a savvy operator in the marketing/discovery space.

Actually, her views align pretty well with what GameDiscoverCo thinks about game marketing:

Just commenting on each of these individually, since we feel strongly about them. And we’ve decided to theme each one of her points after a member of the Beatles, because it’s just been that kind of week:

Some things will work, some won’t - anything that worked 6 months ago probably won’t (Paul)

Two things here: first, understanding what isn’t working and de-emphasizing it is key. Why are you spinning so many plates, when you could be concentrating on the one or two things that make a difference? Second, keep up with trends. Like the Beatles, who were, let’s face it, masters of re-invention.

(And even reincarnation, in Paul’s case. Uh, did you know the bizarre ‘Paul Is Dead’ meme spawned a creepy song by Jose Feliciano of Feliz Navidad fame? Just found out myself. Sorry, sorry, I’ll get back to it…)

For example, Switch demos gave you a genuine sales boost in 2018, and in 2021… we think they’re probably marginal? But many people have valid data saying they made a difference at that time. So it can get a little confusing.

Then there’s the rise of TikTok, and a host of other platform rises and falls to keep an eye on. So - I don’t think the half-life of marketing/discovery tactics is necessarily 6 months. But there’s always a half-life to keep an eye on.

Insight is more interesting than data. Insight can come from anywhere (Ringo)

Ringo, here, has the look of a man overwhelmed by too much information/data. And sure, GameDiscoverCo trafficks heavily in data, so you might think Hannah’s comment is a negative for us.

But I completely agree. Data without insight is useless. The curse of data in marketing and discoverability nowadays is that there’s so much of it, and it’s incredibly difficult to work out the bits that matter.

An example: I’ve decided that most Steam page traffic data (kindly provided by Valve anyhow) is lower value. For me, it’s really follower and wishlist additions that provide better insight. So that’s what I try to spend time analyzing. That’s an insight-led decision to exclude data - which you can agree (or not agree!) with.

And on the subject of insight coming from anywhere? It’s often through talking to smart peers, reading widely, or even happenstance that a lot of my insights come up. So I encourage everyone else to do the same - take some time to get broad perspectives.

For example, I didn’t believe in the value of DLC, I talked to a bunch of smart folks about it, they changed my mind, and then I wrote about it. Hurray.

Routine reporting on social media is busywork that teaches you little (John)

Look, John Lennon was a pretty cool guy. Do you think John worried about reporting weekly Twitter impression numbers? Probably not, we’re guessing.

So Hannah’s point is good here. It’s good to keep half an eye these things. But I think game marketing should focus more around major initiatives - .what I’ve started calling ‘story beats’ in some of my recent presentations. What are your major story beats that will spike interest pre and post-release, in addition to the trickle of incremental info to engage your community?

And most importantly, you should aspire to a robust method of measuring success of major initiatives in terms of increased sales, as opposed to tracking follower increases in isolation. And it’s OK to say that something didn’t work very well, because then you can refocus on the things that might.

Use advertising sparingly (George)

OK, George has a wry look on his face here, as if he realizes this is one of my favorite subjects. And one I’m not sure I’ve ever had a chance to flex fully on the GameDiscoverCo newsletter before.

Here’s my 2c on paid game marketing for premium PC/console games: in today’s market, I’m not sure it works. Maybe a 25-50% return on each dollar spent? I do think it used to work (potentially!) in the days when there were a limited amount of games on retail shelves. And it absolutely works in the mobile F2P space (at least while IDFA exists) because you can ruthlessly track spend and ROI.

But on Steam or consoles, you can’t pixel track all the way to purchase. So regular advertising (Facebook, Twitter, display, even streamers) is incredibly difficult to quantify. (I know there’s some workarounds - I’m skeptical on privacy and results for them.) Sure, doing a little bit of launch advertising for visibility - to try to get the game noticed by organic streamers - that’s fine.

But it’s not good ROI to scale it, in our view. The stories I’ve been told are ‘I spent a bunch of money in a slow time for the game, and nothing happened’ and ‘there’s some return here, but it’s timed with a sale or launch, and I can’t show which is which’. And we’re not actually not a fan of publishing deals with guaranteed external spend on marketing, for this precise reason.

Anyhow, readers, provable positive ROI on external spending in video games outside of the F2P space - give it to me, and I’ll print it! And in the meantime, if you want some deliberately troll-ish views on this whole space, I refer you to Tim Hwang’s recent book on the ‘subprime attention crisis’, in which he says about Internet advertising: “People find it hard to believe that something so valuable and influential could, at its core, not really work.”

The game discovery news round-up..

Uhoh, I got all excited about The Beatles, and that’s taken up a big chunk of the newsletter. I even had to bump covering a couple of subjects until next week (boo!)

Specifically, the GameDiscoverCo Plus Discord has been discussing neat things like fake Steam game reviews & ‘over-achieving’ game genres. More on those soon, but don’t forget to sign up to Plus to get access to the Discord, the Steam Hype chart back-end, exclusive weekly newsletters & more!

Now, this:

  • Look, a helpful new feature from Valve! Steamworks just announced that “[the] backend now makes it easier to share your patch notes with players when you update your game. Immediately following when you set your new build live, you'll be prompted to post your change notes so players can read about what changed in your game.” And there’s a public patch log on the store page now. Wonderful - any other console platforms want to consider that? (You should!)

  • Thomas Bidaux of ICO Partners has done his typical yearly round-up of Kickstarter and games - of both the board and video game varieties. Tabletop games are now at $236 million (!!), and video games at just $23 million for the year, from 408 funded projects - but the most projects since 2014. There were six big (>$500k) video game projects, and “2020 has had the most projects raising between $10,000 and $50,000 of any year - lifting the median amount raised by video game projects.”

  • From veteran biz person (and former newsletter guest) Jason Della Rocca comes word that there’s a Quebec-specific Steam sale - with both newbies and veterans from the region - appearing here on Thursday at 10am PT, timed with a Twitch-streamed DemoNight broadcast on Thu/Fri/Sat showcasing a lot of upcoming titles from Montreal studios. It’s another physical => virtual event shift, and Jason’s promised to report back on Steam’s featuring results.

  • Just signposting that Apple’s push into AR - which will include games - is just about to kick off. Though the Bloomberg article suggests its “first crack at a headset is designed to be a pricey, niche precursor to a more ambitious augmented reality product that will take longer to develop.” Perhaps a 2022 launch? It’ll be “an all-encompassing 3-D digital environment for gaming, watching video and communicating”, apparently.

  • Do you like math(s) about discounts? Ryan Sumo does, and he tries to puzzle out the best launch discount for Academia: School Simulator leaving Early Access in this blog. This stuff is tricky, but I definitely appreciated this point: “So the takeaway here is avoid half measures when it comes to discounting. If you’re deciding between 50% and 40%, just commit to either, don’t do 45%.”

  • Microlinks: you can now submit to the GDC Indie Games Summit (for virtual or physical presentation!) for this July; the official list of Steam’s top releases for December 2020; some impressive Switch free-to-play numbers for Ninjala, which has 6 million downloads; how the Sokpop Collective made 78 Patreon-powered games (and made it work better financially after debuting ‘em on Steam!).

  • Microlinks #2: more than 19 million people grabbed Star Wars Battlefront II for free from the Epic Games Store, wow; Deep Rock Galactic busts out some super-impressive numbers - 2 million units, 1.05 million Steam followers; this ‘Gabe Newell takes New Zealand’ in-depth interview is definitely worth a read.

Finally, the latest Steam weekly charts did see some pretty major movement, with both Everspace 2 and Dyson Sphere Program rocketing into the charts, so just wanted to reprint it for your delectation:

(Dyson Sphere Program is particularly interesting - a Chinese-developed intergalactic factory simulator with majority Chinese-language reviews, but still thousands of Western positive reviews - it’s a rare crossover hit, and top of global sellers right now, even.)

[We’re GameDiscoverCo, a new agency based around one simple issue: how do players find, buy and enjoy your premium PC or console game? You can subscribe to GameDiscoverCo Plus to get access to exclusive newsletters, interactive daily rankings of every unreleased Steam game, and lots more besides.]