The game industry has undergone massive changes since its inception with rapid technological changes and new platforms transforming games from the motion of a handful of pixels into realistic 3D open-world simulations. Until the last few years, though, the same basic business model has driven game design, development and marketing for decades: Create a game, put it in a package and sell it at a retail store.
That traditional business model made things easier for both marketing and development. Marketing was a straightforward process of getting a package created, arranging for some advance press, then creating an ad campaign that would hit the major magazines. When the game launched, marketing was already moving onto the next product in the pipeline. Oh, there might be a classic edition of the game somewhere down the line, but for the most part both marketing and development were done with that product and on to the next one.
Now it's different. Digital distribution is taking over on all platforms, and that has multiple implications for both design and marketing. Games need no longer be constrained between a minimum and maximum length of game play set by the parameters of cost of goods and retail pricing. When your only way of obtaining a game was to pay $40 to $60 for it, and that was all you ever got, you expected at least a few dozen hours of game play for that price. Today games can be any length (from a few minutes to hundreds of hours), and size (from a few megabytes to the multi-gigabyte behemoth of World of Warcraft with all expansions) and price (from free to thousands of dollars with spending on virtual goods).
Even for games still sold primarily at retail as packaged goods, the game is no longer confined to the package. Publishers expect games to be 24/7/365 experiences, with regular doses of downloadable content (DLC), active communities and huge numbers of multiplayer online gamers. The retail release of a major game is merely one important event in the totality of that game's presence across platforms and over time. Games are now a process, a service, not a single boxed product. You have to build and maintain a community if you want to maximize your investment in creating a game.
While technological changes continue (with the growth of mobile platforms, average bandwidth, new consoles and increasing graphics power), the business model changes have been more revolutionary. Now free-to-play (F2P) is the dominant model for mobile platforms and MMO's, and it's starting to appear on consoles as well. Subscriptions and ad-supported games generate substantial revenue each year, and the sale of virtual goods is rivaling the sale of packaged goods in retail stores.
Digital distribution has lowered barriers to game distribution, resulting in a huge wave of new games. Thousands of new games are introduced every week on all platforms, and discoverability has become the key problem facing game developers. Players need to find your game, download it, play it, and then get engaged with it enough to want to spend money on it. Getting enough players to do all those things with your game is a huge problem to overcome.
What does all this mean? The time has come for marketing and game design to evolve into a new, blended discipline. I call it Design For Marketing, modeled after the engineering principle of Design For Manufacturing – the practice of designing products to be easy to make, which can save substantial time and money for companies that embrace the principle.
Design For Marketing is the principle of designing a game such that it makes a game easier to market. More than that, in the case of games it's essential to integrate the knowledge of the audience and player behavior into the design of the game. This will create better monetization and an ongoing fan base, maximizing the game's fun, lifespan and earning potential.
Look at the most successful free-to-play games on the market, like World of Tanks, League of Legends, Clash of Clans. What do they have in common about how they monetize the game? Not much – League of Legends has you buying new skins for characters and new champions; World of Tanks lets you earn more experience through a premium subscription; Clash of Clans lets you buy speedups as well as upgrades to troops and buildings.
The lesson is this: There's no One True Way to monetize a free-to-play game. Monetization has to be organically integrated into the design in such a way that players are happy to pay for desired things. How do you create that sort of a game design? By having marketing (or, at least, marketing thinking) integrated with the design process from the start. If you wait until the game is nearly done to figure out something to sell, it's not likely to work, or to work well.
Marketing and design should work closely to help games find an audience. Games need to have as many 'hooks' as possible to attract the attention of gamers. Many things can be hooks: A well-known designer with a large following (like Warren Spector or Sid Meier) is a hook. A familiar brand (like Call of Duty, Madden Football, Super Mario or Halo) is a hook. Hooks can also be a popular license, an innovative game design, a celebrity tie-in, an unusual game subject, the personal struggle of the creator – anything that can attract attention. The more hooks you have, the better.
Once you've gotten a player's attention, you have to engage them. That means excellent game design and execution, of course. But it also means building a community both before and after the sale, and maintaining that community. A constant flow of communication and oversight is needed to be successful with community building.
Game designers need to understand and think like marketers to optimize the design, and marketers need to understand the essence of a game design and how it helps achieve marketing objectives. Designers and marketers should work together from the beginning of a game project to create the very best game possible. The best game is one that's incredibly fun and incredibly profitable at the same time. Design For Marketing is essential to make that happen.