The search is on for a new approach to binding product development and market making in the game industry as more and more products are served digitally. It’s the search for publisher 2.0. This series has covered the issues facing developers and publishers in the shift to digital. It started with how developers gunning for success in the category might overlook essentials, some in their haste to shun the old publishing model. The last piece drilled down on the fundamental differences between marketing packaged versus service-based games.
Both articles have also argued how important it is to establish a cohesive branding strategy. It’s critical for an entertainment product, where people have become accustomed to highly creative marketing campaigns that are compelling and aim to entertain.
In the search for publisher 2.0, let’s look at one company that gets it.
“A brand is nothing more than a promise between you and your community,” says Bryan Chu from Wizards of the Coast. “The validity of that promise is expressed in every interaction, every product release, and every experience you create together.”
One way to look at a brand is that it’s the wrapper for a product. It’s a potential customer’s first impression. Whether they run into an ad pasted on the side of a building or find a game in a Tweet from a friend, the first impression better be good. So should the second, and the third and so on. According to Chu, Wizards of the Coast goes to the level of seeing their flagship franchise, Magic The Gathering, as a lifestyle brand.
“Regardless of the level of player or whether their play experience is in stores, around the kitchen table, or digitally, we continuously and actively engage with our players,” says Chu, adding how key to the effort is “unity of voice and messaging across all channels.”
That stance came into play when the company was ready to take their IP, viewed as the most successful trading card game in history, into digital games. It was with the release of Duels of the Planewalkers. The game hit PC and console digital game stores just under a year ago and has been selling briskly, becoming one of the most successful Xbox Live Arcade titles of all time.
We go in-depth with Chu, who serves as Wizards of the Coast’s senior business manager, on how strength of brand as well as tactics unique to digital games factored into how they marketed Duels of the Planewalkers.
Steve Fowler: What’s your opinion on the importance of building a brand around a game product, and how did you approach it with Duels of the Planewalkers?
Bryan Chu: It’s about the overall brand experience. I think you need to build a brand holistically and deliberately. You can’t just throw product out there hoping that people will find it anymore. You can’t just think of your players as consumers or worse yet, wallets. You need to think of them as partners in the experience that you’re creating together. It’s not about sales or moving units in the short term. It’s about creating great experiences and touch points and by doing so creating lasting, long term value. We don’t think of Duels of the Planewalkers as a one-off Magic experience, but rather as an on-ramp to the greater Magic brand.
Steve Fowler: Give us an idea of how you manage the consumer message over time to keep it fresh and relevant and continue to attract and retain players after launch?
Bryan Chu: It’s about integration and providing a consistent and great experience in both the campaign and the products. That means constant innovation for both, and understanding your consumer. Who they are, what they want, where they are, how and when they play and on what journeys they want to go on with you. That means as marketers we need to listen and not just pitch. Every time a consumer buys a game, a piece of DLC, or plays in an event they are telling us something. Our job is to hear what they’re saying and to work with the rest of the team to provide that next great experience.
Marketing in this day and age isn’t just about acquisition of new players. This isn’t the game industry 10 years ago when it was all about gearing up the hype machine and getting a huge launch only to move onto the next big launch once product was on store shelves. It’s now, more than ever, about managing the lifecycle of franchises. We’re a part of our players’ lives and we have a responsibility to work just as hard to build engaging experiences as we did to get them to try us out in the first place.
Steve Fowler: How did you approach different channels to get your message across, whether through paid ads or earned media such as social or community?
Bryan Chu: We’re fortunate as a company to have such a robust and engaged fan community, so much so that our earned media efforts often take on a life of their own. This carries over to fantastic traffic to our owned media, which of course creates improved efficiency for paid media. Our players are great. It all starts with them and continuously providing them with great experiences.
Steve Fowler: Can you give us some examples of what tactics work well with selling digital games on consoles?
Bryan Chu: If there is one thing that I’ve learned over the years is that there’s no such thing as a small launch. There is a tendency to think of digitally distributed titles as small plays, or side projects and not deserving of focus and attention due to smaller budgets and lower price points. However, this “small play” might be a player’s first and potentially only contact with their brand. In fact, given the delivery and the generally lower prices, it’s even more likely that a player will come into contact with a digital product. We put as much effort behind Duels of the Planewalkers as we would anything else.
Steve Fowler: With eSports being a huge focus for Magic The Gathering, tell us how this works into each product’s marketing strategy?
Bryan Chu: Wizards has the most robust organized play program of any company I’ve ever been a part of. The team here provides amazing experiences year round for all levels of play, from local level Friday Night Magic events to the Pro Tour. Not only are events happening for all levels of players, but they are also happening all the time in a myriad of locations. Players can walk down the street to their local store, hop online and play digitally, or just login to the website to view the robust coverage of the Pro Tour events. What this means from a marketing perspective is that it’s extremely easy to be highly engaged in Magic.
Steve Fowler: What advice can you give to marketers of smaller digital games with limited resources and budgets?
Bryan Chu: The first bit of advice is not to over focus on your limited resources and budget. No one, in the history of the world, has ever gone to market with as much budget as they would have liked. Understand your core consumer and who your target is. Serve that community. Digital marketing is disciplined marketing. It’s more similar to traditional CPG [consumer packaged goods] marketing than the old launch based game campaigns. That means the devil is in the details and getting all those things right.
To me, digital games are making games marketing grow up. We’re suddenly a real discipline and not just a bunch of guys thinking of throwing feather boas onto the Statue of Liberty. That also means that it suddenly is less about the budget and more about your skill as a marketer. Doing your homework, spending those hours in front of your spreadsheets and building your strategies is more important than ever. That is what will let you optimize your budget and make your campaign as efficient as possible. And if your budget is limited, that efficiency is what is going to make or break you.
The other piece of advice is something that does still hold true from traditional video games. Work on your relationships with your product teams. With digital games, especially F2P and rapidly evolving micro-transactional games, the relationship between marketing and development is more critical than ever. You need to be partners from inception through launch and beyond. Good marketing helps good products succeed, and good products make good campaigns great.
Steve Fowler: Bryan, thanks.
Steve Fowler is a thirteen year veteran of the interactive entertainment industry. He is responsible for the brand identity and launch of the Halo franchise at Microsoft Corporation, Inc., and has held marketing and business development roles at Interplay, Sega Sammy Holdings, Inc., Square Enix, Inc., and Take-Two Interactive Software, Inc. He is the chief architect of the one of its kind annual industry conference the [a]list summit, and has been incubating new digital game publisher [a] list games internally at Ayzenberg Group for the past year. For more information on [a]list games, visit www.alistgames.com.