GDC: The Best Ways To Monetize Games And Promote Engagement

With the explosion of free-to-play games (especially on mobile), coupled with the incredible rise of eSports, it’s more important than ever to not only attract a big audience, but keep them as engaged and paying users. At GDC, developers and market analysts discuss how to monetize gamers and convert new players to paying ones.

Companies like Google are looking to help developers grow their audience and revenues from the 1.5 billion mobile gamers that are out there in the world with the “Grow Users, Earn Revenue: How to Build a Successful Games Business with Google” session, presented by two of Google’s product managers who were joined by Matt Casertano, SVP of game operations at SGN (famous for Cookie Jam). Attendees learned how to better use Google’s ad solutions, like the recently announced “Search Trial Run Ad” program, which lets users stream up to 10 minutes of a game straight from the browser search listing without having to download or install anything.

But building an audience is just the start. Games need engaging content to get them to stay. King Digital, makers of mega-hit games like Candy Crush Saga, talked about how compelling game experiences lead to a successful game economy in a session titled, “To Buy or Not to Buy.”

This is a strategy that is echoed by Joost van Dreunen, CEO of SuperData Research, who presented the “Best Practices: User Conversion, Payment Flows and In-Game Economy Management” session at GDC. When asked what the best incentive is for converting players, he responded, “Focusing on the player’s experience, and designing something that is larger than just the game, is key. Companies like Riot [League of Legends] keep a strict mantra of ‘player experience first, monetization second,’ and it is paying the dividends. But you have to be willing and able to control all aspects, which is usually much more than companies want to commit to.”

[a]listdaily also asked about how monetization strategies have changed with the explosive growth of free-to-play games. “Initially, monetization was more of an after-thought,” said van Dreunen. “Following a flawed logic of ‘If we build it, they will come,’ a lot of game companies discovered that having a lot of traffic doesn’t automatically translate into a sustainable business or worthwhile experience for the end-user. In a sense, game companies have matured around monetization as it is now part of the overall design strategy.”

At the same time, eSports have become a powerful means of prolonging both player engagement and a game’s lifespan. Counter-Strike: Global Offensive released in 2012, and has been a mainstay among eSports tournaments. The game’s life actually goes back further if you count the initial release of Counter-Strike in 2000. League of Legends first hit the scene in 2009. Topping both is StarCraft, the game credited for being the original eSport when it released in 1998, and is still being played almost twenty years later. This kind of long-term engagement made sessions like “Exploring Monetization in eSports: How to Extend Your Consumer Engagement,” where eSport executives discussed strategies for integrating eSports into a game’s ecosystem, all the more relevant.

Furthermore, Microsoft announced the Xbox Live Tournament Platform yesterday, which will be supported on both Xbox One and Windows 10. Created in partnership with companies FaceIT and ESL, and due to arrive at the end of the year, the platform lets developers set up small-scale tournaments and possibly help games grow in popularity as a competitive eSport. If successful, eSport promotion could become an integral part of a great many competitive games in the future.

When asked how this new platform could help game monetization, van Dreunen responded, “This is going to be a great way for small games to encourage engagement which will have an indirect return on investment. But monetizing matchmaking directly will alienate players, so as long as publishers are looking at this as a means of building their player community, it will prolong player lifetime and affinity with the title.”

There are a couple different monetization strategies, but what’s the most common mistake developers make when they try to get users to purchase premium content? “It varies, of course,” said van Dreunen. “But game makers often overlook the amount of available content today. Basic economics tell you that if there is an abundance of supply, prices tend to come down. In another time, you could write a book, and live off the proceeds for the rest of your life. Entertainment in general has become more abundant, easier to produce, and it is consequently more challenging to hold on to price points from the past.”

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SGN Brings A Marketing Gem To The Streets of San Francisco For GDC

The Game Developers Conference is clearly the place for the games industry to get together and talk about all aspects of the business, but it can also be a place to actually market games. Yes, there are booths in the Expo designed to promote games to the assembled industry insiders, but in a bold move mobile/web game publisher SGN took to the streets to get some attention for its newest game, Genies & Gems.

SGN’s newest match-3 puzzle game, Genies & Gems, is available on iTunes, Google Play and Facebook. “Players will have their wishes granted as they play through magical worlds like Hideout Go Seek, Chilled to the Core and Heart of Golden Shadows. With hundreds of levels currently available, Genies & Gems will continue to release 20 spellbinding new levels per week where players can recover lost relics, collect gold bars and see where enchanted keys lead them,” said the company’s press release.

To celebrate the game’s launch, SGN will have a special surprise for San Franciscans and those attending the Game Developers Conference this week. People may get their wishes granted or score some precious metals and gems just walking about in downtown San Francisco.

[a]listdaily caught up with Josh Brooks, SVP of brand strategy and marketing for SGN, to find out more about this promotion.

What led you to decide on a promotional event to launch Genies & Gems?

GDC is an epicenter for the business of gaming. The conference brings talent from all parts of the games industry from around the world. Genies & Gems is our newest game launch, so we decided to celebrate by bringing the adventure to life in the real world. Treasure hunts, quests for jewels and the lore of genies granting wishes appeals to everyone. Deep down, everyone wishes they were a genie. And for a few hours on Wednesday, the magic becomes real.

How does the promotion work? What sort of prizes are you offering, and what’s the total value of the prizes?

The Genie of San Francisco has found his way to the Moscone Center and surrounding blocks for the afternoon. His “genie bottle” bag will be packed with gems, silver, rings, earrings, necklaces and even real silver bars! If you happen to find him—I suggest you make eye contact (unlike Medusa) and wave your arms frantically to get his attention before he floats on by. The “wishes” he’s granting are real and so are the carat weights!

How are you measuring the success of the promotion? Is there a certain number of impressions or people you’re trying to reach?

The promotion for SGN and Genies & Gems is about celebrating the game launch and sharing it with more people. As one of the few global publishers with four or more titles consistently on the top-grossing charts on any given day, we’re proud to be in most people’s pockets and wanted to take an extra step to surprise and delight people in real life.

For those not in San Francisco or at GDC, we’re also using our vast social network to broadcast the fun for everyone to experience. From the new Facebook Live Mentions and Periscope to Snapchat, Twitter and Instagram.

How does this promotion connect to other marketing efforts for Genies & Gems? What’s the overall marketing strategy?

Genies & Gems is a really well-developed and polished game. We have a lot of exciting things to share—from new levels and adventures to upcoming promotions—over the coming weeks and months. But, because the GDC audience is filled with such talented and passionate creators and game enthusiasts from all over, we wanted to kick off our strategy here with Jesse as our generous genie to celebrate the game’s initial launch.

Will you be doing similar promotions for titles like Cookie Jam?

Games have become brands with real personality and attitude, with fan followings to match. We’ve had a lot of fun with Cookie Jam in the last year with Ken Jeong starring in a series of quirky TV ads that aired both in the US and internationally. Cookie Jam has amassed an audience of over 70 million downloads and this week, we’re treating the GDC audience to an awesome life-size Cookie Jam cover band taking requests outside of the conference and serving up (real) cookies to fuel attendees up on the way to the main hall.

Do you think this kind of promotion is a valuable marketing tool for mobile games in general, or just in certain cases?

Absolutely. The games space is highly competitive and it’s difficult to rise above the noise of what’s hot in-the-moment. These types of promotions really only work when you have a well-oiled marketing machine actively acquiring new users, a strong network of game titles to cross-pollinate to, and strict content cadence that keeps users engaged with new game content weekly. That’s the perfect storm of winning… along with a homepage feature in the App Store or Google Play!

Was this a difficult promotion to devise and execute?

We were all big fans of the Skating Genie in NYC, and were excited about the prospect of him coming to the West Coast to bring the Genies & Gems story to life as he cruised through the city sharing gems and granting wishes—it’s definitely not easy to fly a genie around a packed city during a game conference, but we knew Jesse could pull it off. Part of the fun in working with an uber-prankster like Jesse, is he has no shortage of crazy ideas! We also knew we wanted to make people laugh and have a light moment to enjoy a break during the hustle and bustle of GDC. That’s where the musical-singing Cookie Jammers came in, wearing the costumes that were such a hit in the Ken Jeong Cookie Jam ads.

Any time you come up with an offline promotion for a digital or online product, it becomes a challenge. SGN is a game studio and these things aren’t part of the norm for us. There is always a tendency to over-engineer an event or activity, but at the end of the day—a focus on simplicity and delight gets you where you need to be.

SGN's Cookie Jammers


SXSW Exec Explains How The Festival Is Upping Its Game

South by Southwest (SXSW) Gaming, presented by Razer and Twitch, is back with three event-filled days, March 17-19. Among the highlights is a $25,000 Nintendo Super Smash Bros. Melee tournament that Twitch will livestream to the world. ESports panels and pro gamers will also be attending the event. The annual SXSW Gaming Awards will be hosted by YouTube personality Seán “Jacksepticeye” William McLoughlin and popular eSports icon Rachel “Seltzer” Quirico on March 19.

Over these three days, all of the panels, video games, concerts and events will be available for free and accessible without a SXSW badge. Topics range from virtual reality and augmented reality to eSports and indie games.

Over 56,000 gamers attended last year’s event, which continues to attract larger audiences each year. Justin Burnham, producer of SXSW Gaming, talks about the role eSports plays at this event in this exclusive interview.

How has the role of eSports grown at SXSW over the years?

ESports has grown as quickly as the rest of our show. We started featuring an eSports tournament at our show in 2012 with League of Legends. From there, we’ve produced even greater events for Dota 2 and Street Fighter IV, and now we’re set on having an exceptional year with Super Smash Bros. Melee. ESports has now become a staple of the SXSW Gaming event.

How big is eSports at this year’s convention across panels and this Nintendo event?

A tenth of our panels involve eSports, and when you consider how large the scope of our panels actually is, you’ll realize how huge an indicator this is for how quickly eSports will grow in the coming years. Some of our key speakers who are heading up eSports in both major and startup companies are Ujesh Desai of Logitech, James Grunke of Nvidia, Rahul Sood of Unikrn, Chris Puckett of Activision-Blizzard and many more.

How does eSports connect with the SXSW audience?

Austin is actually a hotbed for eSports. We’ve had so many great things start and come out of Austin, including the former collegiate-club-turned-national-organization TeSPA, leading eSports publication The Daily Dot, and now we can include the world’s largest eSports LAN event, Dreamhack, making its U.S. premiere right here at home.

We also have a diverse crowd of almost every eSports fan base, which allows us the flexibility of showcasing new and great games every year. With the convergence of mediums and interests that we bring at SXSW, we’re even creating a new wave of eSports enthusiasts year after year.

How big of an attraction have these types of live eSports tournaments been over the years for attendees?

Each year our show has grown greatly from 30,000 attendees only a few years ago to over 56,000 attendees just last year. ESports has been instrumental in driving large crowds full of energy and action to our show, and each year both our eSports fan base and our general gaming attendees grow hand-in-hand. It’s become so great that we’re even giving eSports the star treatment by using the famous Vimeo Theater at SXSW to host our tournament this year.

How are you working with Nintendo on this year’s Super Smash Bros. Melee tournament?

Nintendo is looking for more ways to become involved in the eSports scene, and with our history of hosting special events together in the past, we decided to use this year as a way to capitalize on the bustling Super Smash Bros. community found here in Texas. The feedback for our tournament thus far has been overwhelmingly positive, and we feel like we’ve struck gold going forward.

What’s the prize breakdown for the $25,000?

A full breakdown of prizes is: $13,000 for 1st place, $5,000 for 2nd place, $3,000 for 3rd place, $1,500 for 4th place, $750 for 5th and 6th place and $500 for 7th and 8th place.

How were the 20 players for this invitational selected?

We invited the best players from around the world based on a mixture of tournament results, online ranking statistics and availability. Although we wanted to ensure that we had every best player from around the world, we had to factor in their availability and how easily it would be to travel internationally. Even though the public may not see a perfect Top 20 ranking in our roster, we assure you that this is going to be a clash of champions throughout the tournament.

Is this tournament an experiment to add more live eSports to SXSW in the future?

We wouldn’t call this tournament an experiment, as we’ve been heavily involved in growing eSports at our show for the past few years. If anything, this is just another way of proving why eSports deserves the recognition it receives at one of the largest festivals in the world. We’ll continue to grow our panels and events relating to eSports as the eSports industry continues to grow itself.

PAX has become synonymous with eSports events over the years. Do you feel SXSW could become a part of established eSports league or competition stops in the future?

We wouldn’t consider PAX as synonymous with eSports as say, Dreamhack, but we have noticed the increase in interest for eSports at shows like PAX. For now, SXSW will continue to host exceptional events and tournaments for eSports and welcome new opportunities for tournament tours in the future as well.

What’s your big picture goal with eSports at SXSW?

Like with anything gaming-related, we’re looking to be on the cusp of innovative trends and be a leading event for every field we possibly can. We want to give eSports more recognition, not just within the gaming industry, but all over the world and across different industries. This is something that fits really well within SXSW as a whole, and we’re excited to continue building and supporting eSports in the years to come.

What opportunities does eSports open up for the convention in terms of new sponsorships?

It gives an opportunity for brands outside of the normal games industry to be able to participate that want to be involved in gaming in some way, but wouldn’t make sense otherwise. In most cases, these are general consumer brands such as automobile companies, energy drink companies, etc. The possibilities only continue to grow as we continue to diversify our portfolio of events at SXSW.

How do you see the Twitch broadcast connecting the SXSW brand to the gaming audience?

It first raises the awareness of what SXSW actually is, which a lot of gamers aren’t completely aware of. The benefit to this is that once audiences become familiar with SXSW, they’ll then already know we’re a brand that caters to them with our fully fleshed-out SXSW Gaming event. On the other hand, working with Twitch is another key example of how SXSW can help the games industry begin to branch out beyond the usual clientele that everyone works with event after event, year after year. Twitch’s broadcasting provides a highly valuable experience for all parties involved, and we’re proud to be working with them this year.

Ubisoft Takes A Leap Of Faith Into Virtual Reality

Ubisoft isn’t shy when it comes to adopting new technologies and media. It was one of the early supporters of the dual screen Wii U experience when it was first announced with the survival horror game ZombiU. The company has taken full advantage of motion sensing technologies like the Kinect and PlayStation Move with games like the popular Just Dance series and Child of Eden. Now the video game publisher is looking to help pioneer the VR era, which has already gained over $1 billion in investment this year.

As virtual reality technology continues to grow, Ubisoft wants to be among the first in line to provide memorable content. Here are some of the experiences we have coming our way.

Trackmania Turbo

The publisher started on the fast track to VR during last year’s E3, where it announced the high-speed arcade racing game, Trackmania Turbo. Although it looks like the game is set to release this month as a non-VR title, the developers have promised VR support using PlayStation VR and Oculus Rift. That means, Trackmania players will one day find themselves racing through a loop at breakneck speeds in virtual reality. The open beta begins this weekend, so fans should strap in for a crazy ride.

Ubisoft’s E3 2015 presentation also featured a VR demo using the “definition of insanity” scene from Far Cry 3, which gave players the experience of being buried up to their necks in sand while a lunatic named Vaas taunted them with a monologue. Although these experiments were done mostly as a proof of concept, they clearly demonstrated the great potential of virtual reality, and how it could fully immerse players in a scene.

Eagle Flight

Ubisoft made its official move, or (more appropriately) flight, into virtual reality with the announcement of Eagle Flight as a full game at the PlayStation Experience conference in December. Until then, it was regarded as an experimental VR experience that was showcased alongside a number of other prototypes at E3. Now, fans can look forward to soaring through the skies, dodge obstacles, and exploring iconic landmarks as a virtual eagle. Best of all, players don’t have to take the trip alone. They can fly alongside five friends for an amazing experience. Eagle Flight will be available for PlayStation VR, Oculus Rift and HTC Vive later this year.

Werewolves Within

Werewolves Within takes a decidedly unique approach toward virtual reality gaming. It isn’t a fast-paced race, as seen with Trackmania Turbo and Eagle Flight, nor does it have the intensity of the Far Cry 3 VR demo. Instead, it challenges players to be social, crafty, observant and outspoken. The goal is for players, whose avatars are seated around a campfire, to question each other and figure out who among them is a werewolf. Meanwhile, the wolf must find ways to make everyone else think it’s someone else.

Developing a fully multiplayer game is a bold move, and relies heavily on groups of friends (or social players) all picking up VR technology. But, at the same time, this could be the kind of game that will lead players to encourage their friends to jump into virtual reality with them… and perhaps howl at the moon.

Assassin’s Creed Experience

The Assassin’s Creed movie, starring Michael Fassbender, is due to release in December and it promises to bring the game series to all-new heights of popularity. So, it’s no wonder Ubisoft is eager to promote the film using virtual reality. The Assassin’s Creed VR Experience was announced this week during AMD’s GDC press conference. Developed in partnership with FOX and Practical Magic VR, the experience uses footage that was filmed alongside the movie, and includes locations such as Malta, Spain and the United Kingdom.

Little else is known about the VR experience, other than how it is expected to release this year as a promotion, and not as a full-featured game. Neither Ubisoft nor Practical Magic have revealed specifics about the experience’s contents, or which devices will be supported. Still, the idea of taking a virtual “Leap of Faith” from a towering landmark is enough to get fans excited for both the experience and the movie. Who knows? Perhaps this could lead to VR support for the next Assassin’s Creed game when it’s announced in 2017.


Although the Assassin’s Creed Experience is a big highlight, Ubisoft isn’t done revealing VR projects yet. In January, the publisher announced a partnership with SpectreVision to create original interactive virtual reality programming. Founded by actor Elijah Wood with partners Daniel Noah and Josh Waller, SpectreVision’s projects include the zombie comedy Cooties. Now the independent film company can dive into creating VR content for games like Zombi (a re-release of ZombiU), Assassin’s Creed, and Far Cry in addition to Ubisoft’s most successful game in its history—the recently released Tom Clancy’s The Division.

There’s no limit to what’s possible in virtual reality, and it looks like Ubisoft wants to be a big part of those experiences.

Virtual Reality Takes Over GDC And SXSW

Whether you’re attending Game Developers Conference (GDC) in San Francisco or at the South by Southwest (SXSW) conference in Austin, there’s one theme that is taking both by storm: virtual reality. With both the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive launching in a matter of weeks, and the PlayStation VR to follow in the fall, excitement over the technology is reaching an all-time high.

The big news from GDC is Sony’s announcement of the PlayStation VR’s price point and October release. Its attractive price point, coupled with a PlayStation 4 installed base of almost 40 million users worldwide, helps make up for the fact that it launches months behind the competition. There’s also how the device will be supported with a strong line-up of games, including a Star Wars Battlefront experience designed specifically for PSVR, and a special “cinematic mode” for playing non-VR games and watching movies using the headset.

Matt West, director of digital integration at Ayzenberg notes, “Every year, there are pundits and proponents of VR who say, ‘this is finally VR’s year,’ but VR, as a mainstream media still feels at least a year away. With the Oculus Rift ($599) and HTC’s Vive ($799), the aim is clearly on early adopters. These are high-end headsets with the price-tags to match. Couple either one with a high-end PC build and the barrier to entry becomes even steeper. Sony’s PlayStation VR (PSVR) comes in at a more friendly $399 price point and runs with a PlayStation 4. While the PS4 has some limitations when compared to a more powerful PC platform, with 36 million units sold, Sony clearly has a head-start in terms of being able to capture the market early.”

The HTC Vive pricing and launch date were announced late February at the Mobile World Congress, and promotion has been kicked up to high gear since then. The week started with Lucasfilm revealing the Star Wars: Trials on Tatooine VR experience, developed in partnership with the HTC Vive, and that got the ball rolling.

Although it is the most expensive of the three premium VR headsets, it’s the only one that comes with virtual reality controllers included in the package, supports full body motion tracking across a room, and has a front-facing camera for detecting real-world objects or possible mixed-reality experiences. Most importantly, the Vive is developed in partnership with Valve, which has been promoting the device on its widely used Steam service alongside SteamVR—a new virtual reality platform that is likely optimized for Vive. Valve is currently showcasing 36 different VR demonstrations at GDC—triple that seen at January’s SteamVR Showcase—to demonstrate the broad range of experiences (such as The Brookhaven Experiment) that await early adopters.

Oculus is following much of the same promotional strategy, as we fast approach the March 28 launch of the Rift. The Facebook-owned company announced today that 30 games are releasing with Rift, and more will come in the following months. It also revealed the look of the Oculus Rift interface, and a desktop app that lets users browse and purchase games. This comes in addition to the Oculus Social platform features that were revealed last week.

Not to be left behind, the Samsung Gear VR (developed in partnership with Oculus) had some exciting announcements of its own from GDC. The open-world phenomenon, Minecraft, is expected to make its way to the Gear VR. So, if the $99 price point, or the fact that it comes free with a Samsung Galaxy S7 or S7 Edge purchase, isn’t enough to convince consumers to pick up a Gear VR, Minecraft might do the trick.

While GDC gets a ton of attention when it comes to technology and video games, SXSW shouldn’t be overlooked either. As a premiere conference for music, film and other entertainment, it is the perfect place to showcase virtual reality experiences. McDonald’s let McDonald’s lounge visitors put on a Vive and shoot virtual paint on walls from within a gigantic Happy Meal box. Comcast used the Gear VR to let visitors get up close to a NASCAR race, while NASA gave attendees a chance to explore a virtual spacecraft. One could say that VR fever has taken hold in Austin, and is almost overshadowing the other entertainment experiences shown at SXSW this year.

No matter where you are, 2016 clearly marks the beginning of the VR era, and it’s only going to grow bigger and better from here.

PlayStation VR Gets Real

Sony finally joined Oculus and Vive in the penultimate step towards making their PlayStation VR a real product, by announcing its retail price of $399 along with a ship date this October. The price point and the ship date were both a bit of a surprise, as many observers expected that PlayStation VR might start at $499, and Sony had previously stated the ship date would likely be in the first half of 2016.

Game industry insiders reacted well to Sony’s announcement of PlayStation VR at a $399 price point. “That’s going to get some attention,” said one exec. “Though I would be surprised if we don’t see some bundles for PSVR this Christmas.” That’s quite likely, given that Sony has chosen not to include the necessary additional components for the PlayStation VR in the $399 package, as the PSVR requires the PlayStation 4 Camera. The camera follows the PSVR headset’s nine LEDs to provide 360-degree head-tracking, but games can be played using standard DualShock or Move controllers.

Sony explained that since players may already have a camera and Move controllers (and they certainly have at least one DualShock controller) that it wasn’t desirable to include those components in the base unit. It seems likely that we’ll see a bundle including the camera and probably Move controllers, perhaps for $499. Another likely bet would be a $699 PlayStation 4 bundle that includes a PlayStation VR, camera, Move controllers and some games. A complete VR setup in one box for the holidays sounds like a compelling buy for people looking to get into VR as easily as possible.

The PSVR isn’t limited to virtual reality games. Players will be able to play standard PS4 games on the headset through a “cinematic mode” that displays a standard flat screen in front of players at three different zoom levels.

“VR is a big part of the future of games, and everyone wants to author their own page as we open the next chapter in gaming,” said Sony Computer Entertainment president Andrew House. He noted that there will be 50 compatible games available at launch for the PSVR, and that some 230 games are currently in development.

Sony is also fully aware that VR can be isolating, and that’s antithetical to the idea of home consoles being entertainment devices for more than one person at a time. So PlayStation VR will have local multiplayer, using what Sony terms a “Social Screen.” This means the PS4 can drive both the TV and PSVR displays simultaneously, allowing one person to use the PSVR headset in competition (or cooperation) with other players in the same room.

It’s worth noting that the PSVR isn’t just going to have a collection of games from small developers, either. House noted that Sony is partnering with Lucasfilm and Electronic Arts to create an exclusive VR version of Star Wars Battlefront for the PSVR. That brings some major brand power to the device, and we’ll likely be hearing more game announcements when E3 rolls around.

While Sony is coming later to the party than Oculus and HTC, the PlayStation VR brings some key advantages. There’s already an installed base of nearly 40 million consoles that can drive the PSVR, with likely more by the time the PSVR ships. The lower entry cost is certainly going to be attractive, as will the easier setup, compared to configuring a new computer and graphics card. Sony’s arrival in October does give Oculus and Vive some months in the marketplace to rack up an installed base, but it seems like Sony is looking to have a solid lineup of games at launch to counteract the earlier ship dates of the Oculus and the Vive.

One industry analyst predicted that Sony could well sell 2.2 million PSVR units this year, and that was in advance of the company’s announcement of its $399 price point. Of course, there’s still plenty of time for Oculus and HTC to make further announcements to tip matters to their favor. It looks like there will be an enormous marketing battle fought over VR this holiday season.

Of course, learning about the hardware pricing and ship dates is only part of the story. What will VR games be priced at? Will they be sold in retail stores? What digital storefronts will emerge as leaders? Will there be a variety of monetization models? There are more questions than answers right now, but the journey to find those answers promises to be interesting indeed.

3 Takeaways From The 2016 Game Developers Conference

The Game Developers Conference takes place this week in San Francisco, and thousands of attendees are trying out new technologies and learning new things from a variety of panels and sessions.

Even though it’s only the first day, three major themes already rise to the surface.

Virtual Reality Rules All

Companies in attendance will bring the latest in up-and-coming technology to the show floor. The big focus this year will be on virtual reality, as both the HTC Vive and Oculus VR will soon launch. The HTC Vive in particular is really picking up with the debut of the Star Wars Experience, along with 30 other games being showcased.

Additionally, Sony announced that the PlayStation VR will launch in October and sell for $400. The headset will come with a special virtual reality version of Star Wars Battlefront, and 50 PSVR games will launch by the end of the year. Other games with planned PSVR support include Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, The Last Guardian, and Horizon: Zero Dawn.

Razer also announced an expansion to its Open Source Virtual Reality (OSVR) development platform so that it includes CryEngine. Additionally, CryEngine announced a new version with a “pay what you want” model to it, to encourage more developers to use it. Meanwhile, competitors like Unreal Engine 4 are aggressively pushing to continue as the premiere development suite for games and VR experiences.

ESports Continues To Blow Up

Given how the week started with the possibility that Rocket League could become a cross-network game, there’s potential for eSports to grow much further than it already has, which makes this year’s eSports Summit especially relevant. Noteworthy panels include a presentation by Dustin Beck from Riot Games, who will detail the lessons learned in promoting League of Legends as an eSport. Additionally, Kristian Segerstrale from Super Evil Megacorp will talk about how Vainglory broke ground as a mobile game eSport.

Engaging With Diverse Audiences

This year’s GDC will have plenty of marketing and business panels, including a presentation from EEDAR’s head of insights, Patrick Walker, who discusses the expanding game universe, and how “gamer” has come to mean more than playing games.

On the mobile front, King Digital discusses best practices for developing engaging premium content for free-to-play games, while Rovio talks about the lessons learned from launching Angry Birds 2. Coffee Stain Studios explains how Goat Simulator became a success across PC, mobile, and consoles using only social media promotion. Furthermore, Chivalry developer, Torn Banner Studios, will talk about how cross-promotional partnerships with other games help grow the medieval combat game’s audience.

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Google, VR Make Waves at GDC

The first day of the Game Developers Conference this year began with something unusual–dense crowds. Normally the opening days are lighter, with various summits and tutorials, and most attendees swarm the show on the final three days for the sessions and the Expo along with other events. What’s different about this year? The Virtual Reality Developers Conference, which is being held the first two days of GDC.

In fact, the VRDC has proven to be so immensely popular with attendees that it’s being moved for Tuesday from Moscone West to Moscone North, purely because the rooms are twice as large and thus hundreds of people won’t be left standing outside sessions. “In response to overwhelming demand for VRDC, we are moving Tuesday’s program to rooms with double the capacity,” said the official notice from GDC. Is there interest in VR from game developers? Absolutely.

The presence of VR at GDC in general can’t be ignored or overlooked. In this year where VR is finally getting into the hands of consumers in large numbers, there are dozens of VR games with a formal or informal presence at GDC. A short walk around the show and you can see plenty of Gear VR units in use, and long lines to try out the VR experiences on display. It’s easy to believe there are hundreds of VR games in development, and it seems that this level of investment and effort should yield a good market, although that may take time.

Meanwhile, there was plenty of activity and excitement in more established realms of gaming–specifically in mobile games, where Google had its full Google Developer Day, announcing a number of new tools and services for Android game developers. Important announcements included tools for managing virtual goods and currencies, as well as the launch of a Video Recording API. This will bring game streaming to Android games with a much greater ease of use by building it right into the mobile OS (rather than needing an external app), as well as making it easy to share videos to YouTube. These features may not seem all that important to game play, but they are absolutely critical to marketing. Streaming games has propelled billions of dollars in revenue across game sales and eSports, and the primacy of YouTube videos for propelling game sales is undisputed–just look at the billions of minutes of Minecraft videos viewed every month.

The most important part of Google’s announcements, though, is the new ad type: “Search Trial Run Ads.” These new ads, scheduled to be available in a few weeks, will allows players to try out a game for 10 minutes directly from the mobile search results page. No installation is necessary because the game is streamed; after the 10-minute trial, the player is prompted to install the game from Google Play (which, of course, may involve paying for the game at that point). Because of the difficulties involved with streaming such data, though, the feature will only be available when you are connected through Wi-Fi, rather than through your cell connection.

That’s not all the good news for mobile game marketers, though. Google’s making portrait videos available for ads, which is a big deal. According to Google, more than 80 percent of video ad views in mobile apps on the Google Display Network are from devices held vertically. If your ad is constructed this way, users won’t have to re-orient their device. “We’ve seen significant improvement in both click-through and conversion rates from game developers using Portrait Video, resulting in much lower cost per install and a larger number of downloads,” said Google’s blog post.

Google’s also adding additional controls to let marketers target high-quality users with Active User Targeting for Games, which again will be rolled out in a few weeks. “This new type of targeting for Android apps can show ads to users who have spent more than 30 minutes playing games, or who have played a Google Play Games integrated game in the last 30 days,” noted Google. “Game developers can show their ads to game lovers, and combined with other types of targeting, such as a particular game category (e.g., Adventure), they can reach a very precise audience.”

Finally, Google is stepping up another part of its advertising toolbox with AdMob Mediation, where developers can easily monetize apps with rewarded video ads from a number of ad providers in AdMob Mediation. “Supported networks and platforms include AdColony, AppLovin, Chartboost, Fyber, Upsight, and Vungle, with more being added all the time,” said Google. “So if you’re a developer monetizing with these providers, you can easily manage and optimize them through the AdMob interface.”

Google’s also working to help indie developers, adding a new Indie Corner to Google Play. According to Google, the intent of this new area is to showcase “amazing games built by indie developers.” This is not automatic, though – indie developers will have to submit games to Google for approval to be put into the Indie Corner, and Google will be careful to select only games they consider “awesome.” Still, any additional opportunity that can help your game get discovered is something that will be welcomed by indie developers.

What criteria will Google be using to allow developers into the Indie Corner? “It has to be a relatively small company,” Google Play spokesperson Joshua Cruz told GamesBeat. “We think 11 to 15 employees — something along those lines. And then it’s the type of game. Is trying to do something creative or different stylistically.” Unusually for Google, the process will be moderated by people, not by an algorithm. “Ultimately, it’s going to be assessed by humans,” said Cruz. “They’ll make the call.” It will be interesting to see what games make the cut, and how much this new Indie Corner ends up helping small developers find an audience. Certainly, they can use whatever help they can get.

Why Marketers Need To Spend More On Cross-Media Campaigns

Marketers in the United States are underspending by about 16 percent, or $31 billion annually, according to a study released by the Advertising Research Foundation. The study, called “How Advertising Works Today,” also raises issue with marketers not spreading their budgets widely enough across media. Described by ARF CEO Gayle Fuguitt as the most extensive industry study in more than a quarter century, it covers 5,000 campaigns for 1,000 brands (which include Pfizer, Kellogg Co. and Sun Products) in 41 countries to make up $375 billion in global ad spending.

The ARF study found that on average, brands see a 19 percent return on investment increase by using two media platforms instead of one. Increasing that number to five platforms improved ROI by 35 percent. However, 29 percent of campaigns surveyed relied one only one platform, with 60 percent using two or fewer. By that measure, ARF says that the estimated $196 billion U.S. marketers will spend this year should really be closer to $227 billion.

While there’s a big payoff to adding more platforms, the same does not apply digital display ads. The study showed sales actually began to decline after a user served with an ad is hit with a digital banner impression 40 times or more a month, and any positive impacts go away long before that.

Radically different creative across different media also has a negative impact. Varied creative strategies may cancel each other out and become less memorable. The best way to go is with a unified cross-media campaign, which were on average 57 percent more effective.

That’s not to say an entire campaign has to have the same message or look. An image of an athlete holding a Gatorade bottle in a Facebook ad will make the TV ad featuring the same athlete more memorable, according to Pranav Yadav, CEO of Neuro-Insight, which tracks the brain’s electrical activity to see how people respond to ads.

“When similar aspects are taken from one platform to another, it increases memorability on the second platform,” said Yadav, in describing a process called “priming.” TV and print have a particularly strong cross-priming effect because they both are generally viewed in a relaxed setting. Similarly, mobile and digital outdoor ads go well together because both are viewed “on the go.”

TV and print have a strong cross-priming effect, he said, because they both tend to be viewed in a relaxed setting. Likewise mobile and digital outdoor ads often work together because both are viewed “on the go.”

Traditional media still has a major impact among millennials. To reach an audience in the 18-34 age range, the ARF recommends allocating 71 percent on traditional and 29 percent on digital. A budget with 78 percent spending on traditional media and 22 percent on digital worked best for audiences across age groups.

How ‘Rocket League’ Could Make Video Game History

Rocket League has remained on the fast track of success since it first launched last July on the PlayStation 4 and PC. The toy car-based soccer game has gone on to inspire a huge following of dedicated fans as it released for Xbox One in February, and it is showing no signs of slowing down. In the past few weeks, the game has made the Batmobile, as seen in the upcoming Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice movie, available for players to purchase and use. It also announced a cross partnership with the zombie game, Dying Light, so fans of both games can show their support. Then there’s the partnership with Twitch to host a Rocket League Championship Series (RLCS) eSports league, which begins its first season later this month.

As if all that weren’t enough, it was announced yesterday that Rocket League is poised to make video game history as the first cross-network game. Microsoft has made it possible for players on the Xbox One, PC, and PlayStation 4 to all play against each other. If Sony accepts the offer, then Rocket League will accomplish what many developers wished for, but thought impossible.

Jeremy Dunham, VP of Psyonix, talks to [a]listdaily about Rocket League‘s meteoric success, its place in eSports, and how it could be the game that breaks down the walls separating platforms.

Jeremy DunhamHow did Psyonix convince Microsoft to open up cross-network play?

I don’t think that it’s just us. I think it was a combination of things. Definitely, the success of our game has helped a lot. We bugged Microsoft a lot about how cross platform is a feature that we’d like to see eventually, and our community is asking for it all the time. But I don’t think that it was just because our game came along that Microsoft decided to do this. I think it was many years with many different games and communities wanting to see this feature. They were listening for so long and weighing it heavily for so long that I think they finally decided to go forward with it. We were lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time to become the first one selected.

I like to hope that we had a positive impact on how that went, but whether or not we were the sole reason is really a question for them. I’m just happy that we’re getting to do it, and we’ve been bursting at the seams to talk about it for weeks. [Now] It really comes down to what Sony decides to do. To be fair to them, they’ve only just heard that this is a possibility, so we understand that they need time to process it and how it impacts their platform. We understand that there won’t be an immediate “yes” or “no” from them, but we like to remain optimistic.

What does it mean to Psyonix that these garden walls may be coming down?

It means a lot to us. Just to think that it’s us over other games is a really big deal. We can’t really compare it to any other accomplishment. We’ve had a surprising amount of success, our community has been fantastic, and we’ve won awards. But to be held in this kind of historical context is something else entirely. I remember clearly, coming out of our call with Microsoft and then letting everybody on the team know that it was approved and it was something we were going to do. Everyone stood up and started applauding each other. It was a great moment as a team, and everyone felt fantastic. Every team meeting since then has been about when the public is going to find out. Now that it’s not a secret anymore, the fun part starts… we have to start building it.

How did the Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice Batmobile come to be included in the game?

We have some great contacts at Warner Bros. They’re fans of the game, and we’re fans of theirs. We were talking about potential partnerships, and for us, the Batmobile made a lot of sense with the movie coming out. A lot of our were asking for the Batmobile, especially post-DeLorean [from Back to the Future], and it didn’t take long at all.

Rocket League DeLorean

They said that it was a great fit and we worked directly with them to make sure it was as accurate as possible. Usually, when it comes to having iconic vehicles, there’s a complicated backstory or challenge. But in this case, we just like Batman and Superman a lot, and they liked Rocket League. We asked, they said yes, and that was it. Seeing how well the DeLorean was received also helped assure them that we would do their vehicle justice. I think how we approach the game like a true sport, and no vehicle has an advantage over another, also helped smooth the path into the game. We’re not trying to create an environment where it has an advantage over other vehicles, or vice versa.

Will other Batmobile models be included someday?

One of the things we struggle against is that the way you select cars gets confusing if you have five or six different versions of the Batmobile. Also, does that muddy the value of having the Batmobile by itself, the way it is now? It something that we’ve definitely batted around for not only the Batmobile, but some of our other cars. So far, we’ve stuck to the idea that it’s better to have only one, because that makes each car more unique and interesting, instead of having umpteen version of Octane. It lets you take the vehicle and feel some kind of ownership over it, over it just being another car. Plus, we have such an emphasis on customization for our [non-licensed] vehicles that you can kind of make it whatever you want.

Other than the Dawn of Justice version, what is your favorite Batmobile?

It would have to be the 1989 version, because that was the Batman movie that got me when I was a kid. I think it has a great, iconic, shape that a lot of the movies that came after it tried to emulate. I really like the Tumbler too, and the Arkham Knight Batmobile. I think they did a really good job with the vehicle in that game. What’s really cool about Batman vehicles over the years is that they keep finding ways to reinvent it so that it makes sense for the era that it’s in.

How did Psyonix come together with Twitch to form a Rocket League Championship Series?

That was sort of a progression of our relationship with them. In the beginning, we were doing very well on Twitch. We were a very popular game, especially during pre-launch, launch week, and the launch month on PlayStation 4. Twitch recognized that we were a fun sport to watch, and we got into discussions about what we could do to make the game more compatible with Twitch and find more ways for casters and players to do cooler things.

At the same time, they asked us what our long-term plans were for the game as a sport. So, it became this sort of mutual realization over time that we should partner up and go all-in on a league together. They  had plenty of time to understand their audience, and have both official and unofficial tournaments airing on Twitch all the time, so they deal with plenty of vendors of leagues all the time to know what works and what doesn’t. Our game is really well-versed in terms of watchability as an eSport, in that it doesn’t have any special abilities or killer vehicles that are better than others, so it’s a true skill-based game.

There’s a lot of mutual attraction, and it took many months to hash out the details, but it was worth it and we’re excited to see where it goes. Registration opens on the 25th of this month, then we’re going to start to talk about when the games themselves are going to be played.

Are there challenges in promoting a game like Rocket League as an eSport?

Normally, I would say yes, but in this case we lucked out and had a community that embraced it as an eSport before it actually became a true one. That’s one of the key moments of any game that’s chosen as an eSport—the community has to deem it worthy. A lot folks just want to come out and say, “let’s get into eSports.” They throw a lot of money at something, get tournaments together, and try to make people get involved. In our opinion, it’s a much more effective eSports strategy to make the most fun and balanced game that you can and let the community decide if they want to watch it and play competitively.

Our community has been so passionate, competitive, and (in many respects) has taken it upon themselves to create a eSports scene. That was enough validation for us to acknowledge that this is worthy of an eSport. We always hoped that it would be, but the missing link was the fans and whether they thought it was worth it, and they have. So, it was an easy transition for us.

The Championship Series was announced for the PlayStation 4 and Windows PC. Will there be a separate Xbox One league?

PC and PS4 RLCS will be happening at the same time. The game is cross-compatible, and they’ll be able to play with each other. When we made the RLCS announcement, we said, “Xbox details coming later.” The reason we said that is because we know that we’d be going cross-platform between the Xbox One and PC, but were not yet sure if PS4, PC, and Xbox would be a viable option.

We still don’t know. As I mentioned before, we have to find out what Sony’s position is. Once we know more about that, we’ll know whether we need a separate league or if we can reach a fantastic milestone for eSports, and that’s to allow all players on all platforms to compete against each other in a single league. That would get rid of the notion of just being the best player on PlayStation or Xbox and make so that you are the best player period.

That’s what we’re hoping for, but we’re going to see where season one takes us and adjust season two accordingly.

What do you think it is about Rocket League that inspires such a passionate fan base across three different platforms?

I don’t think it’s any one thing, and I also think it depends on who you ask here at the studio. Everyone has their own answer, and I think the actual answer is all of them. It’s a combination of how Rocket League is really watchable and easy to understand. You’re hitting a goal from one end to the other, and it’s completely skill-based, so you’re viewing the strategy and talent of the player first-hand. It [winning] isn’t some pre-conceived ability, animation, or special power. It’s completely on the player, which adds a real level of tension and excitement.

We also have a lot of customization options so that you can make your car look any way you want and take ownership over it. There are also a lot of different ways to play the game, with single player, multiplayer, and even four-player splitscreen mode. There’s no major violence—it’s all cartoon explosions—and there are no guns. All these different elements have helped make the game what it is.

I also like to think that the fact that we’ve shown our community how much they mean to us, and our aggressive support of the game with the continued goal of making it better, is proving itself to people. We don’t have any plans of slowing down anytime soon, and we hope that that’s rubbing off in a positive way.