Welcome to our new blog on Game Marketing.
This is the second part to a multi-post blog on game marketing and is aimed at helping indies get to grips with some of the basics of what they need to be thinking about. This particular post could more appropriately be titled ‘When’s the ramp?’ as it is about the key phases that make up the game marketing plan and what things are most appropriately done when. In the last blog, we looked at the key elements of a game marketing strategy and what game developers need to think about. In this post, we now look at how those things might be translated from a marketing strategy into a marketing plan and the plan is done in phases.
There are 3 key phases.
In order to understand these phases it is perhaps useful to work backwards. Lets assume that you need to make money from your game so that you can keep it going or so you have enough to go and build your next one. At this point, I have to acknowledge that few of the game developers I meet are motivated by money. However, lets make the assumption that as a self-publishing indie game developer your goal – or at least commercial goal – is to bring as many people as you can to your game and monetise them in some way. The amount of money someone will spend on your game is dependent on many many different factors. (A recent presentation at the Free to Play event in London in October suggested that one of these factors was NOT level of satisfaction which I found incredible and don’t really believe. It was a theory put forward by a qualified psychologist studying games and, therefore, who am I to argue?)
Many of the factors that determine how much people will spend are outside of your control – their level of wealth for example. However, there are some things that are under your control such as retention level and level of engagement which are key to increasing the amount of money you can make from your game. The longer someone spends playing your game, the more money you are likely to be able to get out of them. Not in all cases but it certainly improves your chances. The things you cannot really control are the characteristics of your players so understanding who your players are and what will drive up their engagement are key to increasing the money you make from them. It is hard to reliably make money from your players without understanding them and without optimising the level of engagement you have with them. Therefore, before you go spending lots of money on acquiring new players (which you will do in the Ramp Phase) you must first spend time understanding your players and optimising the game based on your learning.
It is very hard to succeed in games these days if you follow the old linear or waterfall paradigm of designing, building, testing and launching a game. It is simply too risky in a much more competitive world and it is also nearly impossible to get free to play economics right first time. Triple A sequels and franchises are about the only games that can follow this model (and as we have seen recently from GTA 5, when it works, it works!). The rest of us have had to shift to a new paradigm that adopts a more service based approach. This allows us to iterate through the release process and make our game better over time based on data we collect on players and how they play our games. Therefore, when you first release a game you should consider the first phase of your marketing plan to be a test phase.
The Test Phase
The key purpose of the test phase is to see if players like your game. It is best to know this before you spend more time and money developing it further. The first task in the test phase is to therefore build a significant test audience with many thousands of players rather than hundreds. Obviously the larger the test audience the better the quality of feedback you will get from them. Many games developers release their games in specific markets for this. The Philippines, Canada, New Zealand all prove popular primarily because it is felt that player behaviour in those countries is representative of the US – which is the market that everyone in the West is after. In the East it is China.
Another common strategy is to release the first version of your game on a platform like Facebook which is easier to optimise on then the typical mobile store. It also allows you to accurately target your audiences for marketing purposes and at relatively reasonable rates. So in the test phase you are putting an early version of your game out there on a platform like Facebook and you are targeting a specific market like the Philippines. It is vital that you have analytics plugged into your game so that you can properly gather information about how players are playing your game. The key things you are trying to learn are:
1. Likability:- do players like your game in general? Assume if they play it for a long time and repeatedly that they do (see point 3).
2. Demographics:- who are your players? Are they male, female, how old etc. When you first launch a game first instincts are to be delighted if anyone at all likes your game. However, there are real financial implications for you based on demographics. A friend of mine recently informed me that they were getting a lot of players for their new game but were trying to fine tune the appeal to a certain demographic – females 25 – 35. He said if their game appealed to young males then they would be unlikely to monetise well but if it appealed to females in this age range they could make a lot.
3. Retention & Engagement:- how much engagement does your player base have with your game? Do they spend a long time playing and do they come back often to play it. Retention is absolutely critical to monetisation. You need to ensure that players like coming back to your game. If they do, your chances of getting them to pay something – anything – sky rocket. Retention is typically measured in terms of a percentage of your players coming back to play your game over time.
The other things you are going to do during the test phase are:
- Test the monetisation of the game. I would stress though that at this point getting the engagement and retention is more important as if those things are good then you have time to work on the monetisation. I guess the amount of effort you spend on this at this point depends a lot on your situation.
- Create all of the key game collateral in preparation for the next phases where you will do more and more marketing.
- Establish and test key marketing channels. I cannot emphasise how important this is and it is something that games developers in general don’t do enough of. There is so much choice in where you put your marketing money and it is very important to be able to monitor these and rank them in terms of how useful they are. If you do things properly, you are going to end up ramping up the audience for your game through marketing spend and the key situation you are trying to get to is where you make more money over the lifetime of an average player than you spend getting he or she to your game. You need to be able to test and rank each of the marketing channels you are going to use by cost per player metrics. Actually, its even more complicated than that as unfortunately not all players are equal as we have seen already so you really want to evaluate the marketing channels by quality of player they provide and the cost. In the test phase you are really just experimenting and short listing the most effective channels.
- Finally, as you gather data from your players you will start creating a list of changes you need to make to your game which you should add to the product backlog
You should only exit this phase when you know you have a game with potential and that it can work and if you cannot show that within 3 – 6 months then you should probably move on to the next one anyway.
The Refine Phase
The next phase, the Refine phase is where things get interesting and exciting as you are confident you are onto something with potential. If your game is working and engagement & retention are good then you should actually be able to increase retention. I think its important in this phase to insist that one of the key things you need to achieve in it before moving on to the next phase is that you can successfully increase retention through some modification of the game itself. Even if it is only a small increase it will give you lots of confidence that you are in control of your audience and that there is stability. Once you have done this you want to focus on monetisation and experimenting with your monetisation model trying to maximise the revenues without losing too many players. For some players, putting a price on anything that was free will cause them to leave in droves. For others, no matter what price you put on certain things they will still pay. Although it sounds a little un-democratic, you as a game developer will make a lot more money if you find ways of not charging the people who will leave if you do and upping the charges for the people that don’t mind paying whatever the price. This is where good analytics really comes into play. You need to be able to understand exactly what your players are doing and place them into segments so that you can treat them differently. GameSparks allows you to do this by the way. When you are confident you have got a well tuned game economy and are monetising the game as effectively as you can you need to then test one or two more markets out and validate your initial hypotheses were correct and are transferable to other geographies.
Other things you need to cover in this phase include:
- Compute the average lifetime value (LTV) of your players
- Rank your marketing channels by quality and by cost per player acquisition
- Start building that incredibly valuable player database .. thats really your crown jewels
Exit this phase when you can show that LTV > Cost per Acquisition (plus cost of ongoing operations). If you have made it into this phase in the first place then you should be able to achieve all of the above in a relatively short space of time. This phase should be your shortest if all is going well.
The Ramp Phase
If you get here – and a lot don’t unfortunately – well done. Congratulations are in order. You now have a game for which you can show that a pound (or dollar or whatever) spent on one side will be converted into a pound plus something at the other. This phase is all about having enough money to put into the marketing and then spending it to generate a large player base for your game. You have to constantly monitor both your game metrics and, of course, your marketing channel metrics to ensure the LTV equation is still working for you. In this phase it is likely that you will have to do a fair amount of firefighting and maintenance as at times the LTV equation may flip into a loss making situation and you have to re-optimise the game to flip it back the other way. At some stage – and you hope it is a long way away – the equation will flip and nothing you can do turns it around. It just means the ‘shelf-life’ of your game is probably up. But don’t worry – there is probably enough opportunity for a sequel!