In a very concise blog post on free-to-play game design by Nicholas Lovell, I watched marketing theory evolve once again. I have to be honest, it had been quite some time since I last saw any marketing concept re-modeled to fit an industry as seamlessly.
To cut a long story short, Lovell presented two marketing concepts, AIDA and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, but with an interesting gaming twist; the renowned Funnel model and his Pyramid, respectively. If you’re not familiar with the two traditional marketing concepts, I highly recommend that you give yourself a chance to look them up.
Although both the Funnel and the Pyramid are great tools to keep everyone in a game development studio on the same page, when it comes to actual development and the need to monetize, there were a couple of things that weren’t stressed enough, if at all; competition and future potential.
The Case at Hand
A few years ago successful indie game developers claimed that all they ever wanted was to express some of their thoughts and beliefs through a game. The love and sweat they poured over it “happened” to turn it into a success.
Fast forward to this day and the market is utterly changed and unforgiving. The way the distribution channels have lowered entry barriers and the exploding growth of the industry as a whole, can barely make your game profitable, if even noticeable. It is now more vital than ever to make decisions before and during development based on dynamic information and criteria that are more extrovert in nature.
This is where another old marketing model fits the picture. The Total Product concept follows a model that grows outwards, with its core being the most generic offering you can come up with, spreading outwards to how the game differentiates itself in the market, and ending with what the final game could look like in the future, potentially providing it with a more dynamic competitive edge.
Changing the model to fit a more game-oriented approach, the names of its parts have been slightly changed, replacing “Product” with “Game”.
The Core Benefit
A benefit is not a product. Hoping it won’t sound too cliché, it’s a need you identified and aim to satisfy. This will be the reason and motivating factor behind your drive from conception to development of your game, and will also be what primarily makes it appealing to a general audience.
For now, let’s pretend that you don’t know the means through which you’ll bring this benefit to your audience: in our case, unaware of the gaming studio you find yourself in, what you want to bring to humanity is entertainment and fun.
The Basic Game
Traditionally, what comes next would be deciding how you’ll physically present your offering to your audience. What tools and means you’ll use to create a basic form of your product.
Since you decided to entertain your audience, and programming happens to be one of your skills, you could do it by making a white ball fly across a black display. At the very least, cats would adore it!
During the Basic Game stage you’ll have to think about your game’s core mechanics and premise. What is the basic function the players are expected to perform and how would this resonate with the core benefit you want them to enjoy?
Will your game be an FPS? Will it be an endless runner or a platformer? Does its premise make it sound more like an RPG or an adventure game? There are many options and every single one of them comes with its pros and cons you’ll have to tackle during the next step of the model.
(Combining the Core Benefit and Basic Game stages, you come up with what is also known as the Generic Game. Although “generic” doesn’t sound that impressive, you still have to give yourself a pat on the back; good job, you’re on your way to making a game!)
The Expected Game
The Expected Game stage is where this model really shines.
Having thought of your Basic Game, you already know what genre your game belongs to. But do you know what gamers will expect of it? To go past this stage you’ll have to take your generic game and juxtapose it to the rest of the games in its genre.
You now have to make decisions based on information that comes directly from your competition; not you, not your game, but the other studios and their offering. You will also need to educate yourself in what your environment looks like; what are the current market trends and what elements are considered staple.
There’s a fairly reasonable explanation for that. Before you showed up, the games in a category took their sweet time educating gamers in certain sets of features and gameplay elements. They have not only given them a lesson on mechanics (which could actually work to your game’s advantage, making it easier for them to pick it up), but have also formed their tolerance thresholds and expectations, both of which apply on every single game that launches after their own (and these will work as entry barriers for your game).
So, contrary to Lovell’s Funnel and Pyramid, and the other stages of the Total Product concept, you’ll now have to think in relative terms (based on market and competition) about the following:
- Game availability (platforms and distribution channels)
- Gameplay mechanics
- Narrative range/depth and plot progression
- Aesthetic detail
- Social/networking features
One thing you might want to remember about competition, is what we realized while developing our most recent game. The first version of our game does not compete with the first version of what we identified as its main competitor. It’s that game’s latest and refined version out there right now that we have to best.
Thinking about the Expected Game will definitely give you ample food for thought for the following two, highly creative stages.
The Augmented Game
If the Expected Game stage got you up to par with your competition, this stage’s goal is to make your game stand out from the crowd.
You’ll have to start thinking about your game more creatively. This is the time you have to come up with all the elements that will add value to your game. Remember that what we’re talking about here is perceived value; what your gamers consider valuable, not you.
This is where Lovell’s Retention Game stage – with making progression more obvious and using appointment mechanics to enhance replayability – come in handy. You can even kick it up a notch adding a few extras like a different twists to clichéd plots, an impressive gameplay mechanic that makes your game easier to follow and/or harder to master, different gameplay mechanics in the same game – whatever your game needs to keep your players engaged long enough to make it worth their while and your investment.
I’d like to stress the importance of also thinking about your monetization strategies at this point. Think about your game’s price; if you ultimately decide to make it a free-to-play, strain yourself to come up with a monetization strategy that will not cripple the free players in your game, but will make all the sense in the world for those who want to pay for extras.
The Potential Game
The last stage of the Total Product concept is very critical for any game that wants to shift from being profitable upon release to remaining profitable over longer periods of time.
This is the time where every crazy idea you’ve had so far could shape your game’s future. A process like this might have no end, but even thinking about it carries the potential of completely transforming your game into a living breathing organism for years to come.
With the creative freedom the Potential Game allows, you should also try to ponder on where the market is heading and prepare yourself on what game elements might be vitally important in the future.
Always remember here that thinking about the Potential Game could translate into major changes in other parts of the game; to make sure that gameplay changes and narration twists can later be implemented and explained to the player with ease. Be very cautious: future shifts in preferences could mean excluding or simplifying earlier implemented features, rather than including novel ones.
During this stage you’ll also have to decide which features will make it in the game’s launch and which won’t. Draw the hard line of what features and plot points are considered a little far-fetched for this release and plan their introduction through a sequel (if that is an option of course) or DLC. From the top of my head, I can think of one major company whose title’s release was plagued with delays to give them enough time to better understand their game’s present and future.
If you want an example of a company/game that has utterly nailed thinking about the Potential Game, take a look at Riot and how they keep on revitalizing League of Legends. Major props, guys… major props!
Before you go…
Use only one tool in marketing and you might get yourself a few blind spots, use too many and you risk losing your focus. Having said that, I honestly believe that combining Lovell’s Funnel and Pyramid with the Total Game concept, can immensely help indie developers gain control over their decision making process on areas that could have otherwise been completely missed. I can’t wait to see how these tools will further evolve in the future; only one thing is certain, the way the industry itself evolves right now demands it.