The relevant skill set required for top quality free-to-play games is missing in the West.
Speaking at today’s Evolve conference, online videogame marketing expert Julien Wera of Ico Partners has said that the free-to-play output of Western publishers is lacking because the developers do not have the relevant skills.
According to Wera, the free-to-play model has been gaining in popularity in the West over the past 5 years. Compare this to the popularity of the format in Asia, where it has been the norm for over 10 years (thanks to extreme levels of PC piracy in the region) and you can begin to understand why Western devs may be lagging behind. As seems to be the theme of this year’s Evolve conference, talent/relevant skills is the key to creating a worthwhile product.
Wera, how has worked on the marketing for the Facebook and iOS editions of PopCap’s Plants vs Zombies and Bejewled, believes that free-to-play games have the potential to far strip the profits of ‘paid for’ games but, only if done right. A task that he admits is extremely difficult to get right but, success stories in the Asian market demonstrate just how success they can be.
Aside from finding the right talent, Wera believes that the main challenges to free-to-play success comes from ‘user acquisition’ and ‘user monetisation.’
User acquisition can be achieved via intelligent marketing, Wera argues. Specifically by using data-driven marketing that provide very detailed metrics on who is attracted to your product and which advertising channels are working – data that you can then use to fine tune and pinpoint your marketing output. It will also provide valuable data when it comes to knowing what kind of skillset you need to look for in your employees to properly aim at your audiences wants and needs.
Wera showed a slide displaying the advertsing budget of a popular free-to-play game (the specifics were not revealed), detailing the fact that 86% of the marketing budget was spent on online ads, 7% on PR, 4% on offline ads and 3% on special one-off events.
The 7% on PR costs is interesting in that Wera said the PR component doesn’t in itself add anything of much value but, it does enhance the strength of all the other elements (presumably through having journalists empower the marketing message).
Wera believes that PR is particulary important for free-to-play games due to their long-term nature and the communities that inevitable evolve around them. Then there’s the fact that magazines and other publications work to a print/publishing schedule so, by the time the article is written, the game may have changed significantly. Therefore, PR need to be on their game and make sure the info is fully up to date.
He also said that building relationships with smaller websites and fansites is vital in free-to-play games as the more websites that carry the right links and the right search terms the higher your Google page rank will be.
Unlike ‘traditional’ games, Wera said that the advertising budget should be spent slowly as you do not know who well the launch of the game will go and you need to make sure you’ve got the budget to advertise new features as they added (a common occurance for these kinds of games). Your assumptions (i.e. women will hate this game) may also be wrong and you’ll need to alter your marketing to reflect that.
‘Flexible marketing,’ I believe they call it…
Wera concluded by saying that if you can communicate your game effectively (via ads, PR, community etc) then relevant players will come your way and will spend money in-game. Basically, invest time and money in your own game and players will spend their own time and money playing it.
He also warned that “evolution doesn’t stop or wait” and that the market is changing constantly – mobile free-to-play gaming, for example, has taken off immensely in the last couple of years. Who’s to say what will happen in the next two to five years?
Marketing spiel over.