The video game just celebrated 50 years of gaming. It was back in 1971 when the first arcade game, Spacewar was created by Nolan Bushnell (student of the University of Utah) and Jim Stein (a Stanford University researcher). We’ve come a long way since then, but you can take a trip down memory lane and discover the incredible history of gaming with the latest article by BBC here.
Video games are such a big business that today, they have budgets that rival movies and attract Hollywood talent too. Actors lend their voices or even participate in full-blown motion capture rendering of themselves to digitise their acting as game characters. Some well-known Hollywood names that have been part of recent games include Keanu Reeves for Cyberpunk 2077. Daisey Ridley, James McAvoy and Willem Dafoe, who star in 12 Minutes. And this is just the tip of a very big iceberg. There have also been number of movies – animated and live action and even books that have incorporated gaming into their story line. Everything from classics like Cloak and Dagger, The Last Starfighter, Tron to Gamer, Ready Player One, Wreck It Ralph or Free Guy to name just a few. Then there are games who have been adopted to movies like Tomb Raider and movies adapted to games like Alien.
So while video games are not new, marketers have recently once again cast their gaze upon the gaming industry due to the pandemic boom. Like Sauron’s watchtower in The Lord of the Rings, a marketer’s gaze is far reaching. But do they understand what they see from their high vantage point? While I can’t answer that, I can provide some key considerations for anyone who wants to understand the lay of the land.
Why marketers may misunderstand gaming
I recently chanced upon the latest survey done by Campaign Asia regarding Asia’s favourite video games. It is an impressive list. But I found it a tad biased towards specific genres. It is this kind of data that could cause marketers to have an incomplete picture when thinking up a gaming strategy. The list of the top played games in APAC is unrepresentative of the entire gaming genre spectrum and not covering interests of the new flock of lockdown casual gamers. Not only is the list skewed to multiplayer games, it also doesn’t reflect the state of gaming today, the background that marketers need to know. There are 1.58 billion people who play games in Asia Pacific (Source: Statistia). Over 200 million of these are freshly minted gamers. 700 million of these are the online gamers that influence the online games ranking in the APAC list.
Key brand decision makers are often not gamers themselves. They have preconceived notions of what ‘gaming’ is all about. If they were just looking at the Campaign Asia survey, they may fail to realise the state of play and how to effectively leverage gaming, gamers and the entire ‘game culture’ and habits for their branding efforts today. The only way to do that is to understand what has come before (the linked BBC article is an excellent starting point), what is the current state of affairs today and the potential we have for tomorrow. The perfect way to do this is actually play something from the different popular genres of games. To connect with the gaming community on Twitch and Discord and to watch gaming reviews.
The proof is in the profits for game stores and sales
One sure sign of the rising interest in gaming over the last year is the sale of games. Physical game media is still critical for console gaming especially in countries (like India) where the average internet bandwidth available at home would make game downloads take aeons. But for the rest of the world, (and for smaller PC games in India too) the way to buy games is an online download. Steam is the go-to marketplace for PC gamers because it is one of the oldest and has the most content. Yet it is important to point here that culturally how we buy games is very different across APAC. Australia has a strong gaming culture with an EB Games Store surely round the corner. In India there are only specific shops and some specialized markets and places where you can buy physical games.
But back to the online stores. This year’s Steam Summer Sale was an excellent example of older games being sold at unbelievable discounts. These are games that are not so demanding on older PCs that were bought just before the pandemic. Towards the tail end of their lifecycle, they have become new revenue streams being sold at attractive discounts. And people are snapping them up to add to their accounts and play now or later. One game on sale for example was the award-winning Hitman 2 game that was debuted in 2018. Today this three-year-old game, more than a month post sale, is the 13th most played game on Steam averaging 2000+ players a day. There are older games too. Rival game stores like the Epic game store, are trying to build a customer base by offering free old games every week to entice players to jump shop from Steam.
As a marketer who needs to understand the trend of what’s popular in terms of games and genre, Steam is an excellent place to start. There are also several third-party sites like Steam DB that list and chart key statistics around what are the most popular games being played by genre, the number of active players and so on. Be sure to check it out while researching what kind of game Intellectual Property is popular and would work best with your brand’s values.
The pandemic has been a boon & bane to gaming
Gaming has received an amazing shot in the arm during the pandemic, with so many people forced to stay indoors and desperately seeking ways to mitigate their boredom. Yet ironically, it is one of the worst times to get into gaming if you don’t already have the tools of the trade. Getting into PC gaming at this time is especially challenging.
We are stuck in the middle of a horrendous worldwide shortage of microchips that not only affect the personal computer market, but affects anything that needs a microchip to work. It’s bad. It is the dark ages of computing. The resulting pricing of new PC components is horrific. What’s more with everyone working from home, there has been an unprecedented need for computers, parts and peripherals the world over. The crowning king of components that define the gaming experience is your computer’s graphic card. This with the CPU, RAM and SSD storage are the holy trinity of gaming. Graphic cards are also essential parts of Bitcoin mining rigs, which is the other reason why there has been so much demand for these parts. If you are tech enthusiast, you’d have heard many tech bloggers and YouTube influencers rant, rave and lament about how hard it is to get your hands on a graphic card at MRP. How manufacturers can’t keep up with the demand. It is bad in the United States where these cards are launched first. It is unbelievable in India and the world over.
It’s not as if the quality of the technology is stagnating. Just the quantity. Today’s gaming tech makes for some of the most realistic gaming visuals available so far. Some of this credit goes to software like the Unreal Engine 4. Combined with this is a spanking brand-new generation of graphic cards that promise better performance and hardware features like Ray Tracing, which promise realistic lighting and shadows, like you’ve seen in Hollywood movies. These cards launched during the last year from leading players Nvidia and AMD, offer substantial performance boosts over two generation old cards that you find in most machines around you.
But finding one of these new cards at market price is a quest worthy of even the bravest of gamers. They are so horrendously overpriced that they cost as much as all the rest of the other computer components cost combined. Scalpers are trying to profit from low stocks by re-selling cards at ridiculous prices. The obvious work around would be to go the console route, right? Everything comes assembled after all, right out of the box. Thing’s aren’t really much brighter there either. The new next generation consoles of Playstation Five and X-Box series X are quickly out of stock and face the same microchip shortage issues well.
This is the backdrop that brands need to contend with when they want to leverage gaming in their communication mix. There are a lot of irate gamers out there. But there are also a lot of hopeful gamers out there. Understanding how to talk to them without ticking them off will make or break a brand’s marketing. While offering a free ‘thirty series’ graphic card as a prize may be a mouth-watering carrot to dangle for players, be sure you get your hands on a working card before making any promises. Or be prepared to feel the backlash.
Multiplayer madness and its captive audience
Back to Asia’s top games. You can’t fail to notice most of them are multiplayer games. There has always been a market for multiplayer games. First, they were played on local networks (LANs) and later online. Ever since we had the likes of Quake and Unreal Tournament and Need for Speed, we’ve had online game play.
Today we are at a tipping point for such community driven online gaming due to several reasons. Firstly, the process of connecting to a multiplayer game (matchmaking) has become infinitely easier and often almost ‘one click’. Secondly, old multiplayer gaming formulas and mechanics are constantly being reinvented for a new audience. Many of whom would never have played earlier games.
For example, any gamer in his late 30s is old enough to remember Valve Software’s Team Fortress (and its sequel), which saw players having to take up different roles and act as a cohesive team to win multiplayer matches. The same formula has been reinvented for Overwatch, a game by Blizzard Entertainment in 2016. One of the key multiplayer games that saw a renaissance of interest in first person online multiplayers. Now query a bunch of Gen-Z gamers who play Overwatch, and you will realise they don’t know what Team Fortress is. The legacy is lost. It’s like bringing back the Walkman (or even the iPod) for a generation that has been solely using Spotify on their phones to listen to music. Which also means there is a lot of room for constant re-invention and re-interpretations of old classics.
Today advances in voice over IP has added an extra dimension of being able to talk to other players in real time. It is perfect for relatives and friends who are kept apart due to lockdown restrictions to jump in and spend time together online playing a game. While this was true before the pandemic, I am sure it has become even more so now. Thus, adding a whole new social layer to the gaming. Added to this is streaming services like Twitch and Discord where players can spend time watching other people play. The modern-day version of an online colosseum. As a brand manager it is obvious that when gaming becomes a spectating sport, we should have our marketing collaterals plugged in to those matches.
Free to play has players hooked
Driving the multiplayer madness is the ability to play these games for free. Free to play as a model tempts gamers to try a game but fork out currency for in-game upgrades. These are either performance upgrades – like access to special weapons or cosmetic upgrades, like costumes. The other version of free to play is to offer casual browser-based games and generate revenue from banner ads. These are perfect for children who are getting into gaming or adults who want a five-minute distraction.
Brands are literally salivating over the thought of these free to play games. There are many things to like about these platforms. The sheer number of players who are playing them. The active community around them. The celebrity / artist tie ups which have seen things like virtual concerts by Marshmello, Travis Scott, and Ariana Grande, held in game. All these serve as proof of concepts of the potential of gaming and how popular culture and gaming are so intertwined.
While free play games like Fortnite, PUBG, or Call of Duty Warzone are free to play, you do need to download them first. So there is a cost involved. Some of these even offer cross platform play, which is an important concept. This means some players can play scaled down versions of these games on their mobile phones, competing directly in real time with gamers playing from their computers.
Battle Royale is the name of the game
There has been a flurry of free to play games, but nothing comes close to the interest in battle royale games. The most popular of these are Player Unknown Battle Grounds (PUBG), Fortnite, Apex Legends and the new free to play Call of Duty Warzone. These games are massive multiplayer shoot-em-ups where players are literally dropped into a game map which constantly shrinks in size. The result – players are drawn closer to each other in close quarters battle, trying to be the last man standing. What makes the games stand apart is the visual treatment of each. Fortnite is more colourful and fun looking while PUBG is a bit drabber in colour palette and realistic. Every major game publisher has tried to jump in with their own spin on this genre. Taking their existing IPs and putting a Battle Royale spin on it. Like Electronic Arts with its Battlefield series, brining Battle Royale to World War 2.
Another important category of free to play games are browser-based games. These are the descendants of the sites that used to offer Flash games. The appeal of these games is that they are easy to get in and out of, and that they don’t really need a powerful PC to play.
Nostalgia has its own niche
There is also an incredible resurgence in retro gaming – fuelled by a healthy dose of nostalgia in the 80s and recent retro console product launches by big brands like Nintendo and Atari. I recently stumbled on the burgeoning market for retro handhelds and consoles, which are manufactured in China and come packed with games from every major console that has been launched in the early days of gaming. The form factor even is very nostalgic. While there are those heavily inspired by the design of the Gameboys, there are other modern forms that are experimented with as well. These devices are often targeted at older players who have grown up playing on these systems. Though I was surprised to find that there are a fair number of young players as well, experimenting with these consoles. Even though the mobile phones in the pockets of these youth probably have more computing power than these consoles.
Indie gaming has found its following
While big game studios will always find a fanatic fan following, independent small scale game studios (indie game developers) have stepped into the limelight. I believe part of this success and growing interest in the genre is how well indie games are showcased on Steam well before the game is even available to play and the quality of these finished games. Crowd funding platforms like Kickstarter have also helped raise funds for independent game development teams (usually ex employees of big game studios) who are masters at making the most of limited resources. Indie games often have unique game mechanics that make them stand out. They are colourful, small and not too resource heavy and heavily emphasise the play mechanics to make them successful. These games are beautiful to look at too. Successful indie games are often ported to handheld consoles like the Nintendo Switch.
So what are some example of indie games you ask? Well a few of the popular ones that spring to mind include The Shovel Knight series, Stardew Valley, My Friend Pedro, and the recently launched The Ascent are just a few to mention. One of my favourites is The Bad North, an Indie game that sees you in charge of defending island settlements from invading vikings. There are video gaming Youtube channels dedicated to following the indie game scene. The one from gaming peripheral brand Logitech is an excellent example for marketers to understand how to create content that gamers would love to consume.
Who are ‘gamers’ really? A few stats.
Let’s step back for a minute. What is interesting is the broad audience that has taken up gaming these days. One figure by Newzoo estimates that there will be 2.81 billion gamers worldwide in 2021 which is an increase of 5.6% YOY. While the mass of the audience is probably between 34 – 36, it is interesting how an older audience is also taking up gaming. There was a video doing the rounds of an 80 year old Chinese man playing racing sims, and another of a grandmother playing fighting games. But it is still the 18-25 that invest the longest play time, which can go up to 6 consecutive hours!
What people play on, differ based on their age. This is natural if you think of the complexity that comes with installing a PC gaming vs a console or the simplest form – mobile and tablet gaming. Apart from simplicity there is the cost. So, it’s no surprise that younger audiences favour consoles and PCs, while the 55+ segment favour playing games on their mobile devices that they already have. It’s important I think not to forget this.
Understanding the age range and profile of gamers is important. Both marketers and the media continue to paint a stereotypical ‘gamer’ image in our head. A young teen or adult hunched over a neon glowing keyboard and headphones concentrating on their games in darkly lit rooms. Or the youth on the subway slaying dragons on their mobile phones, oblivious to the world. Ads are always vibrant, punchy, and loud. Yet in the real-world gaming is subtler and silently all around us. Everyone from the 7-year-olds making their foray into casual gaming, to the senior citizens that escape into gaming worlds to find new forms of exploration all count and should be counted.
|18-34||75% play on a console 51% most often play action games 68% prefer playing with friends 70% say games help them stay connected with family and friends||77% play on a smartphone 46% most often play casual games 48% prefer playing with friends 55% say games help them stay connected with family and friends|
|35-54||70% play on a console 38% most often play action games 44% prefer playing with friends 83% say games help them relax||78% play on a smartphone 67% most often play casual games 58% prefer playing with friends 77% say games help them relax|
|55-64||56% play on a smartphone 48% most often play casual games 42% prefer playing with friends 87% say games provide mental stimulation||63% play on a smartphone 74% most often play casual games 37% prefer playing with friends 82% say games provide mental stimulation|
|65+||68% play on a PC 58% most often play card games 77% prefer playing alone 46% have been playing games for 10 years or less||60% play on a PC 76% most often play card games 81% prefer playing alone 63% have been playing games for 10 years or less|
How do brands make their mark?
If you are with me so far, you now understand the broad stroke trends that have been shaping the video gaming industry so far in 2021. But how do brands jump in and leverage video games? It really depends on how you are building synergies between your brand’s values and gaming. What is the appeal to build the association? Is it the target audience? Is your product directly or indirectly related to the act of gaming? Or are you just using it as a tool to drive engagement.
Brands have been dipping their toes successfully with casual gaming for quite some time. One such popular case study that pops to mind is from the ice cream brand Magnum. It was a desktop browser game and is an early example of a successful way to integrate a game mechanic into a brand experience. It was all the rage when it came out back in 2011. Created by Swedish agency Lowe Brindfors.
Another example is how car racing gaming franchises like Need for Speed and Grand Turismo tie up with car manufacturers to feature faithful representation of their real vehicles and launch vehicle concepts in-game. There are even e-sports teams for Formula One that is being sponsored by actual teams that participate in the sport. They have regular competitions that are streamed online. During the pandemic and due to the lack of actual racing we saw a lot of actual Formula One drivers like Charles Leclerc, Lando Norris and Alex Albon participate in friendly online completions, which were streamed to fans.
So let’s say you are game enough to work in gaming into your brand strategy. How would you go about it? Here are few of the ways brands can get on the gaming bandwagon depending on their appetite.
Off-the-shelf brand partnerships (low investment)
- Brand endorsements of players (pro or enthusiast) and e-sports teams, similar to typical sports influencer endorsements. Providing them with financial aid (gaming scholarships?) and gaming gear (like those hard to come-by graphics cards or consoles) for brand visibility. Get featured on their live streams on Twitch and Discord.
- Branding gaming peripherals and merchandise and distributing them for free to gamers. But don’t cheap out on the peripherals! Know what gamers prefer. The wrong product picked here will be catastrophic for the brand who is sponsoring it.
- Sponsoring existing gaming events, competitions, and conventions. Creating these around your brand themes.
- Creating or sponsoring YouTube channels that cover gaming with brand placements. Pick a genre and own it. Or go broad and do weekly coverage of all things gaming.
- Providing game-store credit (Steam, Epic Gamestore, Battlenet etc.) as prizes for brand competitions.
In-depth partnerships (high investment)
- Co-creating games with independent studios by paying for the game development cost. Or creating mini-games within these games that are brand themed.
- Getting product placement within the game and integrated into the game story or even better the game play dynamic.
- Creating in-game branded game cosmetics add-ons like player skins etc. Fashion brands are doing this in games like Fortnite already, with products that can be purchased in the real world.
- Sponsoring brand themed loot boxes, special weapons and providing special ‘branded’ in-game currency as prizes to win within the game.
- Creating in-game timed events that let players either interact with or play against celebrity players, professionals or athletes online. This is perfect for sports games with time trials such as F1 2021. The format has also found its way into Battle Royale games as well, with celebrity concerts, apparel and more.
- Creating a sandbox game that allows brands to engage with customers and allow them to create their own games within the experience, using branded objects. Like a Disney Park creator or a Coca Cola factory builder.
Whatever your strategy, as a brand manager you must know that when used correctly gaming will drive your engagement rate and get more people talking about your brand. I believe with a clear understanding of the appeal of gaming and its limitation, you will connect with gamers better. Game on.