I wanted to talk today about two opposing concepts in marketing and how they might apply to game development. This article is strongly influenced by Seth Godin and I highly suggest reading some of his work (his blog, TED talk about the spread of ideas, his book “This is Marketing”, ) if you haven’t already. I’m going to try to discuss what I learned from him in a recent podcast and apply it to game development in a way that hopefully is instructive to some.
The first concept is the traditional view on marketing, which is the idea that you start out trying to reach the widest audience possible, and some of those impressions become clicks, some of those clicks become further clicks, and eventually some of those become customers. This funnel method is how TV ads, web page takeovers, and other mass impression strategies work. According to Godin, this is what happens when young and inexperienced marketers have money to play with, and this method is on its way out in many markets.
You may be already saying to yourself: “but I don’t do that kind of marketing, plus we don’t have the budget to do that kind of thing even if we wanted to”. Unless you’re a massive AAA company, that is likely true. But even without paying for TV ads, you may be finding yourself analyzing your follower growth under a microscope, paying for Facebook ads to get page likes, or trying to plan how to get your Reddit post on to the main page of the Gaming subreddit. These are all things that use the approach of “how do I reach the biggest possible group of people and pick some off as future customers”. What I’d like to propose is another way to look at the problem.
Seth Godin calls this the classroom method, or at least refers to a teacher / classroom dynamic when describing this. The people who like your game(s), buy your games, join your Discord communities, and come to meet you at expos, these are the students in your classroom. Remember your favourite teacher in school? Probably not the most conventional, and probably not everyone’s favourite teacher. But this teacher had a style and a way of teaching that you liked, and they surely showed that they cared about you as an individual. As Seth describes, your goal shouldn’t be to produce the most appealing thing to that giant funnel and hope you get some customers in the end, it should be to
cater to the students in your class who are already
paying attention to you, who are there for you, and who would
be disappointed if you didn’t give them something interesting.
In an age where we fight not only for attention but for trust, we need to focus on serving the customers (gamers) a high quality experience that doesn’t try to please the masses. By doing our thing, doing it well, and caring about the people we do it for, we can actually create greatness which appeals to a larger niche than we expect. By dumbing down our content and product and trying to hit ten million people, we risk not creating something that’s special to anyone. If you can’t capture the single person and make them passionate about your product, you won’t be able to do it for the masses either.
This is not to say that we don’t need to have a lot of people see our work in order to have financial and critical success. What it encourages is changing the focus, and in focusing on the small, personal aspect of what we do, we have a better chance of achieving that wide market and critical success.
This is a massive shift from thinking of your target audience as all the people who don’t already like your product to thinking of your target audience as the people who you already know like your product and trust you.
These are individuals with personalities, thoughts, feelings, and lives and by respecting that you give yourself the best chance to succeed.
Your goal should be first and foremost to make a quality product, and then to serve your customers (in this case, your game fans) in a way that makes them want to come back and makes them want to talk about you. By focusing on this smaller core and caring about them at the smallest level, you create an atmosphere that is highly valuable.
I think this new approach is especially instructive when it comes to the community and has a very clear link to the development and sustenance of the community around your company and game. The goal is to create the experience (or product) for that person in your classroom that makes them feel like they’re getting value from it. The value one gets from being part of your game community can be many, many different things. On the surface, it can include fun and exciting content, new people to play with, direct communication with developers, new strategies and play guides, etc. On a deeper level, this community can also provide: comfort, excitement, emotional support, friendship, and other more fundamental human needs. We need to take special care to offer whatever value we can to our community and make sure that our players know that they’re appreciated and taken care of. If you treat people right who are already your in classroom and who are willing to learn, the word will spread because these people will feel truly special. If you advertise that anyone and everyone could enjoy your community because it pleases everyone, you’re likely to 1) miss that audience because it’s not offering interesting value, or 2) appealing to people who you don’t even necessarily want in your community.
What about with respect to the game or game design itself? I’m not entirely sure where I stand on that, so if people have additions to this please feel free to write in the comments… but I’ll give it a shot. I think that intelligent, consumer-facing design decisions should do the trick here: intuitive UI, proper difficulty curves, in-game moderation, etc. These will be done differently for different games, but should always be done to serve the small classroom of people who have come specifically for you (your game in this case). Making something interesting, exciting, and different is a way to engage this classroom in the same way your favourite teacher growing up did for you. By making something that is so inoffensive that you think no one will be turned off by it, you try to reach this massive audience and it could lead you to making decisions which alienate your biggest and most dedicated fans who are also your champions. Where this becomes complicated with respect to the classroom model is that I’m not sure if the classroom is already established or if the classroom gets filled with fans of your game. That is, are you creating a product to serve these students or are you creating a product and the students come to see you?
I hope this blog post was useful to some people in helping them focus on the smaller-scale, person-to-person care that goes with creating and sustaining a good community. In our company, we will continue to focus on this approach and hopefully the word will spread about our game and community.