[Gamasutra editor-at-large Colin Campbell wraps up the MI6 Game Marketing conference with a reflection of themes and hot topics prevalent at the event: digital models, transmedia strategies, and, of course, making money.
More of our exclusive MI6 coverage can be found at the following links: THQ: Marketers Should Ration Their Assets, Microsoft's Kudo Tsunoda On Kinect's Collaborative Genesis, Electronic Arts Aims for Facebook Dominance, and Halo: Reach, Assassin's Creed Brotherhood Advertising Wins Big At MI6 Awards]
Read any book on business and you'll likely come across some passage that denies the existence of marketing. "There is no such thing as marketing - only sales," it will state. Or some-such bombast.
At MI6, a conference for games marketers, this sage advice was clearly taken to heart. The conversation was not about the soaring creative heights that marketers are capable of reaching.
Nor did it much dwell on the dark arts of persuasion or the labyrinthine intricacies of customer acquisition matrices.
The conversation was about money. How to get it. How to stop other people getting what's yours.
If you'd come to the MI6 conference hoping to find out how to make a better game trailer, you'd have been disappointed. This was all big picture, state-of-the-market stuff. It was a reminder that marketing isn't about creating ads. It's about selling stuff. And, as every sensible person understands, there is no bigger creative challenge than getting lots of people to part with their dough. Marketers are clever bastards. They have to be.
The big theme was pretty much the same as its been every year for six years, and the same as it will be for at least the next six years - digital. There were zero conference sessions in which this challenge was ignored.
Once the various speakers had each proven to us that digital is a Really Big Deal, we got down to the nitty gritty of how their organizations saw future trends. All of them seemed to work on the sensible assumption that $60 standalone goods are cooked.
One option is to prop up this massive consumer outlay with various supportive experiences (cheap, or free) across non-console devices, like mobile or social. This is the favored option if you are, say, a massive publisher with seriously valuable brands.
Another route is 'freemium,' the strategy of giving your game away on the theory that five out of a hundred will spend some money on extras -- and maybe one will spend a lot of money. A few years ago, the idea of freemium was just that, a theory. But the theory has proven to hold true, at least some of the time. John Davison, head editorial honcho at GameSpot and Metacritic wittily pointed out, "My kids play loads of free games. It's costing me a fortune!"
The subscription model was also touted as a way of the future. Games publishers have a secret hatred of both retailers and hardware manufacturers, and so sing sweetly of a day when some other entity will control their destiny.
But I think they all know that the 'Netflix for games' that awaits us all won't be anywhere near as kindly as we'd all hope. Just look at Apple, which is thoroughly unloved in this circle for creating an entirely new games-and-apps market worth billions of dollars a year.
We were constantly reminded that retail "isn't going anywhere soon". This insincere line always puts me in mind of those deeply afraid mustachioed spokesmen for Middle Eastern dictators, smiling as the airport behind them smolders. For games publishers' fear of the retail-less future is always in a state of balance with their hidden loathing of gouging retailers.
Peter Moore had it about right. He said that the games industry could manage the transition to digital because we'd seen what happens to industries that screw it up.
Music was the unlucky / foolhardy business that strolled across No Man's Land circa 1914 and got scythed down by consumer derision. Back in the trenches, Peter and his pals have kept their heads down. They'll wait for the tanks to arrive, thank you very much.
But, as everyone knows, there are always casualties. You just have to tool up, and hope it's the other guy.
Transmedia was another hot topic. In high-falutin' terms, it's about telling connected stories across multiple media channels. In reality, it's a cheap way to get your IP under as many noses as possible. Book publisher wants to sell a book based on your game about grunts in outer space? Come on in! Cable channel interested in a drama based on your game about wacky squirrels? Take a seat, sir!
When it's cheap and relevant and entertaining, it's good. But creating assets for other media can be expensive. And it can be wasteful, especially if you get the timing wrong, or you hit the wrong audience. I would have liked to hear more about the pitfalls of a transmedia strategy. But I do like the idea of videos and social experiences that tell deeper stories about fictional game worlds, and I sympathize with marketers who have to suffer the silly hoots of "just show us the game" every time they try to do something innovative.
Facebook and social gaming was, of course, ever present. Marketers love the numbers Facebook offers, of course. But they don't love the model. They are still torn between goofy marketing-led Facebook campaigns (what kind of murderous orc are you!?), and convincing themselves that this is a games platform where their set of skills are going to be useful. I didn't hear a single good word about Zynga's games, other than a grudging admission that, okay, yes, they are popular.
But in general, the atmosphere was upbeat. More people than ever are playing games. Gamification is a thing. While the economy lurches from one misery to another, the games industry is actually growing and is still making some pretty darned amazing things.
Marketers have challenges to face. As Ubisoft's Tony Key pointed, "simple is over". I can remember the days when marketing wasn't much more than slapping a funny slogan on a pic of a young man wrestling with a monster, or some such shit. They'd book a double page spread in GamePro and wait for the agency guys to take them out for lunch. Those days are gone.
Today, marketers have to come up with actual ideas, and do things that haven't been done before, every day. The consumer demands innovation. The only formula for success is an absolute commitment to the idea that there is no formula.
I heard someone at MI6 say that the "brand managers are driving this business forward." I think that is over-stating the case. But the marketers are the ones who tell the story of the game industry, who explain why people should part with considerable time and money to play your games. They are here to sell.
[Disclaimer: As well as being business editor for Gamasutra, Colin Campbell works for a marketing agency with professional connections to MI6 organizers. You can follow him on Twitter @brandnarrative.]