Some thoughts on digital distribution and gaming (Pt. 2)

Riding the NOW zeitgeist. Or something.

Some thoughts on digital distribution and gaming (Pt. 2)
If you've not read Part 1 of this feature, you might want to do it now. What follows will (hopefully) make more sense if you do...

You are your own marketeer

If games are getting more social, so is games marketing. Specifically, creating a buzz around a game is about far more than buying up magazine and TV ads (console) or sucking up to carriers (mobile). It’s much more fun than that now.

In the early days of iPhone gaming, there was a perception that big publishers would dominate the App Store, thanks to their marketing muscle. That hasn’t been the case so far, but even now there’s a widely held assumption that it WILL be true, now that the big guns are properly focused on iPhone.

That’s maybe true, but marketing games in the digital arena isn’t really about throwing money around. It’s about being clever in building buzz - often through social media - but even more it’s about establishing and maintaining your player community.

So far, it’s the indies who’ve been doing this best, from Firemint (Real Racing), TAG Games (Car Jack Streets), Bolt Creative (Pocket God)... And while F.A.S.T. is an excellent game, would it really have made $1 million in six weeks if SGN hadn’t spent the previous months building a community around its free iPhone games?

Big-bucks marketing isn’t what guarantees a hit in the digital world. It’s clever marketing - whatever the size of the budget.

That ‘games as a service’ thing

It almost feels like a cliché, so often has it been repeated at conferences recently. But at least it’s being repeated by smart people.

The idea of a game where launch day is just a waypoint rather than the finishing line isn’t new. MMOs have relied on this premise for years, and downloadable content is now so common on console that the acronym DLC rarely needs explaining any more - even with that needless ‘L’ to throw people off the scent.

But iPhone, together with social games, has taken it a leap forward, in two ways. Firstly, by popularising the term ‘updates’ as good things, as opposed to the traditional ‘patches’.

The App Store has encouraged developers to issue regular updates for some seemingly accidental reasons: some early games were rushed out missing features, and releasing an update bumped you up the New Releases list. Look at Pocket God again for the most joyously successful example of true episodic development.

But now it’s part of iPhone development culture, with games evolving and mutating long after their initial release. The ability to actually make money from this through in-app payments will only fuel the trend.

But the second way this ‘games as a service’ thing is changing gaming is from the social side, and the idea that developers bury their heads in data on how people are playing their games and what they say about them, and use it directly to improve the game in updates - whether numbered (iPhone) or in day-to-day tweaks (Facebook).

It might be more work for a developer, but it’s fascinating work that gamers can only benefit from.

Original ideas are good (but don't stay original for long)

After years of complaints from developers about the difficulty of getting original game ideas to sell (or even, on mobile, to be sold by the carriers), the new generation of digital stores holds out new hope for original, quirky, innovative own-IP.

Look at iPhone and some of the games that have come from nowhere to soar up the charts. Look at the invention in recent years of casual genres like time management, tower defence and hidden object games. And sit down for a long session with World of Goo or Noby Noby Boy on your console.

In the latter case, these kinds of games were made before for consoles, but for many of the reasons listed in this feature, there is more optimism about actually making them hits. If you’re a developer bursting with original ideas, it’s a good time.

That said, if you’re a developer bursting to capitalise on other people’s original ideas, it’s a good time, too. Look at what happened with Flight Control on iPhone, whose basic drawing mechanic has already been taken on and run with for games like Harbor Master, DrawRace and Sea Captain.

Those games aren’t copies, as such - but they show that the quick pace of developing for platforms like iPhone is enabling ‘memes’ - in this case the drawing mechanic - to swiftly spread between developers, evolving as they go.

(It’s worth saying that iPhone didn’t invent this trend - you could argue that Flash games was when the ‘game as meme’ idea took off).

Brands aren’t quite clear where they fit in

Lastly, there’s the question of brands. In mobile, the position of brands has been pretty simple down the years: they were all-important. If you didn’t have a brand attached, you found it hard to sell lots of game downloads, and if you did, you could sell lots even if the game was pretty poor. Which it often was.

Scrap that. Console game brands have been pretty popular on iPhone, but signs so far are that the old ‘slap a film / TV show / sports star on it and shift millions’ strategy doesn’t work. Meanwhile, spot the branded games in the Facebook app charts. Not many of ‘em.

This is interesting because it’s forcing brands to think laterally. If they’re a Barclaycard or a Volkswagen, they hook up with a Fishlabs to make free iPhone games that millions of people seemingly ARE keen to download.

Films like Watchmen are getting super-ambitious MMO games for iPhone, rather than tedious platformers. And the search is still on for a really fun branded social game on Facebook - let alone one that extends its tendrils onto iPhone and other mobile platforms.

In other words, rubbish branded games won’t get automatic success in the new digital world. But brands have lots of money, and want in on it anyway - so there’s potential for some really interesting experiments.
Phew. As we said, just a few thoughts. But what do you think about all this? Post a comment and let us know...

Contributing Editor

Stuart is a freelance journalist and blogger who's been getting paid to write stuff since 1998. In that time, he's focused on topics ranging from Sega's Dreamcast console to robots. That's what you call versatility. (Or a short attention span.)