Just playing?

All my life, as far back as I can remember, my biggest passion has been computer games. I possess a frightening repertoire of knowledge on the subject, and I’ve seen how the industry has grown significantly over the last 20 years. I’ve seen it go from developers in their bedrooms getting their games distributed by publishers not much more advanced than themselves, through to the likes of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, with its estimated marketing budget alone of $2 million, and hundreds of developers, artists, musicians, animators, voiceover artists – including Tobey Maguire (Spider-Man) – and so on. It’s clear that production of a major modern game isn’t far removed from that of a movie.

As with big marketing campaigns for movies, MW3 (to give it its pet name) came armed with a slew of cross-promotions from the likes of PepsiCo-owned Mountain Dew (a brand already well-associated with the gaming scene) and, perhaps more surprisingly, Jeep – who have made a special edition vehicle based on a vehicle featured in the game. Product placement in games? Yes indeed!

Of course, most stores selling the game did a ‘midnight launch’, with queues of people waiting to get their hands on the first copies – social media sites subsequently erupting with photographs of game boxes held proudly in their new owners’ hands.

It’s perhaps hard to say what the mass appeal of the game itself is, or what makes it fundamentally different from many other games of the same ilk that have come before it, but it’s certainly easy to see how the massive marketing push has helped generate the hype that surrounds it.

There is however another way, and one that’s rapidly growing in popularity.

‘Indie’ games are games done the old fashioned way – typically by a bloke with a beard in his spare time, in his bedroom. They seem a little out of place, and it’s hard to see how something like this could raise its head above the water, never mind compete with the huge marketing juggernauts that currently exist. But compete they do.

Minecraft is one such indie game which is currently enjoying huge success and popularity. Swedish developer Markus ‘Notch’ Persson started working on his Lego-like game early in 2009, and thanks to nothing more than word of mouth and a bit of free promotion at gigs from high-profile fans such as the Canadian electronic musician ‘deadmau5’, the game has now sold 4 million copies – without the aid of a publisher. Persson has been able to quit his day job and start his own company with the proceeds. Currently the game sells for €14.95, and in April 2011, Persson estimated that Minecraft had made €23 million!

Notch has become a celebrity in his own right, with nearly 500,000 followers on Twitter, and has set an astounding example to other indie developers, showing them that they can compete with the industry successfully. Indeed, Minecraft currently sits at number 15 in the top selling PC games on Wikipedia.

What’s to be learned from these two drastically different methods of promotion? Personally, I think it shows that promoting your product successfully can be simply a matter of being humble, engaging with your community and, of course, having a great product. Marketing is about identifying what it is that your target audience wants – but promotion, especially through the channel of social media, can be all about transparency and the relationship with your audience. With indie games, the audience wants to see an underdog developer doing his or her best, and if the product is right, the audience will carry it far and wide.