Marketing/PR vs Product development: A false dichotomy

(This is a quick blog post to reply to a conversation on Twitter about marketing, PR and product development. It was started by Dylan Cuthbert based on a quote from the Steve Jobs biography. Very quickly Javier Arevalo, Mike Acton and Thaddaeus Frogley got involved, and I dragged in poor Adam Saltsman for perhaps no good reason. Anyway, see this tweet if you want to try and make sense of it.)

So I claimed somewhere somehow that I think it is a good thing if developers not only understand but actively participate in marketing, PR and other non-development activities (sales, tech support, biz dev, etc.). This goes way beyond including functionality to allow PR people to make nice screenshots (useful as that is, hi Thad). I see this as exactly equivalent to programmers understanding how game designers and artists work – or rather, what game designers and artists do. (And vice versa of course: it helps when artists understand programming, etc.). A programmer who understands game design can achieve things another programmer cannot, simply because she doesn’t have to spend as much (or, sometimes, any) effort coordinating and communicating with someone else.

Naturally I would say this since knowing just enough about most disciplines is my thing. I am not saying it is bad for people to focus on one discipline. But game development is the most multidisciplinary art form – more so than film or opera in my opinion – and so it logically follows that dealing with the synthesis of all of these disciplines is key to getting the most out of the medium. And multi- or inter-disciplinarity is a really great way of doing that.

Anyway. Over the last couple of years I’ve come to the conclusion that this goes for disciplines outside of pure game development as well, in other words: PR, marketing, sales and biz dev (and tech support and IT but I’ll leave those out for now). Classically, as a developer, you would outsource PR, marketing and sales to a publisher or it would be taken care of by different people in a different department and floor. Biz dev was this thing your boss’s boss did and the result was someone coming in and telling you what game you were going to make next. I’ve worked like this and I think this attitude is still prevalent.

But the rise of the internet has changed all this in a mere 5-10 years. You need fewer permissions, fewer gatekeepers, fewer middlemen, less capital. You can do more with a much smaller company. But that means you need to pay attention to, and take care of, those aforementioned disciplines that are not development.

I think it is imperative that developers see their work as part of a larger whole. The odds are that, in one way or another, you are trying to bring interactive joy to people and somehow be compensated for it. (I would argue that this is the case even if you make art games, but let’s not derail this by arguing about edge cases.) ‘Compensated’ typically means making a living and staying in business. (If you’ve taken money from investors, you also need to produce a return on investment, or *shudder* achieve growth.) Anyway, to do so you need to reach people, then convince them to play your game and give you money. And that is marketing, PR and sales.

These days, as a game designer, your work has already been impacted by marketing and sales, if you’re making free to play games. (Right now, I can think of only two development companies in Austria that are not working on free to play games. Crazy.) But beyond that: what about accessibility, in the sense of people quickly grasping what your game is about? This starts way before the moment the player starts your game. It starts when they hear about it. And what do they hear? The title, and the story. Not the story in your game, but the story about your game – hopefully the one you wrote, in a press release. They read what other people are saying about it, be that press or just someone on the internet (a distinction that’s rapidly fading anyway). Then they see a logo and some screenshots. Then perhaps they read a description and some user reviews in an app store. Then maybe they download and install it.

What is that if not game development? Game design (setting, title, core concept), art (logo, style, screenshots, videos), programming (writing installers, getting the downloadable size below 50 megabytes). What are things like user testing and closed betas if not looking for market fit? And I didn’t even get into analytics.

(For years I resented being asked to explain my game in one sentence. After 21 years I finally get it. A topic for some other time.)

Somewhat paradoxically, indie developers, despite often having a certain ‘we’re not part of the industry’ vibe, are often the most savvy about marketing and sales. At least the successful ones. They run blogs and have multiple Twitter accounts (content marketing), distribute their game through multiple distribution channels (Steam, Flash portals, app stores), participate in special sales (e.g. the Humble Indie Bundles). Super Meat Boy had excellent marketing. Sword & Sworcery’s in-game tweet functionality was great for viral marketing. Etc.

To come back to the original discussion: How should a company divide its priorities between marketing/PR or product development? My answer is that a company should try to eliminate (or at least keep a concerned eye on) internal divisions, and make decisions based on something beyond this the false marketing/development dichotomy. Apple had its way of doing this (I haven’t finished the biography yet but Jobs was a master at marketing and sales. Your company needs to find its own way. As always, remember Basho: Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise. Seek what they sought.

Relevant blog posts by other people:

Previous blog posts by me that may be of interest:

Comments 2

  1. Ido Yehieli wrote:

    Good post, will have to go read the provided links when I have more time.

    As an indie game developer I can concur about the importance of having at least *some* knowledge about every aspect of games-as-a-business, and it’s in fact it’s a lot more important when you’re just a lone developer or a small team.

    I think most developers in general (indie or otherwise) don’t want to handle the marketing/PR stuff but some just don’t have the luxury of having a choice.

    Posted 19 Mar 2012 at 11:32
  2. Jurie wrote:

    Yes, I agree. It’s not easy at all. But then if it were easy everyone would do it etc. etc.

    Posted 19 Mar 2012 at 14:26

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