Every year, the French video game publisher Ubisoft convinces gamers to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on games like Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag and Just Dance 2014.
Tony Key, the senior vice president of sales and marketing at Ubisoft, is one of those people behind that clever marketing. At this week’s Game Marketing Awards — the equivalent of the Emmys for the people who make the ads and marketing campaigns that sell blockbuster video games — Ubisoft walked away with 27 trophies, including the game marketing company of the year. To push titles like the upcoming Watch Dogs, Ubisoft will do anything, including traditional advertising as well as livestreaming on spectator platforms like Twitch.
We caught up with Key at the Game Marketing Summit in San Francisco to talk about the secrets of his trade — or at least those he would tell.
GamesBeat: Do you have any takeaways on the old tricks of marketing that are still useful and the ones you have to throw out for a new era?
Tony Key: A couple of years ago the story was this new social sphere, and how we were dealing with the maturation of Facebook and Twitter and using all those things. We continue to learn what those social platforms can bring. Our strategies continue to evolve and those platforms continue to evolve.
It seems like the big new item we’re all trying to embrace in a smart way right now is harnessing the power of user-generated content, using that content to help tell your story.
GamesBeat: Does that include live streaming, Twitch.tv, and so on?
Key: That’s a huge part of it. It’s the single most disruptive feature for a marketing person right now. It’s not only in the new hardware — the PS4 and the Xbox One — but it’s also online anywhere. It’s gaining real critical mass with a more accessible audience. Where that is going to take us no one knows. We all just know it’s going to be a force to reckon with.
That’s very exciting for us as marketers, to have this new platform to communicate with. Using the power of that to amplify what fans of a game are doing, that’s the big one right now. In almost every session today, Twitch gets mentioned one way or another.
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GamesBeat: People were throwing out some interesting facts. Jonah Berger, the author of Contagious, was talking about 10 times more effective sales from word of mouth versus advertising. The almost opposite one was that word of mouth is only 7 percent online, which seemed surprising given how much effort everyone puts into Facebook and Twitter.
Key: You take for granted how much you talk about products just in your daily walking around. Anyone who loves video games talks about them a lot. They talk about them much more in person than they do online. Online is a great way to amplify those conversations, so that many more people can see them.
If I’m in a carload of gamers driving to a baseball game, they’re talking about video games for the whole ride. That’s his point. Those conversations are happening all around us, all day long.
GamesBeat: What do you conclude or use to take some action, then?
Key: This isn’t new, but what we’re seeing is this continued evolution where power goes away from the marketer and toward the consumer, which puts a lot more pressure on the idea that your game, your product, needs to be worthy of consumer love. They’re going to decide, very quickly, whether to spend their money on it, who they should tell about it, whether it’s going to be a success or not in general. They’re going to do it much more effectively than any marketer can do it, because of the trust factor in word of mouth.
The digital space comes into play there because that helps it get it around instantly, all over the place. What we’re seeing now is that the biggest games in the industry are getting bigger, for the most part, and taking a larger share of the market. Those games that get that huge word of mouth, the best products, they’re launching bigger and launching faster, and then declining faster, because another one’s coming.
We’re becoming more like the movie business. You have the big launch window. You nail it. Then another game comes and goes into the next window. You need to be active. The way it all plays together, word of mouth happens very quickly, within a few weeks. That’s why that user-generated content and that engagement becomes important. You need those people evangelizing your product.
GamesBeat: There’s some countervailing trend there with the online PC games, with things like League of Legends being played for years now.
Key: Yeah, those unique cases where it took people time to discover a product. But without word of mouth, those products would be nowhere. They need people telling each other how great they are. It took a while to get that momentum. Our job as marketers, on a blockbuster game like Assassin’s Creed, is to get people talking. We try to get them to talk about the things we think are interesting about the product, but that’s where the money goes in what we do.
GamesBeat: Are there some best practices you expect to apply for Watch Dogs? That seems like one of the biggest things going for you guys, but it’s a brand-new franchise.
Key: Marketing a new brand like that is always a big challenge, because people don’t have experience with it. They have questions about what the actual game is going to be like, as opposed to something like Assassin’s Creed, where they understand the experience more or less and just want to know how it’s going to be different this time.
For Watch Dogs it’ll be important for us to make sure that we’re amplifying all that user-generated content that we can get from the Twitch streams or people posting clips on Machinima and YouTube. Very fast, people can understand what the game is all about. It’s paramount that happens very quickly.
GamesBeat: It’s a very different kind of game. It has so many real-world connections. I wonder about some of the opportunities on that front.
Key: There’s a lot of real next-generation concepts inside Watch Dogs. They were able to replicate most of that stuff on the current generation, but what you see the next-generation versions bringing is this real heavy density to the city. There’s more people walking around, more buildings to go inside. That next-generation quality brings more immersion into the picture. It’s hard for people to get that from a trailer or a screenshot or a preview. When Watch Dogs finally gets out there, though, people can walk around and see, “Oh, OK, this is what next-gen means – it’s about the amount of immersion.”
GamesBeat: That seems like one reason why it was good to delay it. If you have this illusion that you’re in an immersive world, but little things keep breaking it, I think you very quickly get this word of mouth that it’s not the best virtual world.
Key: You do your best not to launch a game before it’s ready. Sometimes, though, you don’t even know it’s not ready until it’s already out. You see that happen sometimes. A game, for whatever reason, hits critical mass, and suddenly it’s not working the way it’s supposed to. People assume the publisher knew that was going to happen, but that’s not always the case.
With Watch Dogs, we definitely wanted to take more time to complete the next-gen vision the team had. As a game developer, you’re always compromising your vision at some point. Otherwise the game never gets finished. You have to say, “All right, this is what the game should be.” For Watch Dogs, what we’re going to see at the end of May is going to be way closer to the ultimate vision of what the product was supposed to be. It was a good move for everyone.
GamesBeat: Are some of these digital features, the companion apps, considered more like marketing than part of the game experience? Things like that iPad police chase.
Key: The companion app is really designed to be a unique part of the experience. It can act as marketing, because it gives someone who doesn’t have the game the opportunity to be involved. Hopefully, good word of mouth comes from that — and good experiences as well. The companion app can be an evangelism tool, but the development team — part of their original concept for the game was to create this companion app that was going to be playable outside of the game.
A lot of our upcoming games have these apps now. We’re trying to broaden the experience, so you can play on different screens in different ways. These aren’t marketing implications. These are definitely focused on gameplay.
GamesBeat: What was the outcome of all the effort that went into Rocksmith? Marketing it through YouTube and teaching people that if you want to learn guitar, this is the way to do it.
Key: Learning guitar is such a broad desire. So many people, at one point in their life or another, want to learn how to play guitar. Only very few follow through and do it – learning guitar is generally considered hard to do, because it is.
We really believed that Rocksmith was the best way to learn. So what we did on the second Rocksmith, we turned our campaign into less of a traditional video game campaign and more into, “Let’s make sure that when somebody decides they want to learn to play guitar and they plug that into a search engine, we’re there with a direct response.” It was very successful for us. We were able to drive people to a Rocksmith hub where they could learn about the product. If they already had the product, they could take the 60-day challenge. We had messages there that could continue engagement. The website interacted with the video game, so that when you were doing the challenge, it was keeping score for you. You could go back to the site and see how you were doing.
That’s an example of a marketing campaign that was integrated into the product. The 60-day challenge was something the development team could build right into the product. We’re happy with the results. We still think that Rocksmith is somewhat underappreciated by people out there who want to learn guitar. The potential market is so broad that we just can’t reach everyone at once. We continue to push Rocksmith. We continue to find new customers. Word of mouth on that has always been good. Our postlaunch studies have always been positive. For us it’s a long-term brand that we want to cultivate.
GamesBeat: Are you nominated for anything interesting this year?
Key: We have 33 nominations, yeah. Last year we won 33 awards. Rocksmith has a couple. Thinking outside the box, that was the Assassin’s Creed Comic-Con ship. We had an actual real pirate ship at Comic-Con. That was awesome. It made the Wall Street Journal. Emotional partnerships with Just Dance. We partnered with Cheetos and other packaged-foods companies. We had our partnership with Lady Gaga on Just Dance 2014. We were able to get her new album exposure at GameStop by letting people get a discount her album if they bought the game.
GamesBeat: Trailers still seem like an art form here.
Key: Well, we do so many of them. A big launch can involve a dozen trailers or more. We put a lot of effort into those. That’s how people tend to learn about games nowadays, from a marketing perspective. They like to watch trailers. We’ve traditionally done very well with the quality of our trailers. They’re conditioned to get into that.
We have best long-format feature promotional content for Rocksmith. We had guys tape the 60-day challenge before launch, and we put the testimonials up online. We had them chronicle their improvement every day and you could see they were getting better and better. That ended up being a big part of our campaign. That’s up for an award.
GamesBeat: Sony Online Entertainment president John Smedley was very aggressive with a lot of the things he was saying.
Key: He likes watching people play games, it sounds like.
GamesBeat: All they’re doing is Reddit and Twitch. He has zero marketing budget for anything else on H1Z1. That’s not so traditional.
Key: No, but he’s also not in my business. In our space, we’re in the blockbuster home console video game niche. The top 10 in our industry is taking up more and more of a share of the business every year. The top 10 is becoming more of the story for our business. That means we need gigantic mass-market launches. You’d be hard-pressed to find a game in the top 10 that didn’t have that. Our business is hit-driven. You need that big first week.
GamesBeat: Is what you’d call traditional media still part of it?
Key: It still plays a major role, yeah. Traditional media creates word of mouth. It can create calls to action. It helps position your product. It gets people talking about your product. All those things are designed to try to get word of mouth going. We have a lot of research that says people still have an expectation around big blockbuster games. You’re going to see TV ads for them. If they don’t see that, they wonder why.
GamesBeat: Google did that study saying that game marketing used to be a three-month process. Now it’s 10 months, with lots of trailers and all kinds of points of engagement. That period of time is stretching out.
Key: The new hardware cycle played around with that a bit. It throws off development cycles and things like that. But yes, you’re seeing that cycle get closer to a year than three months. A lot of games are being announced in March and April for the holiday. Assassin’s Creed III was announced in March. Assassin’s Creed IV was announced in April. We definitely take a long communication cycle for our big core games. You need to get so much momentum to have that successful first week. You have to get retailers ready. You have to get promotional partners ready.
Trying to keep a game a secret for too long these days is actually pretty difficult. It’s hard to keep a holiday title a secret until E3. And that’s not even three months. That’s four or five months. So many people work on these games now. Somebody, whether they left the studio or something — at some point you need to just announce your game.
GamesBeat: What are you thinking about as far as more unconventional marketing tactics these days?
Key: We try to focus our efforts around exposing our game to as many people as possible who we think might be interested. Usually we’re tapping into existing audiences through something like a YouTube influencer, like Smosh. They’ll integrate Assassin’s Creed into a music video that gets 50 million views. That way, we’re exposing ourselves to an audience of people who might have an affinity with our brand.
We studied the sociographics of the UFC to see if that was a good match for Assassin’s Creed many years ago. It’s a pretty violent sport. It’s a pay-per-view sport. People spend $60 on a show, so we know they spend money. We ended up finding out that it was a perfect match for us. We’ve partnered with them for years now on Assassin’s Creed. We’ve grown the Assassin’s Creed audience by exposing it to that audience as well.
We also have transmedia. We have movies being made now with Assassin’s Creed, Watch Dogs, and Splinter Cell. We have other products we’re creating for these brands — T-shirts, toys. We have a TV show on Nickelodeon for [Rayman’s] Rabbids. These things will continue to help us find ways to expose our brands to new people, one way or another. Maybe these people aren’t gamers, but we can still get them to spend money on our products.