French video game publisher Ubisoft had a good year as the top marketer in the video game business. At last week’s MI6 game marketing conference, the company took home seven awards for the marketing campaigns for its games such as Assassin’s Creed II, one of the top sellers during the holiday season. Tony Key is the senior vice president of sales and marketing at Ubisoft, the French video game publisher behind big hits from the Tom Clancy games to Prince of Persia. We caught up with him at MI6, where he talked about the changes in game marketing in an age of social media as well as the upcoming launch of the company’s big game, Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell Conviction, (pictured) which hits stores on April 13.
VB: What’s happening in game marketing?
TK: The theme is that there is a transition occurring. Everybody feels it. We are all scrambling to keep up. I can’t remember in my career ever having to look at so many different types of initiatives and campaign ideas and technology to try and get our message out. Not all of them are going to pan out as excellent vehicles. But some of them will.
VB: A lot of the thinking here must be about taking social media marketing lessons and applying them to traditional games?
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TK: Well, people are connecting now in different ways and getting their information in different ways. You used to get information from TV. Now it’s the Internet. We’ve always heard that word of mouth was the strongest. That is nothing new. It is the strongest sales tool. But now word-of-mouth happens 100 times faster than before. You can really spread your message quickly with the right strategy. That is where social media comes in. You are plugging into that and trying to get them to talk about your products.
VB: What are examples of what works well in game marketing these days?
TK: Getting people to interact with your products via social media such as Facebook is working, even if you are selling an application that is sold in a store. You get people to interact with your brand online. You build awareness online. Facebook can build a buzz for your product.
VB: It seems like the game industry has always had this contradiction where good marketing for one audience is bad marketing for another. Good marketing for hardcore, young male gamers — with hot women in the ads — is bad marketing for moms. What do you think of that?
TK: We didn’t have to care about moms so much before when we were talking to the males, but now mom is a customer too. We sell to all different demographics now. We have our Imagine line for tween girls. We’ve got Assassin’s Creed for the men and Just Dance for the families and the moms. Our demographics on Just Dance (pictured), which we announced sold 2 million copies, is moms. That is absolutely a game you play with your whole family. It is good for you. People start filming themselves during the game and post the videos on YouTube of their moms dancing. They are sharing a video or photo album to show they are all playing video games and having a great time. The game is easy to learn and so anybody can try it. It is the most successful Wii title we have ever done.
VB: I read a book by Gabe Zichermann and Joselin Linder, Game-Based Marketing, about the game-ification of other industries. It was interesting that there is this body of knowledge about things like sweepstakes, contests, and frequent flyer programs. A lot of that is becoming relevant to game marketers who are doing things like free-to-play games where you want the player to upgrade to buying virtual goods. It’s interesting that industries can learn from each other when it comes to marketing.
TK: Absolutely. The thing about fun is that if you can get people to have fun with your brand, then you build loyalty. We have seen you can get people to do something they don’t really want to do if you make it fun. Once you do, then they appreciate that and you can have a positive association with them. Let’s make a game out of it. I wish I was more like that as a father. If my kid doesn’t want to do something, I could make a game out of it. I have heard of people who do that and there is validity to that. We sell the games to people as a way to build loyalty around our core products. We have figured out a way to build loyalty around the games we sell as well as other industries have.
VB: There was a recent review of the Game Developers Conference that went like this: Facebook, Facebook, Facebook, Facebook Facebook. What did you think of that?
TK: It’s a really exciting time. This whole new world creates opportunity to make money from people who are not
necessarily buying traditional video games at retail. We saw the same thing a couple of years ago when Wii Fit got millions of women to buy a Wii. That was a trojan horse. Once that was in the house, they understood what video games were about and weren’t intimidated by them. Now, Just Dance comes along and sells 2 million copies. I am not convinced that the success of Facebook is not an incremental opportunity for the world. We have to remember we are in the worst recession in memory and that has nothing to do with Facebook. I really believe that the traditional video game industry will come back healthy in the next couple of years.
VB: Is there a shift from hardcore games to Facebook games happening?
TK: Facebook offers a way to interact with your brand. New social media can deepen the experience of traditional games. You can interact with a brand on Facebook and maybe that has an impact on the game you bought at the store. But this big, immersive game experience [you get from the consoles] is never going to go away. Never. It will come in different forms. But it is never going away because FarmVille is popular. I don’t think that one has to lose for the other one to win.
VB: Will you have more on the Facebook side?
TK: We are exploring the social gaming scene. We don’t have any big announcements to make there. We have things in development. We have massively multiplayer online games. We are not sitting still. We are trying to grow our business and are dedicating people to make a push into that area. I think we will learn a lot about that this year.
VB: The learning part is pretty tough on Facebook, where traditional game companies have not dominated the top games lists.
TK: You have to get a couple of people in who understand it. From many perspectives, a lot of it is not so different. It’s a matter of understanding what the best execution is and making apps that are useful and fun. That is the entry point. There is no reason we can’t have the same brand management as we have in our other games. Our core brands can become players on Facebook. That is something we have over non-game publisher companies on Facebook.
VB: You’re about to launch one of your biggest games with Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell Conviction. How are you approaching it?
TK: Yes, it’s our biggest since Assassin’s Creed II. It is looking really good. The reserves are high. The game is really good.
VB: Is this a traditional campaign?
TK: The coolest thing we did was use Johnny Cash’s song, God’s Gonna Cut You Down, to promote the trailer. We are constantly using new technology to get more views of that video. For us, the biggest thing is to get people to see that video. That’s a big objective. There are whole marketing strategies around that which are different from running banner ads. We use whatever technologies we can find.
VB: Is there a challenge with this particular version of the game? People may have been getting tired of the franchise? It’s a tougher character.
TK: Sam Fisher was considered to be the most bad-ass character in the world. That was his moniker. But in our tests, he was robotic in his emotions. Cold as a cucumber. Our feeling was we wanted to evolve the character. With this Splinter Cell, we are giving him a more emotional motivation. To show he is human. To try to get the character to be deeper, for people to feel more emotion for him. He’s more than just a patriot. He is very, very angry in this game because he thinks his former agency might have something to do with the death of his daughter. He is on a rampage. That’s where the Johnny Cash song comes in. They have a lot in common as guys who were always in pain and emotional distress. The focus groups went nuts over our trailer because they said we made him human. I think it will be the biggest launch we’ve ever had on the brand.
VB: What else is going to be big later this year?
TK: We have announced Ghost Recon Future Soldier. We released a trailer that was made by Ridley Scott Productions. The trailer is awesome because it shows game play without showing actual game footage. It shows all the cool weapons the ghosts can use, like shoulder-mounted rockets, invisibility suits, exo-skeletons. That’s going to be a huge launch this fall and probably the best-selling Ghost Recon game we’ve ever had. We have another Assassin’s Creed coming and Shaun White Skate. Now that the Winter Olympics are over, he is going to be focusing on skateboarding. He’s going to the X Games and he’s one of the best skateboarders in the world. We’ll have a skateboarding game in the fall.
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