What Do Publishers Know About Marketing?
I'm just a dumb developer. Marketing strategy is handled by people much higher on the corporate ladder. I assume they've read the same books I've read, and they have access to the important data that I don't, and they know more than me. Also, the books I've read have all the logical rigor of a collection of anecdotes. For example, in the same book they said MCI was a failure because it was the #3 long distance company, but 7-Up was a success because they started competing in the cola category and earned the position of...#3. Still, from where I stand, it seems like publishers are not doing the right things.
Mistake #3: stupid IP
Greg Costikyan already covered this one, but I wanted to add a few cents:
Currently, a medium marketing effort on a decent game can get your mindshare (using Raph Koster's number of hits on google measurement) to at least 70,000. Check True Crime: Streets of LA, or Battle Realms, or Freedom Force. Don't work on IP that has fewer hits than that. Definitely better to invent your own. Starsky & Hutch is at 80K right now, but that was probably after the videogame announcement.
If you want a game to sell millions regardless of how crappy it is, buy IP that has at least a million hits on Google. And even that isn't a guarantee: Activision's Star Trek titles aren't doing as well as we might like, and they're not even crap, they're good games.
Mistake #2 - diluting your IP
The games industry isn't the only industry that does this, happily. Al Ries & Jack Trout say that 'line extension' usually gives you a short-term gain for a long-term loss: everybody buys your Coca-Cola clothes, or whatever, when it first comes out, but then they stop, and you've weakened your core brand as well. (Although Coke does seem to still be going strong, eh?) I've noticed that Altoids has started doing this. I predict Altoids will no longer be a thing in ten years.
We saw this at Activision with the "so-and-so's Pro X" aka "O2" line. (Opinions on this blog do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Activision, btw.) Not only did nobody buy the less-good "Somebody-Other-Than-Tony-Hawk's Pro Something" games, sales of Tony Hawk have been slowly decreasing as well. Maybe they would have decreased anyway. Who knows.
If you want to grow a brand over the long term, be more like Nintendo: a new title every year or two.
Sony is making mistake #1 and mistake #2 at the same time with Lords of Everquest. Way to go, guys.
I suppose you could think of The Sims Online as being a mistake #1 & #2 combo, but it's sufficiently different from Everquest that it's really not the same category.
And now, the big one:
Mistake #1 - competing in established categories instead of inventing new categories
Ask a typical publisher if they want StarCraft with higher production values or something new, a whole new category of PC strategy game, and they'll tell you StarCraft with higher production values. In a heartbeat. Here's the thing with me-too titles that we all know from experience: 99% of them only do a small fraction of the sales of the market leader. This makes sense if what Al Ries and Jack Trout say about marketing is true: you can't position yourself as the market leader if there already is one. Your mark (they call it 'prospect') isn't going to believe you when you tell them your product is better than StarCraft. They already know that Blizzard is the leader when it comes to making science fiction or fantasy RTS. Are you going to spend Blizzard money only to come in second place with Blizzard?
Except the publishers don't even spend Blizzard money. They spend as little as they can get away with and still get a title out. So not only is the game not going to compete with Blizzard in the mind of the mark, it's not going to compete with Blizzard...at all.
The best time to do a me-too title is actually when the first title didn't sell that well and you know why. When WarCraft, the Dune 2 clone, came out, Blizzard captured a ton of market share from Westwood. What Blizzard knew (or lucked into) was that Dune 2 was a great game that didn't sell as well as it could have...for whatever reason. Because it was tied to a limiting license, or because it wasn't marketed enough, or because it didn't have online play. I don't know.
But that's not how publishers think: they see a title not do that well and they all shy away from that title. I, personally, think there's a great opportunity here with the failure of Sims Online. I thought it should have been a success. Something went wrong. I don't know what. Whoever figures out what went wrong has an opportunity to be huge.
Another good time to do a me-too title is if you can be second place. Even though you'll work harder for less return than the first place guys, there's a good chance you can still be very profitable, and play Pepsi to their Coke or Sprint to their AT&T or whatever. Sony did this with The Getaway. Activision is trying to trump Sony with True Crime. We'll see how it shakes out. My prediction is that GTA will remain the market leader for at least a decade, but True Crime will be profitable, and if GTA falls from that perch, it will be because Take Two screwed up--they're ripe for committing Mistake #2--not because somebody outsmarted them.
You know, I think it would take so little to invent a new category of RTS. My friend Ed Del Castillo at Liquid has ideas for strategy games for your PC that could easily be just as fun, if not more fun, than the current RTS formula but also be marketed as something Completely Different.
Side Note: a publisher might say that there's nothing in the mark's mind to grab onto when marketing a game like this. That's why you don't market the game, you market the category. You do a PR/marketing effort saying "What the world needs right now is a new kind of tactical simulation, one that has X," and then later you mention, in passing, that YourGameHere has X.