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Who markets the marketers?

A few days ago I had a simple little thought — nothing deep, just a succinct way of explaining something kind of interesting about our industry — and I tweeted it.

This morning it occurred to me that this little idea is more important than I originally thought.

A large percentage of the work we do is developing apps for marketing purposes.  Our goal, always, is not just to create a digital advertisement, but to create something useful, something users love to use, share, and reuse.  We believe this is the most effective way for an app to market something else, because the experience is engaging.  Contrast something like that against a television ad that runs during your bathroom break, or an intrusive web ad that is too busy annoying you to actually convince you to buy anything.

I have long felt that the marriage of marketing and software — notably games — is a great one.  As more and more developers and entrepreneurs realize that the app market is a tough one, less and less people are willing to commit the resources required to bring great products to that market.

Let’s be real here for a moment: games — even the simplest games, even mobile games — take immense resources, both in time and money, to create.  But with a market suffering from depressed pricing (.99 – 30% isn’t enough to make a profit on pencils, let alone software), an insane amount of competition (are we at a million apps on all platforms already?) and an audience that views this software as bite sized, disposable entertainment… well you better have other ideas for generating revenue than simply “ship it and forget it”.

That’s not only not good for developers, its bad for consumers, because a lot of really great apps never get past the idea stage, once the reality of making one’s money back sets in.

Marketing solves this problem.  An app who’s sole purpose is to market something else does not need to worry about generating revenue inside the app store. It just needs to drive awareness of its product.  So the funding is in place to create great mobile experiences — users win, the investors win, and the (many) problems with the app marketplace become irrelevant.  Those great ideas that could have never become reality due to the high resource demand and low odds of profitability can now be made, if the idea can be retooled and repurposed for marketing.  We don’t need to charge $10 (or even $1) for a small game, we don’t need to waste valuable and limited screen space with ads and banners, and we don’t need to bombard users with crazy freemium schemes. We can just create great content and deliver it as close as possible to how it was intended.while driving awareness of a product, brand, film, artist, and so on.

Glowdot is not the first to figure this out, and consequently the majority of the work we’re doing now falls into this model.  But there is still the issue of marketing these apps.  And strangely, its an issue that many clients don’t think about coming in.  Yes, we need to actively market an app to successfully compete with every other app out there, even when your app’s sole purpose is itself marketing.

In a way, this really isn’t that different from any other marketing plan.  If you create a 30 second commercial, you still need to pay for placement, so that people will actually view it.  Simply creating it isn’t enough.  Same goes for radio ads, web ads, or any other form of marketing on earth.  There is the creation cost, and the placement cost.

And so its crucial not to overlook that step.  Newcomers to the app market have, oftentimes, been conditioned to believe that the creation of the software is the sole and total cost, when that is far from the truth.  You still must pay for placement, and in the case of mobile software, that means marketing your marketing app to get it in front of the right eyes.

And even if that sounds bizarre and complicated, don’t worry — it isn’t.  Marketing an app can be surprisingly easy, and we’ve been doing it a long time.

The Avengers and the power of momentum

One of my most recurring themes — the thing I say over and over again in blogs, to clients, and in meetings — is that the software business is just like every other business.

A lot of press is generated when a high school kid in his basement makes a website and sells it for millions.  But in general, the software industry does not work on lucky breaks.  This goes even more for games.  A great game can go completely unnoticed if it has no momentum behind it, and especially if it has no marketing behind it.

So what does this have to do with the Avengers?

You probably heard that The Avengers had a record opening weekend.  That’s especially crazy in light of the fact that the vast majority of people buying tickets that weekend had very little personal history with The Avengers before a couple years ago.  But this film is an example of the exceptional power of momentum.

First, you have a comic book universe with a history reaching back to the early 1960s.  People were reading Avengers comics a full decade before I was even born.  That’s almost 50 years of audience building.

Second, they wisely introduced the characters to the mass audience in their own films (Iron Man 1 & 2, the Hulk, Captain America, Thor).  This is a fantastic example of diversification — if you don’t care for Iron Man or the Hulk, you might like Thor or Captain America.  And if you like one of those characters, you will likely be interested in a film that contains all of them.

Third, they slammed all of those characters into a single film, marketed the hell out of it, and let the momentum do its thing.  It should come as no surprise that the film broke records.

So how does this apply to selling games?  Simple, really.  To borrow an annoying, contemporary meme, if you open a store and only sell one product, you’re gonna have a bad time.

A terrific strategy to employ when selling software is to make sure your products are all cross promoting each other, and the overall brand of your company.  A great game that reaches a few people allows you to build an audience.  It builds awareness of your studio and gives you a group of people to announce your next game to.  People will start watching to see what you do next.

Nintendo is another great example.  They reuse characters all the time.  How many games has Mario been in?  They build loyalty to those characters, spin them off into different game genres, and build on prior successes.  And then they, too, made their own Avengers mash up with Super Smash Bros.

So while you may get lucky and have that overnight success, you would definitely do well to try to build momentum and have a terrific long term strategy.  The game market is crowded as it is, but luckily its crowded with a lot of players without any sort of strategy.

Gamification: leveraging fun

The term “gamification” has been a hot buzzword in the last few months.  Forbes posted a great article about how Marriott, Deloitte, Aetna and the Department of Defense are all leveraging the gaming craze to reach their own goals in recruitment, training and health & wellness.

In fact, Glowdot is now in production on two projects with major corporate clients that fall squarely into this “gamified” category, and have completed a few similar projects in the past.

There are two things to note about this gamification craze: first, that this is relatively new territory, and second, that the gaming craze I mentioned above really isn’t new at all.

Treading new ground

The idea of reaching decidedly non-gamelike goals using gamelike elements (or even full blown games) is really an emerging concept — at least in the way it is being used today.  There have always been marketing and/or cobranded games which served to drive brand awareness.  Think Tapper in the 80s (the Budweiser and A&E root beer version) or early console games like the Dominos Pizza “Avoid the Noid” game, or the 7up “Cool Spot” game.  There are actually countless examples from the 80s and early 90s, but in each case, the goal was brand awareness and brand loyalty.

With the mobile explosion over the last couple years, along with the immense popularity of gaming on platforms like Facebook, games have been used more for marketing a product rather than just as commercials.  In the past few months, we’ve seen games released ahead of major films and TV shows with the purpose of driving ticket sales or acquiring viewers (“Hunger Games” on iOS, for example).  These efforts have met with tremendous success, to the extent that we are now noticing that almost every marketing campaign has some sort of game (or at the very least, app) component to it.  In many cases, the game or app is the centerpiece of the campaign.

It seems natural that the next step would be harnessing the power of games to engage users in new, more “real world” ways.  But this isn’t as easy as it might seem.

Take, for example, a game which aims to teach employees the proper way to file a long report.  This is a firmly un-fun activity.  A game, on its own, is defined by its fun-ness.  These two concepts are in direct opposition to each other.  If you make the game too fun, you risk failing at your goal to train the employee.  If you make the game to training oriented, you risk making a boring game no one wants to play.  You have to strike a balance.

This is in no way an impossible task.  In fact, internally we’ve developed several concepts that we can apply to almost any business purpose.  The key lies in three stages: finding a partner that understands how to make a fun game, finding a partner that understands the needs of business, and then, most importantly, planning, planning, planning.

The real power of using games this way is that games have the ability to hook in a player and keep them engaged.  They can do this like nothing else I can think of.  A great film can engage a viewer for around 2 hours.  A great book can engage a reader for a couple hours a day, over a couple days or weeks.  But a great game can hook a player for months or even years.  Look at simple games like Farmville or Cityville, or more in-depth experiences like World of Warcraft.  If you can engage a person with a compelling experience, you have their attention and focus, and that really is a powerful jumping off point to teaching, training or educating that user.

As hard as it seems?

So is finding this balance really as hard as it seems?  I think for a truly conscientious game developer, this should be a struggle in any game, not just a gamified application.

We have to balance fun with other, non-fun factors in every game.  We have story and atmosphere to deal with.  We have our own training of sorts, in the form of in-game tutorials and instruction.  And most importantly, we have the monetization issue to deal with.  Each of these factors hinders fun to different degrees.

For example, if we want to drive the story forward, we can halt the game and show a cut scene.  This works, and its used often, but the best story driven games figure out how to drive the story through in-game elements, like dialogue, decision trees, and so on.  Atmosphere (sound, art style, mood, etc) also is a critical part of a great, compelling game.  But the best games make the atmosphere part of the story, rather than a distracting afterthought.  See Limbo for a terrific example.

The player needs to be taught how to play the game.  In the old days, this was handled with a printed manual shipped with the game.  Later breaks from the printed manual included video tutorials, static screens explaining the controls and combos.  But in my opinion, the best games teach you how to play the game while you play the game, through, for example, an initial tutorial level that walks you through the controls while giving you a bit of story and gameplay.  The absolute best examples of this do it seamlessly, where you don’t even feel like you’re being taught — the instructions make sense in the context of the game itself.  Imagine a game about a ninja, where the initial level is the ninja receiving training from his master.  Or a war game where the initial tutorial level takes place in a boot camp.  Or a game about flying that begins in a flight school.

And finally the monetization issue is common in game design.  Any time you ask the player to spend money, the game’s fun disappears.  It is always a difficult balance of giving enough for free to make the player happy, while charging enough to pay the development costs.  The best games blend the two seamlessly to the point where players eagerly pay for in-game stuff.  See FarmVille (or anything by Zynga really) for great examples of this.  In fact, Zynga has essentially created a science of determining when and how to ask the user for money in order to receive the least amount of friction.

And that really is the essence of merging two seemingly opposed goals into one product — marrying the two in such a way that it doesn’t seem forced, while not sacrificing either goal.  In the best possible case, the two goals complement each other — the game is fun because you are learning, and you are learning because it is fun.

So in the end, the challenges that pop up in the design of a “business game” are great, but they aren’t unfamiliar to game developers.  It’s simply a matter of applying decades of game evolution to a new concept, and doing so effectively and smoothly to guarantee a great final product.

Glowdot and Dark Shadows

Glowdot is pleased to announce that we have been contracted by Warner Bros. to develop and interactive experience to promote the upcoming Tim Burton film Dark Shadows, coming May 11.

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The Glowdot Dark Shadows app will release for iPhone/iPod Touch in the Apple App Store and the web (Flash with Facebook integration) sometime in early May, 2012.

Software as a business

I had planned to do these business/strategy posts at least weekly, but its been a month since the last one!  We’ve been unbelievably busy in 2012 — much more so than I ever expected, which accounts for the delay.  But I do plan on picking up the pace whenever I get a break.

Lets talk a little bit about basing a business on software.

Too often, the software industry is painted by the media as some special class of business where the usual rules don’t apply.  We read stories every day about a guy living in his parents basement who creates a little game that goes on to make millions, or a kid in a dorm room who creates a website and later sells it for a billion dollars.  In fact, these sorts of stories completely dominate the headlines when it comes to tech business reporting.  Its understandable that misconceptions abound about making money in software.  Let’s tear a few of those misconceptions apart, shall we?

Read more »

Gymboss 2 is coming soon

Just a quick note since we keep getting emails asking for an update: Gymboss 2 is shaping up nicely and should be available very, very soon.

And for everyone patiently waiting: I can safely say if you loved Gymboss, you will be really, really happy with Gymboss 2.  It maintains the simplicity and ease of use of the original with a completely new interface, and a much more fluid flow between screens.  And the timer itself looks about a million times better than before.

Stay tuned, we will make an announcement as soon as Gymboss 2 is submitted to Apple.

How to price your app

Happy New Year, everyone!  One of my resolutions for 2012 is to actively start blogging, and sharing some of the insights I’ve picked up after 3+ years of mobile development, and 28 (gasp!) years of software development, from not only development considerations, to larger business, marketing, and strategy considerations as well.  This is the first such post.  Please feel free to let me know if there’s something you’d like me to talk about!

Many frequent visitors to glowdot.com found the site due to a highly publicized and fairly controversial blog post I made years ago, in the early days of the app store, talking about app pricing, marketing, general hype (and how to avoid falling for it), and other reasons why the app market is tough one.  3 years later, a lot has changed, and yet a lot has remained the same.  The “race to the bottom” that I (and many others) were talking about then is done and over, and here we are at the bottom.  In the current app atmosphere, figuring out how to price your app is harder than ever.

This topic came up in a discussion I recently had about non-mobile game software.  We were looking at two models for pricing PC games: bundles, and volume sales.

With bundles, like the Humble Indie Bundle, several developers pool their games, offer them up in one big bundle, and let buyers name their price, from as low as 1 cent to… well, the sky’s the limit.  Sounds great, and usually is, but as you can imagine, the average price is somewhere around $3, and that’s split among around 5 or so developers.

Volume sales, like Steam’s holiday sales, are a bit more software-specific, with developers dropping the price of their games to anywhere from $1.50 to $2.50 and hoping to make up the loss in volume.  Also sounds great, and also usually is, but as I recently noticed in one game’s post Steam sale chart, the dropoff after the sale is pretty dramatic.

In each of the above cases, it’s kind of hard to see the forest for the trees.  Consumers are getting a great deal on a bunch of games, and developers are seeing a sudden influx of cash.  It all seems great until you take a step back and look at the bigger picture.  The biggest issue, to me, is that these sorts of drastic, dramatic price drops and sales are messing with the perceived value of software.

 

This is exactly what happened with the app store.  Because so many people jumped in so fast, the only way to compete was according to price.  Which is great an all, if you are selling 1 million copies of something for a buck, but after time, consumers started to expect the lowest possible price.  In their mind, apps were now worth a buck, and anyone charging more was out of their mind.  The problem is, apps weren’t priced that low because of their worth, they were priced that low in lieu of actual marketing.

Here’s why that’s important: when we look at average app prices, or average indie game prices, we see a steady decline all the way to rock bottom.  But when we look at the price of AAA games over the same period, what do we see?  We see no change whatsoever.  Games are still priced at around $60, and in some cases higher if they come bundled with (meaningless, let’s be honest) preorder perks or a cheap plastic toy.

So why do AAA games hold their perceived value?  Because the AAA studios never backed down.  They decided what their software was worth, set the price, and stuck to their guns.  They competed with each other (and the indies, and the app store) through aggressive marketing, not through aggressive price slashing.  And the result is, no effect on the perceived value of a studio game.

I think the same thing needs to be applied to indie software as well.  Of course, there is no way to get every developer, from Los Angeles to Beijing to collectively agree to stop undercharging for software, but they don’t have to.  The trick is to stop competing with bedroom developers who undercut themselves in lieu of marketing, and start competing the way the AAA studios do.  That means: develop a quality product, pick a price, and stick to it.

Of course, you’re going to look silly being the only app on the app store selling for, say, $10.  But so what?  Why give your game or app away for a dollar (or worse, free) if it’s worth $10 in a sane world?  What is the point of building that app in the first place if you are just going to sell it for a fraction of its actual value?

One of the reasons people are scared to do this is that they don’t see software as a business, and if they do, they don’t see it as any other business.  The truth is, software is just like any other business.  Just as you wouldn’t open a bookstore and sell a single book, you really shouldn’t create a developer account and sell one app.  You need to stock your shelves.  The fear of confident pricing is really based on the fact that many developers only have a single item to price.

But look at EA or Activision, do they base their entire year on a single game?  Of course not.  They are shoveling games out right and left, for different platforms, audiences, etc all year long.  This allows them to be a bit more risky and confident in their pricing.  If one $60 game doesn’t sell, one of their other ones will probably make up for it.

Another really important piece of advice I have is this: if you are going to slash the price of your product, at least have a good reason for doing so.  If you are going to make your $10 game free, don’t do it to generate exposure for the game.  First, that doesn’t work, and second, what exposure you do generate is in the people who just got your game for free, and now have no reason to ever pay you for it.

One good reason to drastically drop the price of your game is to generate buzz for another game.  If you have an older game that stopped selling long ago, and you’ve got another one coming out, slashing the price of the old game can be a great way to get more people into your audience.  If the first game was good, people are likely to at least take a peek at what else you’ve got coming.

Another good reason might be that you’ve completely rethought your revenue model.  More and more games are going freemium these days (also a direct result of the drop in perceived value, and something I will blog about in the future), and dropping your app to free is a pretty obvious move when you are now selling IAP.  Just keep in mind that freemium is pretty much the de facto revenue model now, so where you were competing against a bunch of .99 apps before, you are now competing with 100 times more free apps.  Most importantly, don’t make the switch until your new model is in place.

I have much more to say on the matter of pricing, and I hope to get to some of those thoughts soon.  In the meantime, feel free to let me know your thoughts!

Hiding Hannah out now!

Hiding Hannah, the new interactive children’s book from Squeaky Frog, developed by Glowdot Productions’ Glowdot Kids division, is out now in the Apple App Store, for iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch.

Download Hiding Hanna for iOS

Hiding Hannah had a tremendous launch day, rocketing to the top of the App Store charts (#27 iPad Books, #60 iPhone Books, as of this writing), and a 5 star app store average rating in the first 12 hours!

We’re very proud of this app, and absolutely sure you and your kids will love it.

A note about Zen Jar and Gymboss

We have been getting swamped with emails (and even calls!) about Zen Jar and Gymboss lately, so I wanted to let everyone know the status of those apps.

When Apple released iOS 5, we were shocked to discover that a lot of older apps completely broke.  I’m still not sure exactly what caused it, because the SDK is so drastically different its hard to pinpoint exactly which change caused the failure.  Zen Jar and Gymboss are actually two of our oldest apps, now over two years old!  Hard to believe they have been out that long, but in those two years, those two apps have accumulated millions of users — There are somewhere around 50,000 active users of Zen Jar, and literally millions of users of the Gymboss timer.

Since we started building apps pretty much from the launch of the Apple App Store, a lot of our older apps are based on an older iOS SDK.  Zen Jar and Gymboss are two such apps, based on iOS 3.  Obviously a lot has changed between iOS 3 and iOS 5 — remember iOS 3 didn’t have multitasking, didn’t have push notifications, didn’t have copy/paste — the list goes on and on.

At any rate, the short story is that the iOS 5 issue hit us completely by surprise.  We had always planned on making a new, improved version of Zen Jar but hadn’t scheduled it, and we were actually in the preproduction phase of a new Gymboss 2 timer app when iOS 5 struck.  But we also had several other projects on our plate at the time.

So we are working on new versions of those apps! And they will be leaps and bounds above the original versions, but as I’m sure you can imagine building an app takes time.  We’re working as fast as we can though.

In the meantime, please feel free to post a comment here for either of those two apps telling us what you’d like to see in Gymboss 2 and Zen Jar 2.  We have some ideas, but we’d love to hear what the users want!

Glowdot at GAMEX, Stockholm, Sweden

November 3-6

Glowdot visited Gamex 2011 to talk with the gaming industry and the major Swedish educational institutions within it. We made a lot of interesting connections that will be useful for Glowdot’s expansion to the
Swedish and Europan market. To target this market, you have got to be here, and our new presence in Stockholm allows us to reach this market effectively.

Among the more interesting connections made were with KTH –  the Royal Institute of Technology. We look forward to presenting ourselves, our background, and our knowledge to their students to give them some of our insights in the mobile and interactive gaming industry.

Gamex is Sweden’s largest entertainment show. Among the companies participating were Disney, EA, Intel, Activision, Paradox Interactive, Playstation, Nintendo and Warner Brothers.

Michael Eng, Glowdot

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