Marketing a VR Game Compared to a Flat Screen Game

While industry experts are busy disagreeing on the future role of virtual reality (VR) in gaming, and with headset manufacturers working to improve the gameplay experience by creating wireless equipment, upgrading the field of view (FOV) and increasing the resolution, there is one group of people in the industry that is fully dedicated to the present while at the same time pulling support from the past and trying to understand what lies ahead: the VR videogames marketers. With over 3000 VR exclusive titles listed on Steam today, and over 300 available for PlayStation VR, the need to differentiate your videogame against the competition is bigger than ever before. But is bringing a VR title to market really the same as for a traditional, “flat screen” game? Can similar strategies and tactics be used to gain awareness, engagement and conversion for your title? This article covers three main areas of marketing where VR marketers struggle in a different way compared to those working in the flat screen gaming segment: Consumer Insights, Press & Media and Marketing Assets.

Picture 1 Consumer Insights
TV commercial for home console Odyssey from 1972 – an exact replica of the consumer experience

1. Consumer Insights

Marketers in the traditional gaming industry have had decades to gather essential insights about their consumers; in 1972, what is believed to be the world’s first video game commercial promoting the home console called Odyssey debuted on TV. As Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) was released in Europe in 1986, Famitsu included the first ever commercial advertising in a gaming magazine. 2003 delivered a major milestone for any marketer as the first real digital platform for distributing games was launched for Windows in the form of Valve’s Steam, allowing publishers and developers to gain invaluable knowledge about the behaviour of players both in terms of conversion and in-game engagement. In short, flat screen gaming has had 46 years and multiple marketing milestones to learn about gamers and their preferences, while VR gaming has had approximately 3 years to do the same. According to Newzoo’s 2018 report, there are 2.3 billion gamers around the world today – at the same time, less than a total of 6 million high-end VR headsets (powered by a PC or a PlayStation 4) have been sold as of November 2018, according to Superdata Research.

So why are consumer insights so important? I spent 3 years of my career at one of the world’s biggest developers and publishers, Electronic Arts/DICE, between the years 2012 – 2015. During my time there, I saw that a majority of the world´s console and PC gamers had registered at least some data about themselves in one of the many touchpoints of EA’s massive online ecosystem. This opened up for enormous opportunities to run targeted marketing based on actual preferences, it allowed us to re-target some consumers at very low cost, it made it possible to reward our most loyal customers with gifts, thus increasing the chance that they would stay on as active gamers. Due to the high install base of our games, we also had massive opportunities to run in-game marketing and communication. Very few, or none, of the things I just mentioned, are possible for marketers working with VR games today; instead, we are left with very light insights as to what our consumers want and expect, and our target groups when running promotions are shallow at best. Customer Relationship Marketing is basically worthless due to most VR studios having only released one or a few videogames that might have been purchased by a few thousand gamers. For the same reason, there really is no return of investment in VR in-game marketing today, although this is considered to become one of the main revenue drivers in VR gaming from 2020 and on, according to SuperData Research.

The struggle to understand the consumers also show in the ever-changing ways VR companies decide to price their new releases. In 2016, a videogame called Feral Rites was released for Oculus Rift by Insomniac Games, veteran development studio behind recent commercial success Spider-Man for PlayStation 4. Feral Rites was, at launch, priced at $49.99 USD but after only ONE week they made a permanent price change down to $29.99. One could argue that this was in the very early days of VR gaming but the uncertainty around value perception from VR gamers are still as much of a problem today; looking at the price development of “premium” VR titles on Steam (titles that cost at least $1), the average price went up from around $7 to $14 during 2017. And according to Steam’s own data, the Top 100 most sold VR games in 2018 so far have selling prices that range from $3.99 to $69.99, with the average selling price being $19.79. This massive spread is something you usually do not see with flat screen games where the established price points are often set at fixed values, and where the understanding of value perception has been built over many, many years. As a VR games marketer, you need to start from the ground up and learn about your consumers with every release, look at competitors, try things out and optimize your marketing tactics as you go.

Picture 2 Press and Media
A VR Influencer showcasing our debut title Apex Construct in his channel

2. Press & Media

The lack of attention for VR games in the general gaming sites can be frustrating for most VR marketers – why do they not want to review our very awesome game??? Listening to what some key editorial leaders from the general gaming press say, we find parts of the answer; Brian Altano, Host/Producer at gaming website giant IGN, claimed on Twitter in March 2018 that “VR content generally tanks traffic-wise. In the same month, Patrick Klepek from Vice/Waypoint stated in an online discussion that “Writing about VR is the fastest way to guarantee almost nobody will click on a story you’ve worked on”. While VR was an extremely hot topic in the general gaming media as the first headsets hit the market a few years ago, VR marketers of today have an uphill battle to raise interest in this segment.

Gamespot, one of the longest existing and most popular websites for games, has only reviewed a total of 39 VR titles and have no dedicated VR games category on their site. Compare this to VR dedicated websites like VRFocus – they are closing in on 300 game reviews and also cover VR as a concept in a much more in-depth way. In fact, to bring an example from a campaign of our own, VR specific media sites + Sony’s official PlayStation channels stood for over 50% of our total media reach during the PlayStation VR launch of our debut title, Apex Construct.

A way to mitigate the lack of coverage in general gaming media is to spend some time and effort in the growing world of VR gaming Influencers, or Content Creators as they are also often called. While the flat screen gaming industry has seen its fair share of Influencer stars pop up over the years (who have also learned how to charge for content!), most influencers dedicated to VR gaming are still in the early days of building up their channels and their audiences. They love nothing more than for developers to get in touch and are asking mostly for great content to display in their channels. Our focus on Influencers during the Apex Construct campaign, where we even arranged a local event in Stockholm, led to highly valuable relationships being established for the long term but also provided a lifetime total of 800K video views on YouTube. Comparing that to our own launch trailer for the videogame, which as of today has 60K views, the Influencer initiative was indeed money well spent and helped surface Apex Construct, and Fast Travel Games as a studio, to millions of VR gamers around the globe.

Picture 3 Marketing Assets
Skyrim screenshots comparison: Flat screen version vs. VR version

3. Marketing Assets

Screenshots. Essential pieces of the tool bag any marketer will have at their disposal. They say a picture is worth a thousand words but is that still the case when trying to bring your VR experience to market and convince people to buy your videogame? Above are screenshots from the Steam product page of open-world role-playing game (RPG) The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. For the flat screen version, developer Bethesda selected an action shot, a more immersive third person city view and a dreamy landscape with a promise of adventure. They manage to sell the fantasy of playing this version of Skyrim pretty well, in my opinion. Now, let us look at the three screenshots showcasing the VR version; It’s basically action based flat screen footage with hands and weapons in first person view. Including a VR logo in the bottom corner. Anyone who has played the VR version of Skyrim would most likely admit that these screenshots do NOT represent the actual videogame experience. And those who never played the game will most likely not go and buy a headset just by watching these screenshots. Being “inside” Skyrim through a VR headset is simply not something you can explain using screenshots.

So are there ways to use other assets that better sell the gameplay experience? Some studios, like Crytek with their Oculus Rift title The Climb, tried using 360-degree screenshots and even 360-degree trailers to help bring their videogame to market. And while assets like that can definitely create buzz and spur some engaging discussions around the product, there is no data available to support any claim that these assets do a better job of promoting a VR experience than traditional screenshots or videos would do. In fact, Business Insider stated in February 2017 that 360 & VR advertising matters more for non-VR companies, giving an example where Hong Kong Airlines’ 360-degree ad for their in-cabin experience was 35 times more effective than the same ad in 2D.

There is, however, one angle to VR marketing assets that is important to have in mind – not all VR marketers have the same audiences. Working for a game developer, my primary focus is not to sell VR as an experience in itself but to convince an already engaged VR audience that our game is the one they must get. This is primarily done by showcasing the game’s strengths specifically as a VR experience, putting the focus on the unique aspects of the title. In comparison, headset manufacturers like HTC or PlayStation have to work towards a non-engaged audience to sell the concept of VR in order for their headset market to grow. Understanding who your audiences are is the real key to make sure you have the right kind of marketing assets. A traditional screenshot or trailer can work wonders if it manages to convince your VR audience about your game.

These are only three areas where we as VR marketers need to apply a different mindset and create different strategies & tactics compared to flat screen gaming marketers, in order to ensure that we get the results we need. If you are interested in getting in touch, connect with me on Twitter at @BalzarJuliusson or email me at andreas.juliusson@fasttravelgames.com.