This piece is derived from an older piece I wrote about building movies that work to sell themselves. It was most recently written for game developers, so that’s the form this takes.
What I’m going to tell you is not the step-by-step guide of marketing a project: that would be a book, written by a marketing expert. What I’m going to tell you are the fundamental principles of making your project more marketing-friendly, so the project itself does more of the work.
The Parking Lot Pitch
I don’t know where I got this term. It’s very possible I picked it up from an article or a book; it’s been so long I can’t remember. I could have also made it up. So © 2016 Whoever.
To me, the parking lot pitch is critical consideration whenever you’re making something. I don’t just use it to create a marketing plan: I use it in the design stages, the production stages, and everything beyond.
It’s a movie metaphor, but with minimal imagination you can see how it’d apply to games.
Imagine you’re someone who’s about to go see the movie you made. As you walk to the theater, you bump into a friend of yours in the parking lot, and he says, “Man, you have to go see (your movie)! It’s great!”
You say, “Yeah, what’s it about?”
The parking lot pitch is what your friend says next.
I’m going to switch to video games to make the references easier from here on.
Your friend says, “Have you played Bioshock? It’s great!”
You say, “Yeah, what’s it about?”
What your friend says next isn’t, “It’s a first-person shooter with some RPG-style power-leveling, incorporating a light choice-based morality system, and a thriller isolationist narrative inspired by Ayn Rand.”
Because no one talks like that.
What your friend says is, “Oh man, it’s this awesome shooting game where you fight all these genetically-modified weirdos through an underwater city and you get these crazy superpowers. There are these guys in big deep sea diving suits that will MESS YOU UP, and then there’s this whole twist where – wait, I don’t want to ruin it for you.”
The core principle of the parking lot pitch exercise is that it asks you to pull yourself completely out of your position as creator, ignore all the work you’ve put in, and just experience the game from the audience’s point of view.
(As an aside: this is also a great exercise to use with actual audience members / players: ask the player to describe the game to a third party after they’ve played or, if you’re especially industrious/surreptitious, set up a situation where when the player is finished playing the beta, while they’re waiting to be “processed out,” you stage the “next player” in the same room, and have them ask the player about the game)
Great, Now What Do I Do With This Information?
1 – Prioritize polishing what’s critical. Whatever survives the journey from experiencing your work to telling someone else should be considered the critical elements. When you’re short on time / resources, these are the places to focus.
2 – Consider adjusting your design to better frame these key elements. This exercise can really help sharpen what kind of game your game wants to be. That’s not to say you should put yourself at the whims of public opinion, but it at least helps you recognize, “Oh, I want to be making a dystopian crime drama but right now my game is telling people it’s survival horror.”
3 – As you select moments to highlight in your marketing, keep in mind what is already “sticky” and intriguing. This is pretty self-explanatory. Double-down on what’s already proven notable about your game.
4 – And likewise, don’t market what your game isn’t. If your game’s narrative is okay but you have amazing graphics and setpieces, focus on the graphics and setpieces (Hi, Far Cry!). There’s no reason to push story if story isn’t what you’ve got. And if story’s all you’ve got, there’s no reason to push gameplay (Hi, Her Story!)
A couple things to consider when you do this:
- Innovation is interesting but not necessarily noteworthy. Notice that the “friend” in my imagination completely skipped the “Little Sister” mechanic. It’s not that it isn’t interesting (I thought it was a pretty chilling choice to make when I first played it), but if I was telling a friend about the game, that’s not the first thing I’d think to mention. There are other things that drew my attention more.
- Get a second opinion. The parking lot pitch doesn’t – and shouldn’t – have to be limited to your own imagination. Getting others to explain your game is crucial. Don’t rely on your instincts alone. For example, if you go back and watch the early Bioshock trailers, they all feature the Little Sisters prominently – but that’s not something that stuck with me. If I’d let five other people play it, the Little Sisters might have come up more, and I’d know that was something to feature in my marketing.
- While your “friend” may ramble a bit, their focus is limited to 2-3 things at most. When someone tells their friends about something cool, it’s a chance for them to BE cool themselves. They, in essence, become you, and stand to reap a small amount of the pride you get from creating something people like. Where they are much better than you (or me) is this: they are savage in their brevity. They want to seem cool, and they want to seem cool right now. They aren’t willing to make their friends sit through a forty-five minute explanation of the minutiae of “this cool thing I saw.” They get to the good bits and they get out. This ties into –
- Repetition is key. It’s a known fact that repeating the same message over and over gradually influences the recipients. Rather than having your marketing campaign focus on twelve different elements, remember what you learned in the parking lot pitch, and keep repeating in as many ways as you can to your intended audience.
- You have to start from the assumption that your “friend” likes the game. Sometimes I’ve run this exercise for myself, and I try to think, “Man, what can I do to convince someone who didn’t like the game to like it?” Don’t fall into this trap. Your possible audience is “people who will love this” and “people who aren’t sure what they think about it.” The people who will hate it are already lost. Trying to win them back by stretching and bending your game to fit their taste is a waste of time and effort. (The only caveat to this is that sometimes not changing your game means an insufficient number of people will respond: this is the line between making your game accessible and making it generic.)
- The thing they love may not be the most important thing, but you should pretend it is in your marketing. Bioshock had art direction to burn and some amazing writing, and I fully believe those are the bigger reasons why the game has lasted so long. But if you ask someone who just played it about the game, they’d probably mention the Big Daddies and maybe the plasmids (they will most likely not remember they are called plasmids – I didn’t). As you structure your marketing campaign, you want to focus on setting the stage for those “noteworthy elements” as much as possible.
- Stay humble. Even Citizen Kane is just “a movie about a guy” to somebody. Movies (and games) take so much effort to make that it can feel like a waste if there isn’t an equal amount of love coming back to you for it. In other words, “What do you mean it’s ‘okay, I guess?!’ I spent six months of my life on this!” The parking lot pitch can help moderate our expectations of how others will and should receive our work, and let us know when we need to work harder to make things stand out.
Hope this helps. Good luck with your projects!