We are now just 12 weeks away from 2021, something many will be happy about, simply because it won’t be 2020 anymore.
However, the new year will also bring a number of momentous anniversaries: it will be 50 years since the introduction of decimal currency in the UK, since the first one-day cricket match (Australia won) and since the launch of the first commercial video game. That game, Computer Space, housed in an arcade console, only ‘sold’ 1,500 copies but kicked off a cultural phenomenon, which will hit a new milestone in November 2020 when Xbox and PlayStation launch their new, ‘next-generation’, consoles.
In that time, video games have become one of the most dominant entertainment forms on the planet. Global games revenues are estimated to hit $152bn in 2020 (26% more than movie and recorded music revenues, combined); video games would make up three of the top five biggest entertainment launches of the past 20 years (pushing movies like Star Wars off the list); and the advent of mobile gaming means there are over 2.6 billion gamers globally, with over 380 million playing games on Facebook every month.
Audiences evolve as technology advances
But despite momentous changes, many people still think of gamers as stereotypical young males and these stereotypes are, sometimes, reflected in the games that are made and how they are marketed.
Gaming consultancy Newzoo estimates that 42% of console gamers globally are female. However, analysis of games previewed in press conferences at E3, the industry’s major annual event, showed that the number of games profiled where the primary character was female actually dropped between 2015 and 2019. On a more positive note, whilst E3 didn’t take place in 2020, analysis of some of the virtual events that replaced it showed an encouraging increase in female fronted games, though more than a third of those came from just one event (Sony’s PS5 reveal).
The most successful games companies are breaking these and other barriers down, though.
One such company is Epic, whose game Fortnite has become a cultural phenomenon. Earlier this year, it blurred the lines of what a game even is any more, hosting a live in-game concert by Travis Scott, which saw 12 million people ‘attend’. It’s also a game that can be played not just on a console or PC, but on mobile too. In common with Fortnite, and in contrast to what can seem like a focus on perceived core audiences (that don’t necessarily match the reality of the modern console gamer), mobile games companies rely on data, not biases and assumptions, to power their marketing.
The most recent ranking by SensorTower of the highest-grossing mobile game apps included Pokemon Go, a game that connects the virtual and real worlds and appeals to a wide variety of people, and Roblox, which has a passionate young user base and can be played on many different devices. There were also many others that defy easy categorisation and can often be played on multiple platforms or systems, but are generating tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars globally every month.
Adapt, rather than assume, to get ahead
As well as not being constrained by assumptions about who their likely players are, these successes are being driven by marketers with very advanced strategies.
They are agnostic about creative formats and placements, constantly test new strategies and tactics to find the most valuable players, and also understand that many people who play games don’t identify as gamers, something research we carried out confirmed. And whether you’re working for or with a games company, or in an industry that is looking to associate itself with gaming, it would be worthwhile remembering this.
This is not to say that there aren’t positive signs: the best-selling game in the UK earlier this year was Marvel’s Avengers, published by Square Enix. While it’s not surprising that a game based on an incredibly successful franchise did well, the character they chose to put at the centre of the game is inspiring. It wasn’t one of their many male heroes but, instead, Ms Marvel – not Captain Marvel, who you might know from the movies, but the alter-ego of Kamala Khan, a young, Muslim, Pakistani-American woman.
Some games are going even further: Cyberpunk 2077, one of the most anticipated games of 2020, is taking a step forward with its game design, removing gender from character selection.
“You don’t choose, ‘I want to be a female or male character’ you now choose a body type. Because we want you to feel free to create any character you want…and we have two voices, one that’s male sounding, one is female sounding. You can mix and match,” Marthe Jonkers, the senior concept artist at Cyberpunk 2077’s developers CD Projekt Red, told Metro.
The forward-thinking approach to game development shown by the likes of Epic, Square Enix and CD Projekt Red should follow through to the lowly media plan. Because, while ‘gamers’ have never just fallen into the 18-34 bracket they’re so often placed in, those who do can no longer be as effectively reached using legacy methods. On a weekly basis, commercial TV in the UK reaches less than 70% of this audience, and less than 40% on a daily basis, according to the latest IPA Touchpoints data.
So, as we approach the 50th anniversary of commercial video games, and get ready to celebrate the launch of not one but two new games consoles, it’s worth remembering how the best games companies have grown, and how brands that want to learn from or be associated with gaming can grow too.
Don’t assume what your audience looks like, as you’ll probably be wrong; ensure that you’re building experiences that can be enjoyed across devices; and base your marketing on data and testing. If you don’t, you’re liable to end up like that original game, Computer Space, did all those years ago – mostly forgotten for more successful competitors.
Ciarán Norris currently leads Facebook’s team focused on supporting PC and console gaming companies in EMEA.