Another Missed Opportunity

By Gordon Aplin (April, 1999)
Imagine for a moment that you are an advertising/marketing guru and your company has just gained the contract to promote a new computer game. You know a little about the industry, at least you've seen the young kids, white-knuckled and grimacing, clustered around the machines in the electronic amusement parlours and you play golf on your PC. So you understand the market and know what will appeal to it.

Now, how to promote this new game? Think! (But not too hard). Hmm, product is a computer game - teenage boys love computer games, this shouldn't be too difficult. A phrase comes to mind, "Heart-thumping action!" That's good, doesn't matter if it has been used before, or is even indicative of the gameplay, all these games are the same anyway and it's guaranteed to attract the attention of the kids in the amusement parlours.

Next, where to promote it? The computer game magazines, of course! The people who read those magazines play the games, it's a captive market. Ok, a full colour spread in all the major game mags. This is a breeze, nothing to it!

Six months down the track and the game hasn't sold well at all. Anyway, the publisher is not too concerned and they have other games in their stable that are selling well using just these same marketing techniques. It's not your problem, you did your best. The game must have been a dud.

So you did all you could, except, maybe one thing - research. You assumed that all computer games were alike and all players were the same and that they all read game magazines. The game that you promoted was an adventure game, an intriguing mystery set in a fantasy world where the player progressed through a story by solving puzzles. Its name was Missed.

How could you know that up to ninety percent of the readers of the hard-core game magazines are males aged 12 to 24 and that probably less than five percent of these are adventure game fans?

How could you know that the people who were most likely to play this game would never hear about it through your advertising campaign? Despite your best efforts Missed was missed!

The bottom line
This scenario happens all the time to many adventure games and has directly contributed to the situation we now face of new adventure games failing to find a publisher. From the publisher's perspective it's all quite simple: they've published and promoted adventure games and they don't sell as many units as other genres so they are not going to publish any more. The publisher isn't interested in why an adventure game doesn't sell as well as an action game, only in the bottom line of sales figures and profit margin. The easiest and most profitable course will always be chosen as it seems to makes good business sense. Not for them an analysis of the market to discover who plays adventure games and why, and how the market may be expanded to attract new players. It's easier to sell to the ready market that exists for other genres.

Unfortunately, there is something of a vicious circle at work in this process. The majority of computer game magazines purport to be multi-genre, providing something for everyone within their usually limited target audience of young males. Therefore the type of game that this audience prefers is the most heavily promoted both on the 'action-packed' cover and within the pages of the magazines. 'Cool' games involving action get the most coverage in the form of reviews, previews, demos, discussion, editorials and cheats. In other words they are giving their readership what it wants and this is perfectly understandable from their point of view.

By contrast, adventure games tend to receive only a lukewarm reception. By their very nature it's hard to 'go ballistic', 'rave' or 'drool' over an adventure game or generate the same enthusiasm in a way that the magazines' target audience might appreciate. An additional problem is that many of the adventure game reviewers in these magazines generally adopt a rather bored, seen-it-all-before style of writing which clearly says to their readership, "stay away, this genre is uncool". And few, if any, of this impressionable target audience would want to be seen playing anything 'uncool'.

So the situation arises that most of the games magazines are already actively promoting titles that feature reflex-based action in the form of combat, or racing, etc., to a readership that is eager for such games. This self-perpetuating promotion increases sales of these games and attracts a bigger action-game playing readership for the magazine and round and round it goes. As a result publishers see increased sales of 'cool' action-based games and dwindling market share for adventure games.

Where not to look
Why then, the question must be asked, are these magazines seen as the most appropriate forum in which to advertise adventure games? As just one example of a ridiculous waste of advertising dollars, I remember a few years back when King's Quest VII was released, the 'Disneyesque' one which featured Valanice and Rosella, and a full colour spread appeared in several magazines that were running special features on Doom or Hexen (or was it Heretic?) as their theme. At least two of these magazines didn't include a single adventure game review at the time. I doubt very much that potential purchasers of KQVII would have seen the advertisement.

As I write this I have in front of me a magazine from late 1996 which contains advertisements for Rama, Leisure Suit Larry, Broken Sword and Fable. Once again no adventure games are reviewed (must have been a slow month) but they do manage to find space for reviews of Crusader: No Regret; Mechwarrior 2: Mercenaries; Gex (arcade platform-jumper), Krush Kill 'n Destroy; Full Court Press (Basketball), Rally Championship; Jagged Alliance 2: Deadly Games; Mega Race 2; and Monster Truck Madness. Why on Earth would an adventure game fan purchase this magazine? (To be fair the magazine did have an interview with Terry Pratchett, though no doubt the relevance of this was lost on the readership.)

Now it is not my intention to deny these magazines the right to advertising revenue, but the placement of some advertisements is downright incongruous and would be laughable if the situation were not so serious. Imagine seeing an ad for Poodle clipping services in a magazine aimed at Pit-Bull owners, would this result in increased clientele for the Poodle Parlour? Still, if advertisers wish to throw away their money the magazines will gleefully accept it. However, the problem remains, and this wasted promotion does nothing to further the sales of adventure games. To put it quite simply, I would guess that the majority of adventure game fans (and potential fans) do not read these magazines. So here is the dilemma, where and how should publishers of adventure games promote them?

To answer this question it is necessary first to identify the target audience or potential audience for adventure games. There is little doubt that, of all the genres, adventure games have the widest appeal in that they are regularly played by people of all ages and are particularly popular with 'mature' players. Adventures also attract the greatest number of female players of any genre though this market is, sadly, largely unacknowledged and is still under-represented. Interestingly, a popular British games magazine revealed a few years ago (1993) that only three percent of its readers were female and even they were driven to lament this "massive untapped market". They were, of course, defending themselves and the computer game industry (not very convincingly) against charges of sexism. Since then the number of females playing adventure games has grown substantially, though I doubt very much if female readership of these games magazines has improved.

Only one market?
The point I am trying to make here is that the adventure genre is best placed to expand into a much larger potential market than any other genre. Action-based games can only compete against each other in the already overcrowded narrow demographic they currently occupy. Unfortunately, at the moment the publishers can only see that one market and are hurling themselves with Lemming-like determination into its shallow and, for many, treacherous waters.

Clearly then the publishers, out of rational self-interest if for no other reason, must recognise that adventure games are different to the other genres and are largely played and purchased by a quite different market segment than is targeted in most games magazines. They cannot be promoted in the same way. By using the same, tired old forums and formulas they are actively contributing to the poor sales performance of many adventures. If I was an adventure game developer I would be livid and contemplating legal action against such a publisher for loss of income due to culpable neglect! As it is, as an adventure game player, I'm livid at the almost non-existent or, at least, quite useless promotion that currently takes place.

Why not try promoting adventure games in the more mainstream general interest magazines or on television? Or only place advertisements for adventure games in those (rare) games magazines that try to give adventure games a fair go, granted it will take more effort and some research, but the rewards will be worth it. Especially if it means that adventure games will no longer be 'Missed' by those who might play them.

Perhaps I am being unfair. Is it the publisher's role to expand the market or simply cater to the one that exists? At the moment it seems that the publishers are taking an active role in limiting the market to the existing one by refusing to publish many adventure games unless they can be somehow changed to be more attractive to this narrow segment of game players. This is a predictable but short-sighted response which may eventually see the entire computer game industry fighting for the pocket money of teenage boys. In the meantime a marvellous opportunity goes begging in the largely untapped market of mature players and females of all ages. (See also Len Green's Quest Adventure article in this issue.)

In case you are thinking that I am 'out of touch with reality' I would like to give the last word on this to one of our readers who signs herself Advpuzlov. She wrote the following eloquent and passionate plea in response to my last article and it is representative of the many e-mails we received on the subject:

I'd like to assure the producers of computer games that when adventure becomes action/adventure they have just lost a sale. I don't think that I am alone in this. Kids may be a lucrative market, but mature adults comprise a huge and growing market and NOT for shoot-em-ups which, to them, will be puerile and insipid.

Didn't MYST and RIVEN do pretty well? I don't think that any serious attempt has been made to interest adults in adventure games. They surely won't be interested in finger-twitching games ... When I'm in Electronics Boutique or whatever, I wouldn't give a second glance at the glossy magazines with their garish ACTION covers. The only way that I have ferreted out new adventure games so far (and I am a recent addict) has been through bulletin boards. That seems like an inefficient means of gaining new adherents. Surely they could find better ways of letting people know that there is a fascinating adult-oriented computer game realm open to them. It seems like a lack of imagination on the part of the development companies. I don't think that I am unique.

Last year someone introduced me to MYST. Later, SHIVERS came to my attention. Since that time I have spent literally hundreds of dollars on adventure games. Most kids don't have the means to do that. Word of mouth is fine, but not as effective a means of promulgating knowledge as are available now. They could multiply my case manyfold. I assume they are interested in making money. Then they had better tune up their imagination.

Copyright © Gordon Aplin 1999. All rights reserved.