Posted by: seanmalstrom | May 19, 2009

Treat Paying Customers Better Than Potential Customers

Why do so many game companies treat potential customers better than current customers? If game companies are only interested in short term gain, of seducing people to buy the game and not seducing them to love the game, is it any surprise that gamers are selling new games left and right? After being heavily seduced by a massive hype marketing campaign, the actual customer experience in the game is given little attention.

The truth is that grand hype campaigns are far less effective at making customers then satisfied customers are talking to non-customers. “Dude, this game I’m playing is so awesome. You’ve got to try it.” That, alone, creates more sales than anything else.

It would be logical to conclude that the more passionate the customer is made about the game, the more that customer ‘sells’ the game by recommending it to others. So why don’t game companies want me passionate and crazy about their game once I buy it?

I loathe putting in a new game today. Most of the time, it is filled with ornate introductions with awful storytelling. After that, it is half an hour, at least, of tutorials. This is extremely boring. Then the game starts, and it goes through the typical boring and dull beginning stages. Yawn.

Worse, I often have to download constant patches or wait an hour just for the game to install (and this doesn’t happen just on PC. It happens with PS3 games as well). After a couple of hours of this nonsense, game companies are surprised that a customer will just say, “Screw this!”, turn it off, and sell the game to a used game store?

Take the marketing teams full of those copywriters and other creative types and instead of having them in the process of before the sale, place them after the sale. The main reason why sales of Apple products are rising is because of how the customer is treated after the sale (as compared to a generic PC).

Here are some examples of older games that placed a focus on existing users.


The sales avalanche of the Wii came not from Wii marketing of commercials, radio spots, and hype. The avalanche came from current customers sharing their Wii with non-customers.

So this Wii has a motion controller, what type of game should the customer get? Nintendo packed in Wii Sports which was a brilliant move. Wii Sports was the reward to current customers, not potential customers. Nintendo’s well known customer service also serves in this regard. When companies do not make an effort at customer service, they are implying to customers that they are not worth an effort, that customers are not that important to them.

Jewel Boxes-

(Above: Cloth map of an Ultima game. Can you guess which one?)

While the jewel box era seems insane to today’s publishers, the purpose of the jewel box was for current customers. Like the picture at the top of this post, the early PC game industry began not with glitzy brochures and hype trains with weak manuals but the opposite. The PC game industry began with putting massive, glorious manuals inside the box. Today, people say manuals are a waste of time, that manuals are not important. But manuals are the most important part of that Jewel Box. They taught the user how to play the game. Often, they contained story, character information, and other fine illustrations or wit to make them fun and memorable. So not only did the manual teach the player how to play the game, it taught them to become passionate about the game.

Many people say that any game with an accessory sells because it has an accessory such as Wii Play, Wii Fit, Mario Kart Wii, Guitar Hero, and Rock Band. In many of these cases, the accessory is lame and irrelevant to the game such as Wii Play’s extra Wii-mote to Mario Kart Wii’s wheel. I suspect these type of boxed products are so popular in part because they are boxed products; customers feel like they are getting more. There is a sense of joy opening a box and not knowing what is inside. The current DVD case is boring since there can only be a disc inside.

In those days, RPG games came with full cloth maps, spell cards, and even little story books even though the RPG was vastly complicated. But don’t you think these additional items would make the customer want to LEARN the game, to see what this rich textured game is all about? Space shooters, such as Wing Commander, even had mock blueprints of the ships you flew.

The point is that there are more ways than a cinematic introduction, narrative, and rich graphics to get a paid customer to taste the rich texture of the game before he or she has to learn it. Game companies ought to look at ways to get paid customers to experience the rich texture of the game before the tutorial starts.

(Above: Blueprints included inside the original Wing Commander box. Lovely stuff!)

Why the piracy? Maybe it has something to do with worshipping potential customers while treating current customers like garbage. It would be logical for someone to not buy the game, to remain a potential customer, since he is going to be treated better than the paid customer anyway. (DRM attempts are a good example of paid customers being treated worse than non-paying customers [piraters]).

In my search about this subject, I ran into this page by Todd Howard, executive producer at Bethsheba. On it, Mr. Howard talks about the glory of juicy boxes and the cloth map in general. Take a look.


Warcraft II put Blizzard on the map. So the question should be, what put Warcraft 2 on the map? Aside from being a good game and all, what grand marketing scheme did Blizzard do to push Warcraft 2? None really. Blizzard was at such a state in those days that if you called them (which I did, haha), you would get an answering machine with an Orc voice on the other end: “Please leave a message, daboo!”)

Warcraft 2 embraced spawning. This was the process of being able to install Warcraft 2 on multiple machines and have multiple people play off of one disc. Starcraft embraced spawning as well which certainly helped its success. All it took was one passionate customer to bring the disc to a LAN party, and you would have a crowd playing it.

A publisher today would likely nix this idea because it would ‘hurt sales’. After all, the idea of people being able to play full multiplayer off of one disc would meant that many people would never buy the game, they would just play multiplayer off that one disc. This ended up not being true. The game spread like wildfire.

Westwood ingeniously sold the first Red Alert with two discs, a Soviet disc and an Allied disc. The two discs were exactly the same in that they had full single player and full multiplayer capabilities. The difference was that the Soviet disc had access only to the Soviet single player campaign while the Allied disc had access to only the Allied single player campaign. Both discs were needed to have two people play multiplayer. Like Warcraft 2’s spawning, this helped Red Alert be played for multiplayer reasons to non-customers as well as a disc being ‘borrowed’ to friends to make new converts. Of course, there is no way a publisher today would allow this.

The latest example of spawning would be with the DS download play. Many DS games allowed multiplayer gaming off of one cart. Indeed, my Bomberman game cartridge remains quite popular because of this. It introduces new people to the game. Once they play it, learn it, and like it, they often end up buying it. If they don’t like it, they don’t buy it.

”See! See! A sale was lost because they could play the game!” It just didn’t fit the customer’s taste. What would be worse is hoodwinking the customer with hype to find them buying a game they never played only to hate it. They not only sell the game, they avoid the game company’s future offerings.

It is better for long term sales to make gamers first and customers second. Remember, people became Wii Sports players before they became Wii buyers.

Command and Conquer-

Command and Conquer series, aside from the two discs included in Red Alert, did something else very interesting. The installation was made into a trippy experience. Instead of a boring loading bar, which makes the customer starting off bored, the installation was busy immersing the paid customer into the rich texture of the game world. In other words, before the gamer begun a tutorial or reached the title screen, the gamer was being hammered, left and right, by the rich texture of the game world.

Don’t you think this would make the new customer anxious to learn and explore this game world?

Command and Conquer Installer:

Tiberian Sun Installer: (Note how the sequel specifically evolves from the previous installer? Nice touch, Westwood.)

Red Alert Installer:

Aside from the Tibarian Sun one, these installers were done even in DOS. As video games are interactive, these installers make more impact then even the YouTube video can portray because by doing the ‘sound test’ and all, the installer has you feel you are interacting inside the game world… even before the game has been installed!

Publishers like EA, took over the Command and Conquer franchise, thought these ‘installers’ are a ‘waste of resources’ since they are not part of the ‘game’. I disagree. If it is in front of the customer’s face, it is important. I’d rather have a cinematic installer than yet another cinema movie bloated inside the game. Why? Because I *have* to go through the installation process. You might as well make it fun.

The belief that it is not part of the game is absurd. Reviewers will pretend the installation process with its boring loading bar doesn’t exist. But the customer will see it… and get bored. Who hates these long installation processes? And how hard is it to not jazz it up a little?

In a way, the Westwood installer is marketing. It is marketing and hyping to the paid customer, not to the potential customer. It is saying, “Yes, thank you for purchasing this game. You will not regret it! Get hyped because this game is going to blow your socks off!” The customer begins the game ‘warmed’ with intrigue instead of ‘cold’ of boredom from the installation process. It is easier to get the paid customer passionate when he is warmed up (providing the game has the weight to deliver which Westwood’s games did).

The result is that by marketing to the paid customer, the paid customer becomes passionate and evangelizes the non-customers. The early Westwood games had no problems with sales. It wasn’t just that they were good games, they were experiences aimed at paid customers rather than potential customers.

Nintendo Power

(Above: Oh God, the above brings back memories!)

It has been said that Nintendo Power was made for only the purpose of selling more NES games to kids. This is true, in part, but the process is being missed. Let’s remember that Sheff’s “Game Over” book had one context for Nintendo: as a manipulative, power-hungry company who was brainwashing the children of America. The truth is a little different.

(Above: Remember when these games came out? Who knew you were living in the midst of classics.)

Nintendo Power is unlike any other game magazine I’ve read. It is a crying shame that no other magazine really did what it did and that Nintendo Power eventually de-evolved to resemble every other gaming magazine.

Nintendo Power wasn’t a long ass brochure of games you didn’t own. It was a long ass manual of games you owned and didn’t own. Nintendo Power wasn’t aimed at potential NES customers. Nintendo Power was aimed at current NES customers. Nintendo Power is a perfect example of moving the marketing and copyrighting guys to a post sales point rather than a pre sales point.

(Above: No one makes games like the above anymore… not even Nintendo, alas!)

NES games are very difficult. They are hard both to master and to navigate with their elaborate mazes and maps. No one denies this. No one denied it then, and no one denies it today. Often, gamers today look back at these NES games and wonder, “How in the world did we beat these games?”

(Above: How can there be so much awesome on one cover?)

The answer was Nintendo Power. Nintendo Power wasn’t a commercial-less magazine whose purpose was to be a 90-page NES commercial. Nintendo Power was a monthly NES manual, all in color, complete with maps, tips, and secret codes. As a tool, it was favorable for customers to collect and not throw away Nintendo Power magazines (i.e. old issues did not lose value over time). Nintendo Power was based off of the Japanese design where the graphics and layout was made first with the text being added later. This helped give the magazine such a graphic feel. While it was said to be expensive to make, while it was said to be a waste of time since kids don’t care to read (where have we heard this before?), Arakawa (President of NOA) went ahead with it. The result was that the magazine became the best selling kid’s magazine in the United States.

(Above: Note the 16-page Tetris Tip book which was a cartoon. Nintendo sold Tetris by teaching people about it. I like the ‘Don’t Miss!’ list. All three of those games were not worth missing! This is why I find the ‘NP as brainwash advertising’ argument so thin. The games the magazine decided to push are today’s classics. I can’t recall NP, in its early time, pushing a bad game.)

It is quite a wonder to look at old issues of Nintendo Power. Entire stages of maps were placed inside the magazine complete with information on power-ups and all. Basically, a feature on a game ended up being a rich manual that taught people how to play the game. While the common line is that Nintendo Power was a commercial to sell games to kids, what isn’t mentioned is that this was done by teaching them. No game was presented because it was ‘hardcore’ or ‘elite’ or any other technique marketers use today (except for the second issue with Simon holding Dracula’s head. THAT was cool!). Each and every game was presented by teaching how it plays.

(Above: Parents were concerned that the second issue of Nintendo Power had Simon holding a decapitated Dracula head. After complaints, Nintendo Power put out no more cool covers like the above.)

One of the great lessons is that once people, kids or whoever, learned how to play the game, only then could they become passionate about it. The worst thing to do is hand someone a game, watch them fail, and they put the game down and never want to play it again.

In other words, marketing should be moved to TEACHING and away from empty hype. Consider that the pre-Nintendo Power of the Nintendo Fun Letter released a full blown overworld map of Legend of Zelda. Now, Legend of Zelda is a very difficult game to a newcomer. That overworld map helped owners of the game to beat it (which made them more passionate about it). However, it also got potential customers looking at the map to understand and grasp what the game was about. They would then feel confident enough to purchase it.

(Above: The maps and information is not only desired by people who own the game. They make potential customers want to PLAY this game!)

(Above: “Uncle Malstrom, why is Metroid 1 so hard?” It is because, children, you do not have snazzy maps like in this issue of Nintendo Power!)

(Above: Even the ‘comics’ attempted to teach.)

(Above: Nintendo Power would decline as it tried to become more like a ‘normal’ magazine. But it still ‘taught’ as seen above even a little.)

Many say that Gamefaqs and various walkthroughs online have eliminated the need for magazines like Nintendo Power. But Gamefaqs isn’t so interested in teaching gamers as it is for the contributor to strut himself/herself. Who wants to read a gigantic block of text?

I think Nintendo erred by believing game specific players’ guides should be sold separately as if people wanted the game secrets and would pay for them. If given the choice of paying for secrets to getting them free off the Internet, the Internet wins all the time. Nintendo erred in not figuring out that potential customers were drawn to the ‘game secrets’ to learn about the game. Potential customers certainly are not going to pay $15 for a book just to learn about a game they may or may not purchase.

Some game companies have realized it is important to TEACH current customers about the game. Blizzard, I know, employs some people to do nothing but create an online strategy guide in better teaching how to play their games. With the Starcraft 2 Battlefield Reports (and this is before Starcraft 2 beta has even come out), it is clear that the Blizzard people are trying to TEACH onlookers about how the game works as opposed to showering them with more cinematic trailers which tell us nothing about the game (aside from the game’s announcement, there has been very little in terms of cinematic trailers).

(Starcraft 2’s Battle Reports are little more than Blizzard teaching and explaining the game.)


Why is World of Warcraft and other MMORPGs so popular? Well, one of the reasons is that current customers are treated well, very well! The focus of the MMORPG is for the current customer (which is entirely different from other games where they focus on potential customers). This keeps the customer playing and generating cashflow. The MMORPGs that spend their energy chasing potential customers, instead of servicing current customers, are those that end up shutting down.


The passionate customer is the best salesman. A game company, or any company, would want their customers to be as happy and as passionate as possible because it will spur interest from onlookers. “Why is it about Y game that causes him to play 10 hours a day?” “Why do they keep talking about X game? I should look into it.”

When a game has a high sold-to-used-store rate, it almost always occurs that the game company was treating potential customers better than current customers. There was enormous energy in hyping the game, in saying how the game would revolutionize everything, and it might make a sale but it doesn’t make a player of that game. I think focusing on making players, through teaching, through creating interest in playing and mastering the game (as hints and strategies seem to do), do far better than hammering out hype.


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