The future of real-time strategy (RTS) games has been discussed extensively in the past few months. The central theme revolves around the difficulty of the genre and its popularity. This article discusses this topic from the perspective of marketing.
A simple Google search of “Is RTS dead?” would pull a number of articles and videos discussing whether, how, and why the genre is dying. Here are some examples:
- “Is Real-time Strategy Dead?”
- “Can real-time strategy come back from the brink of death?”
- “The RTS Genre Is Not Dead”
More recently, with the announcement of Frost Giant Studio, the discussion has shifted from the state of the genre to the ways of rejuvenating it. Developers working on RTS games are very aware of the issues surrounding the genre, and HuK had just published an article that discusses these issues:
- Mechanical requirement
- Solo experience and anxiety
- Learning curve
In sum, he thinks that RTS games in general have a high mechanical requirement, low social interaction, and a steep learning curve. All these factors together discourage “casual” players from engaging with the genre. While these reasons seem overly simplified, I believe many would agree that these indeed are some of the key issues. Others have also highlighted similar issues in various podcasts about the RTS genre (see an example vod below). The discussions inevitably head toward the direction of attracting more players by addressing these issues. Interestingly, however, the discussed solutions are always based on game design. How can we design a new RTS game to have a more manageable mechanical requirement, provide better social interaction, and have a more friendly learning curve? But does simply making a “better” game solve the problem?
The real problem is not in the actual difficulty of the game but in the perceived difficulty of it. People who do not already play RTS games think the games are too difficult and/or do not appreciate the genre. RTS games are not even in their considerations when they are choosing a game, so merely making “better” RTS games is unlikely to suddenly attract these people. The sense of elitism in the RTS community is not helping to attract non-players either. Thus, lowering the skill floor and easing the learning curve of a single title alone are not going to change people’s perception of the genre and in turn attract new players. After all, behaviors are driven by perception not actuality.
Attracting new players through game design is even harder when you still want to appeal to the existing RTS fans. The two groups have different gamer motivation profiles, whereby the RTS players score higher in mastery than non-RTS players. Based on the recent podcasts, it appears that game developers do not intend to alienate either player group, and they aim to create games that have a low skill floor (to attract “casuals”) and a high skill ceiling (to appeal to “fanatics”). This is an extremely difficult task that many top developers have tried and failed within the RTS genre and in other genres. While RTS game developers’ optimism is commendable, I believe they should look beyond just game design to solve the problem.
Marketing as a solution
Marketing is a practical solution to the problem. If we cannot practically change the perception of the RTS genre, how do we address the perception problem?
Once a game is labelled as a RTS game, people would associate it with the salient attributes of the RTS genre. In other words, for better or worse, people would associate a new RTS game with all the issues mentioned earlier before they even learn more about it. This is because humans naturally assign stimuli to known categories in order to organise their complex world in a cognitively manageable manner [1, 2 – academic references at the end of the article]. Once “RTS” is activated in their mind, other associated nodes in their memory network such as “StarCraft” and “competitive” are also activated [3, 4]. Then, when consumers are told that this new RTS game has a lower mechanical requirement and a friendlier learning curve, they would compare it to the recalled known RTS games. It is evident from the various recent RTS discussions that StarCraft, WarCraft, and Age of Empire would be the ones that come to mind. Consumers are uncertain about the difficulty of the new RTS game, and they would heuristically use a well known game of the genre (e.g., StarCraft II) as a reference point (called an “anchor” in cognitive psychology) for their estimation . Since the game is said to be less demanding, consumers would form an evaluation by adjusting away from the “anchor”. Humans typically do not make sufficient adjustment in their evaluations , so consumers are likely to still perceive the new RTS game as pretty difficult (see figure below). Thus, simply making the game more accessible by design (and telling people so) is unlikely to have the intended outcome.
One counter intuitive solution is to not market a new RTS game as a product from the RTS genre. What makes a game a RTS game anyway? Why do we not consider multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) games RTS games? We basically confine ourselves to the established norms of the genre. What if I introduce you to a game that plays like MOBA but you have to manage macro resources with your teammates? This essentially sounds like a RTS game with heroes in a team game mode. However, by not directly framing it as a RTS game, consumers do not immediately associate it with the established RTS genre and its baggage. In fact, they may use popular MOBA games as the reference point when they evaluate this new “multiplayer cooperative strategy game”. Since people generally perceive MOBA games as being less demanding than RTS games, their perceived difficulty of this new game is going to be lower than they would otherwise perceive using StarCraft II as the reference point. Moreover, those who would categorically not consider playing RTS games are more susceptible to the marketing effort with this reframing of reference points.
Shifting the frame of reference is a common marketing strategy. This is typically used to gain a competitive advantage by leading consumers to compare the offerings with specific sets of comparisons. For example, Starbucks markets itself as a “third home” (a place you go most frequently other than home, school/work) instead of a coffee shop. Even though their actual product is coffee, they do not want to compete with other coffee shops directly in a saturated market. This shift in frame of reference led consumers to compare the coffee (price, quality etc.) less and compare the other features (WiFi, electrical outlet for charging, air-con etc.) more. My idea does not intend to lead consumers to compare a new RTS game to something specific, but it aims to communicate the developers’ vision of the product more effectively without changing the game.
Further, this angle of reframing reference point has other context specific benefits. First, it has the potential to attenuate the issue with segmentation. As mentioned earlier, it is extremely difficult to create a RTS game that appeals to “fanatics” and “casuals” alike. The underlying problem is not only their distinct preferences in game mechanics but also their sense of social identity . Being a “RTS player” is a unique and important identity to RTS fanatics, as they pride themselves on challenging and mastering games that many others find too difficult. The thought of “casuals” playing the same RTS games they play threatens their sense of superiority (i.e., elitism). Research shows that “high class” people denigrate a luxury brand when they know “low class” people are using counterfeits of that brand , suggesting that perceived social hierarchy influences attitude toward a product that is associated with a perceived lower class group. When “RTS” is not salient due to reframing of reference points, the intergroup conflict stemming from social identity is likely to be attenuated. Thus, my idea indirectly addresses the issues of elitism.
Second, this reframing of reference points could attract MOBA players by filling the gap of the popular MOBA games. MOBA players often ignore teammates and focus solely on themselves (e.g., mid or feed), and hence, players get frustrated at the low level of control over the outcome of a 5v5 game. Although existing RTS games appear to be a good alternative to this problem, players are discouraged by the game design issues mentioned earlier. Thus, a new “multiplayer cooperative strategy game” with fewer teammates and higher (perceived) control over the outcome could just be what this segment of MOBA players want. Recent research has shown that consumers are more likely to cater for the preference of another person than those of a group (e.g., five people) . Applying this insight to the gaming context, a 2v2 or 3v3 mode in a less demanding RTS game could be very attractive to these frustrated MOBA players.
Game design as a part of marketing
It is worth highlighting that game design and marketing are not independent to each other. In fact, anyone who has attended a basic marketing course (usually called Principles of Marketing) would tell you that product design is a part of the marketing mix. One common mistake I observe in my marketing students is that they would consider each element of the marketing mix independently and overlook the interactions among them. This limits the quality of insights generated. Coincidentally, I was using video games as a context to teach pricing strategy in a marketing class this semester, and I emphasised the importance of designing the games to fit other aspects of marketing mix.The main issue I observe from the recent discussions about RTS games is the tunnel vision of using product design to solve all the problems.Simply lowering the mechanical demand does not actually make a game more accessible to consumers, but making people want to access it does.
My idea of reframing the reference point is in sync with the current game design directions RTS game developers have. Based on the recent discussions (see vod above), RTS game developers appear to consider team versus and co-op modes key features of their products, as this is consistent with the poor social experience issue identified by many. My idea builds on this to improve the satisfaction of the primary target segment and attract a wider group of audience without making sacrifices in the game design area.
Game companies often have good products but not equally good marketing (example). The reframing of reference point is just one of many marketing ideas I have for marketing general RTS games. As a RTS fan and a behavioral scientist specialising in consumer behavior, I have a niche and fitting set of skills that would be valuable in marketing RTS games and games in general. Drop me an email if you think I can improve your marketing.
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