Virtual Reality Games: What It Takes To Lead The Resurgence

by Justin Carroll

An early depiction of virtual reality from the 1992 film, The Lawnmower Man

Are you making virtual reality games? This guide will give you insight on how to approach marketing VR games with the goal of leading their resurgence.

But beware.

What I’m saying isn’t for those who simply want to try VR.

It’s exclusively for serious developers and publishers of virtual reality games. I’m only talking to those few who are interested in leading the market, those with a real business stake, who will stop at nothing to make it happen.

Let’s be honest, if you’re simply looking to dip your toes in the VR water, you probably won’t have the time or money to pursue anything I’m talking about.

It doesn’t mean you won’t make great games, it doesn’t mean you won’t have a hit, it just means you probably won’t be a leader in virtual reality games.

But for those of you that are hell-bent on making the Super Mario Bros of VR and changing the face of how people play games forever, read on…

This Is Not A Recipe For Success With Virtual Reality Games

I’m most known for helping game developers and publishers with marketing strategy, the hard work of studying real business problems and goals, and outlining a roadmap with an eye towards real business outcomes.

This guide is not that.

The reality is I’m writing this with insight, but no knowledge of your specific company’s problems or goals, or of the games you’re making.

It’s not a recipe for success.

My approach and ideas are great for weaving into your existing strategy or inspiring what you might do that’s specific to your company and its games.

But before I unpack the nitty-gritty of those ideas, it’s important I do so under the right context.

This guide is linear, meaning each section is planned to build upon the last.

I’ll start with why and use that context to dive deep with a handful of game marketing strategies and tactics specific to virtual reality games.

Here’s everything I’ll be outlining…

  1. The reality of the virtual reality games market
  2. A virtual reality game marketing manifesto, rules to live by for marketing VR games
  3. How to put a virtual reality twist on your traditional, owned marketing efforts
  4. Unorthodox game marketing strategies to build authority in the virtual reality games market
  5. And finally, how to price virtual reality games

When you’re finished reading this guide you’ll have points to talk about with your team and actionable ideas you can begin implementing today.

Let’s go back to the future.

Back To The Future Of Virtual Reality Games

We’ve been here before, Sega Master System, Nintendo Virtual Boy, beastly arcade machines and The Lawnmower Man.

And some 30 years later, here we are again, Oculus Rift, Google Cardboard, HTC and way more.

Nintendo Virtual Boy

Nintendo Virtual Boy

But the connotation hasn’t changed much.

The technology has certainly advanced, but the validity of virtual reality as a substantial player in the video game industry is still highly and hotly debated.

Virtual reality games have real challenges.

I’ll just say what few will…

Dancing around in front of a screen isn’t for everybody, and now we’re strapping goggles to our face and falling over while we do it.

Not to mention the vomit factor.

I think it’s safe to say virtual reality games aren’t for everyone, or every gamer, at least not in the foreseeable future.

My intention isn’t to discourage the market share of virtual reality games, my intention is to be realistic about the expectation moving forward.

One of the keys to success is self-awareness, understanding that virtual reality games is currently a niche market and may stay that way for the life of your company.

However, that’s not to say there’s no opportunity.

Quite the contrary, in fact.

I’m a firm believer in brand positioning, that the more narrow your focus in business, the more money you can make.

So, let’s define what opportunity looks like.

Virtual Reality Games Aren’t Comparable To Other Games, Treat Them As Such

As we ride this new wave of VR popularity I’m seeing many developers investing a lot of time and money into these big, beautiful virtual reality game experiences.

And I absolutely love it.

But what I don’t love is the panic that sets in as they get closer to release and realize they’re not generating anywhere near the same buzz they’ve gotten from previous hits.

I see this a lot with AAA developers and publishers who try their hand in a niche only to reap great frustration.

At the beginning, your virtual reality games probably won’t experience the same success you’ve had in the past.

That doesn’t mean your games aren’t great, it just means you’re pioneering a developing market.

The truth is you may not even be able to leverage your existing audience, no matter how big it is.

Virtual reality games are their own segment, one for which no standard of measurement currently exists.

And to be blunt, you may spend twice the time and money on marketing virtual reality games for half the average return on investment of anything you’ve done before.

You must accept this risk.

I’m not here to sell you a pot of gold at the end of a VR rainbow.

As with all uncharted territory in business, you must decide for yourself if you’re up for the challenge.

The New Rules Of Marketing Virtual Reality Games

To wrap all that up, as context for my approach to marketing VR games, here’s the new rules to market by…

1. We’ll Treat Virtual Reality Games As A Niche

It’s highly probable that virtual reality games will remain a niche market, at least in our lifetime. And we’ll treat them as such, never benchmarking them against our former successes.

2. We’re Evangelists Of A Movement

We’re used to only marketing our games as an evangelist of our company, now we’re evangelists of VR technology. Our goal is to incite a movement, to break through the barrier of skepticism and lay a foundation for generations to come.

3. We’ll Keep Goals Attainable

We’ll base our goals on early engagement. And instead of the average marketing spend, we’ll test on a much smaller scale. We won’t bet the house on success. We’ll start small, experiment often and change only when validated.

4. We Accept No Standard Solution

We’ll be prepared to deviate from much of what we already know. Although a lot of our game marketing efforts will appear the same, we realize we’re navigating uncharted waters. And we won’t rely on canned marketing plans.

5. We Enjoy High Risk For High Reward

We’ll do things we’ve never done before, we’ll think outside the box as they say. We know the game industry itself is volatile, let alone games based in unestablished technologies. But we believe high risk returns high reward.

Now that we’ve accepted the risk and know what we’re up against, let’s get creative with some new marketing ideas.

5 Creative Virtual Reality Marketing Ideas For Owned Channels

The first thing you’ll want to do is lay the same foundation you always have for your games, press kit, trailer, style guide, key art, website, social media, press releases, so on and so forth.

Whatever marketing tactics you execute will still need a solid foundation to go forth from and fall back on, one you’ve no doubt been through with all your other games.

It’s what you’ll do for each of your individual marketing efforts that changes here.

Here’s 5 creative virtual reality marketing ideas for owned marketing channels…

1. Trailer Releases

Cut your regular trailers and make them awesome, but also create exclusive virtual reality versions of each trailer.

Don’t hold back, it’s gotta be 4k and absolutely stunning.

Then release, post and share those VR trailers with all the virtual reality websites and publications in the world.

Not just game outlets.

This isn’t about your audience as much as it’s about acquiring new players for your audience in places you wouldn’t normally.

2. Official Game Websites

Because virtual reality is fantastical, there will be a huge temptation to make your official game websites over the top, with 3D elements, animations and parallax movement.

Don’t do it, at least not at first.

Your official game websites are first and foremost selling tools.

And unless you can prove the extra work in producing those effects (that probably don’t work on mobile anyway) directly correlate with your bottom line then it’s not worth it.

Save the fireworks for a virtual reality microsite experience if and when budget allows.

Keep your official game websites optimized for conversions only.

3. Email Marketing

Remember, you’re an evangelist for VR technology. Because of that, your development blog will likely have more interest from players than it would for normal games.

The hardcore VR audience, the people who will assist in laying its foundation, are largely technophiles, audiophiles and the like.

So think about this…

Consider making your development blog content exclusive in exchange for an email address.

This marketing tactic will help you build and secure your audience in a niche market.

4. Social Media Content

Whatever social media campaigns you run, memes, character dossiers, environment shots, try and stick to VR video (double-screen content) and animated GIFs.

But there’s a fine line if your game will also be marketed as playable without VR equipment.

Do the research to figure out which marketing channels contain the biggest virtual reality audience and release your best content there.

Save general channels for your standard, non-VR media, or experiments to see if you can attract one channel’s audience to come join another.

5. Press Releases

Your big news isn’t just for the game industry anymore. There’s an entire technology industry out there salivating for news about virtual reality, and will be for years to come.

Run your biggest news across the desks of Wired, Popular Science and technology sections everywhere, even your local newspapers.

And step away from the computer when it comes to your top 25 most-desired media outlets. Mail your press release to a specific journalist, and include a pair of low-cost goggles.

Google Cardboard

Google Cardboard

Or better yet, design a pair for your game’s branding.

The big takeaway for all these creative ideas is to dip what you’re doing in virtual reality so to say, and market it to the technology media at large, not just your audience.

5 Unorthodox Marketing Tactics For Virtual Reality Games

That’s all very creative, but traditional. So, let’s take it to the next level with some ideas you may not have considered.

Here’s 5 unorthodox ways to market virtual reality games…

1. Conference Circuit

While it doesn’t sound very unorthodox, and I know you’re used to sending people out to conferences, this is different.

Much different.

I want you to attend every single conference in the world that has a virtual reality presence.

I’m not kidding… and it’ll be expensive.

If you’re going to be a leader in the virtual reality game space, if your game has any chance of being the Super Mario Bros of virtual reality games then you have to pound the pavement.

If you won’t, your competitors will.

Think of what Trent Kusters has done for his game, Armello. That guy’s a case study in how to pound pavement. You need to be the Kusters of virtual reality games. Basically, be one of the hardest working people out there.

But there’s a way for you to cut down on having to take your entire team and equipment.

And that leads me to my next idea…

2. Exclusive Partnerships

When new virtual reality hardware comes out, I want you to run (not walk) to their doorstep and partner with them.

Whatever the deal you work out, what you’re looking for is exclusivity, as much of it as you can get.

Hardware makers will want to show off a variety of uses at technology conferences and in their own marketing collateral, one of which will be gaming.

You want to have your game be the only one featured. And if you can’t get that, it should be one of a few.

In other words, your goal is to have your game be the poster child for gaming with that hardware.

Oculus Rift

You probably won’t sign a deal with Oculus, but you get the idea.

And feel free to do (mostly) whatever it takes in order to make that happen, provide banners featuring their product with your game, alternate versions of your trailer and so on.

But be careful, they’ll be looking for exclusivity too.

Don’t sell your soul to a specific piece of hardware, if it fails it’ll pull your game down with it.

Here’s a short list of partnerships you may benefit from having…

  • Hardware – Consoles, screen devices, televisions
  • Peripherals – Headsets, gloves, controllers
  • Arcades – Amusement parks, boardwalks, malls
  • Conferences – Games, electronics, technology, VR
  • Entertainment – Television, film, directors, theaters, IMAX, comic books
  • Education – Museums, science centers, technology centers
  • Media – Networks, magazines, journalists

The idea here is to network, to use partnerships as a mutual opportunity to promote VR as a technology and both your individual products or services.

It’s sitdowns and handshakes, so suit up if you have to.

3. Documentary Film Or Biography

Don’t you wish the team that made Super Mario Bros documented their journey?

Me too.

A fantastic way to make your mark in history is to document your story and process.

You might not even need to do this yourself.

Put some feelers out, there could be a few documentary filmmakers or writers that would love to help.

Clips from those efforts will serve as marketing. If CNN is doing a bit on the resurgence of VR, you should be in contact with someone who will reach out to you, and you should have something ready to show at a moment’s notice.

Don’t pass off a documentary or biography effort as unattainable or too extravagant, think of the bigger picture.

Ten years from now your story could be a case study for a pivotal moment, the rise of virtual reality, in gaming history.

If nothing else, it serves as fantastic content, and a relic of your company’s ability to innovate, take risks and achieve.

4. Official Game Soundtrack

Hire the best music artist for your game, put up a microsite and sell your music before the game’s release.

Make it available for digital download through Amazon and other popular online stores. And on streaming services such as Spotify, Apple Music, Rdio, Pandora and Tidal.

Create pages at Bandcamp, Soundcloud and YouTube for uploading 30-second previews of each song, that then link out to the aforementioned marketplaces.

These are all things you can do yourself.

Even selling the music yourself is easy with a copy of WordPress, PayPal and the Easy Digital Downloads plugin.

This is a AAA game tactic.

Its marketing buzzword is called double-dipping, when you have one product you break apart and market as several smaller products to generate passive income.

Selling virtual reality games is high risk and you’re investing the bulk of your marketing spend in paid advertising efforts.

5. Monetization Methods

I’m not a huge fan of commenting on your game’s design so I’ll brush up against this and leave it at that.

Because you might be looking at half the return for twice the investment, at least to begin with, you’ll want to continue capitalizing where possible.

Downloadable content (DLC), in-game purchases (IAP) and planning for sequels and spin-offs can be a great ways to continue generating revenue from your initial effort.

But again, be very careful.

If you’ve no prior experience with monetization, consider hiring a monetization consultant to help you out. I recommend paying a fixed fee over percentage of revenue (they’re not a publisher).

Let’s talk about price.

Pricing Virtual Reality Games Based On Value, Not Cost

I’m just going to say it, virtual reality games should be priced higher than other games.

And strangely, this has little to do with a real or perceived extra effort that goes into making and marketing them.

Let me explain.

The value of a product or service is really only what someone is willing to pay.

Virtual reality is a premium technology, with largely premium hardware. Therein lies the capitalistic opportunity to charge a premium for the experience.

But here’s the catch… not without a business ethic. You’ve a responsibility to provide premium value that matches the premium you’re asking.

This isn’t about simply charging more.

This is about charging more money to completely blow players away, because you provide them a game experience unlike anything they’ve ever had before.

High cost warrants high value.

The specific price point you and your team decide on should be derived from value, not cost alone. But in any case, it should be higher than that of console or mobile.

Conclusion

I’ve seen a lot of game developers and publishers jump on trends, leaving behind what they’re known for in hopes to capitalize on what’s next.

And it almost always ends in failure.

It doesn’t take long for them to go to a conference, get hyped up about another trend, come back home and change everything again.

That won’t work with VR.

If you’re serious about selling games with technologies such as virtual reality or augmented reality, it’s going to take a changed mindset in your business at the very top level.

And that’s why I wanted all the experimenters to stop reading this.

It’s probably not going to work out for them.

But for you, the game developers and publishers who seek to lead the resurgence of virtual reality games, what advice do you have for others? What questions can I answer of yours?

Post that advice, or ask those questions in the comments below!