By Meelad Sadat
David Pokress held a number of pivotal roles at Activision during the period the company reclaimed its place as a game publishing powerhouse. From 2000 to 2011, Pokress moved from branding to head of franchise development then licensing, working on key properties such as Tony Hawk, Guitar Hero and Call of Duty along the way.
Pokress’ career path has a ‘state of the industry’ trajectory to it. He entered games as a marketer who had cut his teeth at Nabisco and later Con Agra. The move jibed with the early phases of a trend that continues today, where big publishers look outside the industry for those experienced in other forms of consumer marketing, especially packaged goods marketing.
There’s a reason they relate.
“Whether you are marketing a console game, a freemium mobile title or a Ritz cracker, the basic marketing challenge is the same. You have to solve the riddle that is unique to your specific situation,” says Pokress.
At Activision, Pokress eventually moved from overseeing console games to lead the company’s digital initiatives, including mobile, digital distribution and DLC. Today, where Activision is still dragging its feet towards digital, Pokress has taken the leap. He’s now a founding partner of gigaGame partner, a consultancy focused on social and mobile games.
We talked with Pokress on the changes he’s seen in the industry over the past decade and whether he thinks game marketing has evolved with it.
[a]list: How did you get into the game industry, and what would you say translates well from being a packaged goods marketer to marketing games?
David Pokress: In 2000, Activision was looking to bring a more disciplined brand management approach to the company. They started to hire some of the people that I respected the most from my company so I decided to learn more. What I found was an amazing opportunity. The job opening was on the Tony Hawk's Pro Skater franchise. I grew up in southern California playing video games, skateboarding and snowboarding so it was a dream.
The packaged goods industry has always been a training ground for great marketers. That industry trains you to be the conduit between the company and the consumer; helping to not only communicate with consumers about a company's offerings but also to be the voice of the consumer inside the company. That mentality works across a wide spectrum of businesses including interactive entertainment.
[a]list: Give us an example of how your consumer packaged goods background came in handy early on in your game marketing career.
David Pokress: The fundamental challenge of finding the best tactics that are appropriate for your situation has remained pretty much the same no matter what I have been trying to sell. A good collection of tactics differentiates you from the competition, connects you with your consumer base and motivates them to buy. A good example of that in action was for the remake of GoldenEye. We had to find a message that would resonate within the highly competitive first person shooter genre that included releases from both Call of Duty and Medal of Honor. In that case we had to lead with our biggest strength, the attachment and memories that so many gamers had for the original. The idea of nostalgia and the memories of playing against your friends was featured in all of our creative from TV to social to online. We were a remake and a Wii exclusive trying to compete with two of the biggest mega-brands in the industry. We did our best to make it work. We tried to compete on a level that the others just couldn't and wouldn't. We would have lost if we made it about graphics or gameplay, so we made it personal. Whether you are marketing a console game, a freemium mobile title or a Ritz cracker, the basic marketing challenge is the same. You have to solve the riddle that is unique to your specific situation.
[a]list: You served several different roles at Activision in marketing and licensing during what could be described as the most pivotal decade for the game industry yet, spanning the last two console generations. What do you consider as the most important changes in the game industry during that time?
David Pokress: There have been so many changes in our industry over the past decade. The rise and fall of licensed titles, the rise of the mega-brand, the Wii breaking the fourth wall, the importance of online play and the rise of mobile and social are just a few of the biggest. I was on both the winning side and losing side of many of these trends. These trends really speak to the changing desire among the consumer base to interact with games in a new way. Consumers got tired of ‘see the movie, play the game’. They wanted more from their licensed titles. Consumers also voted for blockbuster mega titles, proving that if you provide them quality they can get excited about something familiar and will return.
GoldenEye Wii bundle included this exclusive gold Wii Classic Controller
Both the Wii and the rise of online multiplayer showed that consumers want to be social. And the last trend of mobile and social proved that the definition of what a gaming experience has expanded. Consumers can get excited about something other than a triple-A game that takes 12-40 hours to finish. They can actually get excited about tending farms, playing word games or with slot machines in 60-second intervals.
[a]list: What about from here on out, what do you consider important developments or trends that are changing the industry, whether from a product development, consumer taste or marketing standpoint?
David Pokress: The proliferation of technology that allows consumers to engage with games in so many ways is probably the most significant development. Games are fundamental to human existence. If a person has the chance to play, they will, unless we make it too difficult for them. I remember having to upgrade my graphics card and memory just to play a PC game. That is not very inclusive in nature. Only the hardcore would go through the bother in order to play their favorite PC games. Smartphones now put a powerful game machine in an ever-increasing number of consumers’ pockets. Does that mean that there are no longer any consumers looking for the triple-A console experience? Absolutely not. Many gamers still enjoy the immersive and visually stunning console games of today. But those consumers only represent one segment of potential gamers. Reaching, engaging and monetizing this new breed of gamer is what excites me at the current moment.
[a]list: You’re at the front of line of social marketing and community right now. What are your thoughts on how social media has changed the way games are marketed today?
David Pokress: The nature of selling has changed so much. In many parts of our industry, the challenge is beyond just convincing a consumer to spend $60 once. Marketers need to expand their notion of the purchase cycle. The purchase cycle is now continuous. That means engaging with their player community in a constant dialogue. That puts social media at the forefront of any marketing strategy. Our consultancy, gigaGame partner works with many companies that make this transition easier for game developers and publishers. The business fundamentals are getting harder and harder. Acquisition costs are rising, forcing many to try and improve in this area. Companies like Playnomics help to acquire not just any player but the right player for your game. One who is likely to stick around and monetize.
Engagement and retention is an area that more companies are investing in as well. The old adage that it is cheaper to keep an existing consumer than to find a new one is more true today than ever. Understanding and communicating with your existing consumers is critical. But the real challenge is to know who to listen to among the chorus of consumer feedback. Companies like Clara Technology can help with community analytics to better understand the real sentiment in your community.
[a]list: Thanks, David.