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Marketing as Game theory

April 22, 2009

I grew up playing video games. You name the game, and there’s a chance that I threw a quarter in it an arcade, or played it online. From Galaga to Quake, Tetris to Hero’s Quest, I’ve always loved the problem solving aspect of games.

Consider: when you enter the world of the game, the player has no idea what the systems are. Generally, the game’s instructions only tell the player how to navigate the system. The player has to experience the system, map it, and then navigate it.

Game theory, or the programming of a game, works with the player to keep them enthused. Beat the first level, and the second level was a little faster, and a little harder. The 3rd level was that much faster and harder, and so on. Players understood that as the game progressed, it got harder. The systems got more complicated, and the things acquired early in the game, the skills if you will, would either be useful, or not useful later on.

Consider this simple strategy game called Tower Defense. It has a simple menu up front that explains the difficulty of the system.

Tower Defense menu

At first playing, none of this makes sense. Creeps are most likely bad guys, and they come in lines. Admittedly, one can read a little more, but people who love games like to jump right in to Medium.

So here’s the playing field.

The playing field

The playing field

As soon as one begins playing, one understands that the system is simple: the line of creeps tries to get from the left to the right, or from the top to the bottom. The goal of the gamer is to try to stop it. A solution to this is to make the journey longer by forcing them through a gauntlet. As the gamer kills creeps, they earn money which can be used to buy bigger guns. The guns on this screen are small guns.

As the game progresses, the guns don’t really do anything except force creeps through the gauntlet. It’s possible to sell guns that don’t work well for better guns, but the gamer must keep the gauntlet going.

If you’re still with me, this has some marketing issues. If you think of the course from product interest to purchase as being left to right (or top to bottom for a different segment of your target market), then you can see the beginnings of a marketing plan in the image above.

Small things like letterhead, business cards, all work together to lead potential customers down the route to purchase. As the marketplace gets more complicated, and the path to purchase gets more intense, the earlier efforts don’t work as well, but they are still all part of the process. Newer more powerful guns TV, Radio and print all need to be postponed in a way that adds to the overall effort. Emerging guns like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube need to be positioned in a way that continues the prospect through the path to purchase. When looking at this game board, it’s no good placing a gun way over on the right hand side because you can’t guarantee how a creep will advance.

All you can do is ensure they will advance through your marketing message in a cohesive way. In a marketing funnel. With everything working together.

Now, two things:

1. This is an analogy about systems. A marketing system is much more complicated than this, however, this analogy has a few legs. In Tower Defense, there’s a gun that only shoots flying things, but flying things come every once in a while. So it’s important to have those guns, even though the cost to the overall effort is that they take up space and only shoot flying things. If a marketing thing only gets X people, make sure it’s being optimized as much as possible.

2. Don’t call your customers creeps.

I plan to add to this post a little, but i would love to hear your thoughts.

Next time: how game theory and marketing theory aren’t that far apart.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. April 22, 2009 12:50 pm

    You might be also interested in the writing and presentation of Raph Koster:

    In particular, his Theory of Fun presentation from 2003 that turned into a book of the same name:

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