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Slaughter All Avatars!
By Jonathan Salem Baskin

Real-Timing Game Design Suggests Ideas For Real-Time Marketing

I'm a few weeks into playing Blizzard Entertainment's "Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty," which is a real-time strategy video game, or "RTS." This is a different genre from role-playing games, or "RPGs," or first-person shooters, which I don't believe need an acronym to label their purpose.

Being the nerd that I am, I can't help but think about marketing as I hop planets to destroy various enemies both human and alien...specifically, what RTS gaming can tell us about brand engagement and social communities.

Kill Or Be Killed

I find playing RTS games like Starcraft II to be incredibly engaging, for three primary reasons

  • The clock is ticking -- Playing the game in real-time means I have to pay attention to it in an active way far more compelling than the way I might watch a funny video or even participate in an IM or voice chat with another human being. Stuff is happening all around me that I have to anticipate and to which I must respond; while a chat box stays inert until I enter my response the game is constantly changing.
     
  • Rules are inescapable -- All video games operate according to internally-consistent rules: physics, economics, resource allocation combine to enable or impede how I play and what I can accomplish. Such limitations are empowering, oddly enough, as knowing "if I do or don’t do X, Y will likely happen" means I pay closer attention to my gameplay decisions, and those decisions make more sense to me.
     
  • There's a goal -- There's a broad backstory and then individual episodes in the Starcraft narrative, and each game has a goal that refers back to both. Granted, you can get close to any of them if you successful slaughter as many adversaries as you can find, but there are deeper levels of why if you're interested in contemplating them.

When I contrast these qualities of engagement with what passes for engagement with brands, I have to stifle a laugh. We marketing types don't even begin to scratch the surface of involvement. I don't care how many people laugh at your viral videos or forward them. I wonder what would happen if we tried to craft brand strategies based on the three qualities of RTS gaming -- time, rules, and goals -- not as obvious games, of course, but so the consumer engagement we endeavored to create had some of the staying power that Starcraft engenders in at least yours truly?

Social With a Purpose

I don't think any community can exist in virtual or physical reality without a purpose. In the real world such purposes are usually substantive and structural, like common defense and well-being, or the sharing of tangible services. The virtual threshold is much lower; people can visit a web site to view videos and it's considered a community, whereas showing up at a real-world movie theater wouldn’t. Most actions in online communities have few unavoidable ramifications, while doing real things in real ones have real consequences.

You get what you give when it comes to community experience, and the intensity of that experience (and perhaps its rewards) are defined by the nature of a community's shared purpose. By this measure even the most frequently-visited social sites are about as intimate and meaningful as flipping through a glossy magazine used to be. Passing the time somewhat entertainingly isn't much of a motivating purpose. Killing aliens in real-time is.

So, what if we built social communities based on a game paradigm? Again, I'm not advocating making them actual games but rather stealing the qualities that make games engaging -- time, rules, and goals -- so that everyone involved got more out of them. NGOs do it, sort of, as do any issue-specific organization or web site. Political campaigns do it, obviously. The act of shopping itself is a RTS-like experience, which is why there's so much money to be made facilitating it online.

What if my experience on Facebook or YouTube changed as time passed? How about making certain accomplishments (finding friends, recommending products) time sensitive, or rewarding thresholds of activity in real-time? Could individual brands own causes, not just contribute to them, that required friended members to do things in return for membership?

I don't know where this goes, but I do know that after spending a few hours blowing stuff up playing Starcraft II about the only thing I want to do online is to slaughter all avatars. There has to be a business strategy in doing so.

Isn't living a RTS experience?

Added: 16th August 2010

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