Scott Miller's $2BN Positioning Strategy

“If your game isn't positioned for success by being a leader in someway, then it has no chance”

Positioning strategy can sometimes feel a little abstract for achieving “real-world” objectives.

You know… essential metrics like sales and revenue.

Particularly in creative industries, like gaming.

It’s tempting to think: “Why do we need Positioning? The enjoyment of the game speaks for itself!”

Sounds ideal. But, unfortunately, it’s completely wrong.

For that logic to be right, the minds of prospective customers have to be totally rational and have an infinite capacity to consume, store, and process information.

Pretty much the polar opposite is true.

Perception is what matters, not reality. This is where strong Positioning makes all the difference.

How so?

I reached out to Scott Miller, Founder of Apogee and 3D Realms, for his first-hand insights on this.

Why?

Scott has experienced household-name-level success releasing games from franchises such as Wolfenstein, Duke Nukem, Max Payne, and more.

To put that into perspective, Apogee's games have generated over $2 billion in sales.

Crucially, Scott has been very open in declaring that Positioning is one of the key reasons for his success.

And, he has graciously agreed to share his approach with me.

Here’s a 3D Realms showreel, featuring a collection of successful titles:

Now let’s dive into Scott’s Positioning strategy, through a Q&A. 👇

Q&A with Scott Miller, Founder of Apogee

Can you characterise how Positioning has been a key to your success? How it factors into your go-to-market strategy and tactics.

I first read Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind in 1994, and it was a revelation to me. It really explained so much about how products failed or succeeded in the world, and why most advertising doesn't work well.

It also solidified my way of thinking back then, that a product needed to be unique in order to stand out. If your product is not unique, then it's essentially a copycat product.

I had started a video game company back in 1990 called Apogee, and after reading the book it helped me formulate the idea that my company needed to create a new brand that would be focused on the quickly emerging 3D gaming market.

I knew that the Apogee name was known more for arcade-style games, so I created the 3D Realms brand that would be solely focused on releasing 3D immersive-style games.

3D Realms logo: 1995 - 2015

Under the 3D Realms brand, starting in 1995, Apogee released Terminal Velocity, and a year later our hugely successful game, Duke Nukem 3D -- both of these 3D games. Then a year later another big 3D game, Shadow Warrior. And we used the 3D Realms brand to also release Max Payne 1 and 2, and then Prey in 2006.

The 3D Realms sub-label for us was super successful because when players say that name, they knew they were getting a high-quality 3D game. And yet, all along, the company was really Apogee.

To this day players still speak of 3D Realms like it was a separate company, which really shows how well we used the brand in place of using our Apogee name. In a way, it's like how Toyota created their high-end Lexus brand for releasing their luxury vehicles.

So, the creation of our 3D Realms label is one of the ways we applied positioning. But just as importantly, it's how we decide which games to make or publish.

We will only make or publish a game if it has something truly unique about it, whether it's the art style, or a gameplay hook, or if it's a new category of gaming experience, etc.

If we can't be the first to do something with a game by being unique, then we won't want to be involved with making that game. SO for us, we want the game to be newsworthy and buzzworthy because it's baked into the game itself.

With Duke Nukem 3D, released by us in 1996, we had several aspects of the game that were unique at the time, like a talking lead character, realistic locations, interactive environments, and lots of humor in the game.

With Max Payne, released in 2001, we were the first 3D game with photo-sourced textures, comic book-style storytelling, and bullet-time mode. With Prey we introduced portals to the gaming world.

And more recently, with our hugely successful just-released FPS game, Turbo Overkill, the lead character has a chainsaw leg that makes the gameplay so much more interesting.

Nearly all of the 3,000 Steam reviews for the game mention the chainsaw leg as a key reason the game is so fun.

Leg chainsaw… oh yeah.

All of our 10 coming games also have something unique about them to make them compelling and fun.

I always tell people, if you're not a leader, you're a follower. And being a follower doesn't get you in the headlines.

Did you have an 'aha!’ moment, when you practised Positioning for the first time and saw results?

Yes, when we made the 3D Realms label and right away it worked for us because it came across as a company focused on 3D games. And when people/players think you're focused on something, they naturally think you're an expert at it.

3D Realms was the first label in the game industry that had the mission and focus to only be associated with 3D games. It was quickly recognized as a specialist and leader in this new genre.

But really, reading all of the books Ries and Trout wrote back then, it just all made intuitive sense that they were correct, so I never had a doubt that applying their techniques would work.

How have you utilised Positioning concepts successfully for games?

The idea is to bake uniqueness into our games so that they're leaders in some important way that makes them buzzworthy.

So, we only make and publish games that have something innovative about them, or do something no one else has done. Looking at some of our biggest hits for Apogee:

  • Commander Keen -- first smooth-scrolling platform game on the PC

  • Wolfenstein 3D -- first FPS (first-person shooter) game

  • Rise of the Triad -- lots of little innovations like jumppads, and 10-person deathmatch

  • Duke Nukem 3D -- first talking protagonist in an FPS, and first FPS with interactive environments

  • Max Payne -- first game with bullet-time and photo-realistic levels

  • Prey (2006) -- first game with portal tech as a gameplay feature

  • Bread & Fred -- first co-op game where you're tied together with a rope and forced to help each other

  • Turbo Overkill -- First FPS game with a chainsaw leg

And our coming games all have more firsts baked into them!

What are the most influential Positioning concepts that you've found success with?

You've got to do something first that captures attention, and gets players excited. This doesn't mean do something better, because doing something better is not nearly as important as doing something first.

The key to Apple's success is that they did numerous things first, like the first digital pocket music device (iPod), the first fully touch screen phone (iPhone), the first fully touchscreen computer (iPad), and the Apple stores were super innovative for their time too.

Note that once their visionary leader, Steve Jobs, passed away, Apple has stagnated under current non-visionary leadership. They only continue to succeed based on the visionary ideas first put in place by Jobs.

Many games do something first, by having a unique idea, but flop. What is your bar for doing something first, so that it can be Positioned for success?

For a new feature to make waves, it needs to make a splash and get players talking about it. It needs to be inherently viral to an extent.

Lots of unique ideas simply don't have the gravitas to make a big enough splash. And this is where experience and subjectivity play a big role in determining if a new feature truly has what it takes to make a difference.

So, a lot of game developers believe that their game has a killer new feature that will make their game so interesting it goes viral. But in reality, many of these new features fall short, and aren't nearly as compelling as they hoped.

This is why I think it's critical to release a demo of a game well before the full game is released, to make sure you've hit the right notes with your new feature, or if you need to rethink things and try something else.

The key thing I tell people is that if your game isn't positioned for success by being a leader in some way, then it has no chance.

Can you provide an example?

Max Payne is a case study in how positioning was used to create a hit game, from its distinctive use of photo-sourced textures, its gritty use of comic panels/screens to tell the story, and its pioneering bullet-time gameplay, and even how we marketing the game in ads and it's retail box design.

Everything about the design of Max Payne had positioning as a guiding principle.

Has your approach to Positioning changed over time?

Not really. The book I recommend the most has changed to Origin of Brands, because it really solidifies the whole idea of positioning and the importance of being a leader. And the best way to be a leader is to create a new category and by default you'll be the first in that category.

Once again, Apple is a shining example of this--they created several new categories. It's really hard to create an entirely new category, but it's not so hard to do something first that no one else has done, and that's what we strive to do at Apogee.

The concepts of positioning are ALWAYS guiding our decisions (in terms of what games we sign) and leading us through a maze of game design ideas, so we’re better able to pick out the right path to make a compelling & fun game.

Since 1996 I've been telling everyone in the game industry that positioning is a KEY reason for Apogee's success.

It's still a super useful concept nowadays as it leads us into a nearly faultless rate in only picking successful games to publish.

Thank you, Scott! 🙏

📘 Playbook

  • 💡 Positioning Idea

    • Own a unique idea in the minds of prospects.

    • Create a new category or be the first in a niche.

  • 🥇 Being First > Being Better 

    • Doing something first captures more attention than doing something better.

    • First minder advantage was critical to Apogee's success, in introducing first-of-its-kind products.

  • 🏷️ Brand Strategy 

    • Recognize when it's beneficial to establish a new brand.

      • Example: Establishing the 3D Realms brand for 3D games, differentiating from Apogee's arcade-style image.

    • A strong brand can establish expertise and specialization.

      • Example: 3D Realms was perceived as a specialist in 3D games. It occupied this position in the minds of prospects.

  • 🧠 Mindshare

    • Only create or publish games with something genuinely unique about them.

    • A game should be newsworthy and buzzworthy because of its inherent qualities. This helps the Positioning idea to be shared, person-to-person, and be picked up by the press. Examples:

      • Duke Nukem 3D had a talking lead character, realistic locations, and humor.

      • Max Payne was the first 3D game with photo-sourced textures and comic book-style storytelling.

      • Turbo Overkill introduced a chainsaw leg for its lead character.

  • ✅ Criteria for Innovation 

    • An innovative feature should be inherently viral.

    • Many unique ideas don't create a big enough impact.

    • It's critical to release a demo of a game before the full version to gauge the success potential of new features.

    • If a game isn't positioned for success by being a leader in some way, it has no chance.

That’s it for today! I’ll be back in your inbox again soon.

Martin 👋

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