Karim Chaoui recently joined Null as our Head of Marketing, and I figured I'd sit down with him and see what he's been up to before Null and what brought him to work with us! -rorie
Matthew: Hello everybody. I'm Matthew Rorie, head of community here at Null Games and we are talking today to Karim Chaoui, the new Head of Marketing at Null. I first met Karim when he was interviewing and I was impressed by your globe-trotting background. Can you talk about your travels and what eventually brought you to the Bay Area?
Karim: So, I was born and raised in Belgium. Once I graduated, I really had this appetite and sense for adventure that made me want to do something more international. My first unpaid job in the UK was with a small startup that was focused on making investment magazines, which in turn led me to an unexpected meeting with the Chinese ambassador who recommended that I should try working in China. It didn't take me long after that to grab my bags and go on an eight month travel hiatus throughout South East Asia with China as my final destination. Once I got to China, I got very lucky to get a job at Ubisoft Chengdu and work on some awesome small indie games. While my original plan was to stay in China for around a year, I ended up staying for almost five years.
During my time at Ubisoft Chengdu, I got a really nice opportunity to join Ubisoft San Francisco to work on some of the biggest AAA games out there such as Ghost Recon, Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry.
Matthew: Before we get into the other general gaming questions here, I did want to ask, we have quite a few pets at Null (check out our Threads account for documentation) and I was hoping you could break down the pet situation in your current living space.
Karim: I have a lot of living souls in my apartment, including two cats. I have Yoshi who is a black short hair, and then I also have BB who is a Siamese cat. I’ve had BB for around two years now, and Yoshi for over 5 years. I also have eight guppy fish and nine molly fish, and in the same aquarium, they share some space with aquarium snails as well. So yes, a lot of pets!
Matthew: So I'm gonna get down to the nitty-gritty gaming questions here for you with a deep background. What's the first game you remember playing?
Karim: The first game I ever played in my life was Bug! on the Sega Saturn. That's the first gaming memory that I had, but I also grew up with seeing my brothers play that and also MDK on the original PlayStation.
Matthew: I remember MDK looking especially great for the era. Moving on, what is your favorite game of all time?
Karim: I would say The Last of Us Part I. I know it's a game that a lot of people love, but for me it’s because it is the first game I ever replayed after completing it. I don't usually play games more than once. But the moment I finished The Last of Us, I knew it was something special so ended up replaying it well over five or six times now. I had all of the upgrades in the game and everything else unlocked. I know Sony has re-released it a couple of times so I may even go back to it again sometime in the near future.
Matthew: I really loved Last of Us as well, but I never played Last of Us Part II because it looks so relentlessly dark. I don't mind dark games but that seemed like it was gonna be a real kind of depressing game. So I kind of skipped it, but maybe I’ll go back because I do really love the artistry and the animation and the writing in those games; it’s all really top shelf.
OK, what's your favorite game of the past few years? And I think I know the answer to this one…
Karim: Elden Ring, no doubt.
Matthew: When we started talking about games you noted that you’ve beaten Elden Ring six times.
Karim: Yes, I’m at New Game + 7 now, so it's my seventh runthrough. And I just started again this week because I was watching YouTube a couple of days ago, and I could see that the platform was resurfacing some Elden Ring trailers so I was like “okay,” I’m just going to replay it again.
Matthew: So your NG+ is the same build every time? Are you experimenting with new builds or anything like that?
Karim: I tried new builds during NG+ 3 and 4 but didn't really like it that much because I have a very specific game style.
Matthew: What do you do?
Karim: I love the samurai build way too much as I can really get in close to the enemies during combat.
Matthew: Exactly. I'm sword and shield in all those games…
Karim: Hundred percent.
Matthew: …which made Sekiro, really tough for me to play because there's no shields there. So maybe this is the same question here, but what game have you spent the most time playing? Elden Ring six times, that's gotta be at least a couple hundred hours, right?
Karim: I have easily spent over 500 hours playing Fortnite.
Karim: I have been playing Fortnite almost every night for almost 2 years now. Not because of all the modes or content in the game (which is awesome by the way) but because I used it as a platform to connect with friends nationally and internationally.
Matthew: Yeah, I think for me definitely World of Warcraft is the most in terms of hours, that's probably a solid half year of my life right there. I don't play it much anymore, so I mostly just play single player games now. Do you kind of flip between single-player, multiplayer, co-op at all?
Karim: Fortnite is the only multiplayer game that I play. 99% of the other games that I play are all single-player games.
Matthew: So aside from Elder Ring, what are you playing right now?
Karim: I’m playing the OG Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation on Steam Deck. That's also one of the games from my childhood where I was just sitting on a couch and seeing my brothers play that and hearing the iconic music that comes with it. It strikes a lot of emotional chords, going through it again.
Matthew: All right, let’s shoot you some questions about your role at Null. If you assumed somebody doesn't know what a marketer or a video game marketer does, what would you tell them? How would you describe your day to day tasks or your overall goals of what you do?
Karim: Good question; this is what I tell my family and my friends, because a lot of them have no direct experience with what it is to be a marketer or being involved in game development. The pitch phrase that I tell them is: “Hey, I work with developers of all sizes; it could be a team of one or two people, or it could also be development teams of well over 500 people. They can be located anywhere in the world and my job is to help promote their games by leading the marketing campaigns. So, I do things like talking to retailers, making assets, figuring out the pricing, creating store pages, utilizing social media. So it's literally everything that comes to mind when it comes to promoting an actual product.”
Matthew: What do you think people commonly misunderstand when it comes to marketing games?
Karim: I would say that only a lot of people overlook indie games because they don't really get exposed to it. For me, I’m really into the indie scene because that's where some of the most creative ideas come from, at least in my opinion. So one of the biggest misconceptions is that people think that only big games can succeed. And the second misconception is that there’s only one type of gamer out there.
Of course, there's many different games for many different audiences. And there are many different types of gamers out there. Male, female, adults, kids, and you also have people who are a little bit older. Each of these groups need different messaging, different assets, and just a different way of how you talk to them and how you market your product towards them.
Matthew: So your background is that you’re coming from Ubisoft and Meta, and now you're working for Null, which I would describe as a slightly smaller company in comparison to those two. What do you think is the biggest difference to you as a marketer in terms of mindset when you’re trying to market a AAA title vs an indie game?
Karim: For AAA, I would say you go after mass audiences/appeal as you're talking to millions of people there. And of course, your budget will be larger as well in order to achieve this. This is why I prefer to work on indie games instead as you work more closely with developers and the community. You can have that conversation one-on-one with them. You learn from them and you collaborate together with them, whereas with AAA it's completely different as you are more distant from them.
Matthew: Do you feel that your input on gameplay as a marketer is driven by making a game more palatable to the marketplace? Or do you find that you just come from what you think is more fun to do than what is already going on in a game?
Karim: I think it's a combination of both. When you do your research as a marketer, you really learn about what the different audiences want to see in your game, or what they like or don't, like when it comes to marketing messaging, assets, game development, etc. Whereas with AAA games, you can give that input and a team will take it but in the end they can just put it aside. Whereas with indie game development, I'm way more proactive in working together as a team.
For example; when I do audience research and I heard people saying “accessibility is really important to me and I really want to have these things in the game so I can enjoy the game rather than being excluded,” I try to make sure to be very proactive about passing that feedback to the developer and tell them “Hey, maybe this is something you can take a look into, because it's not only one person but it's a community of people behind this who are saying that they’d love to see more accessibility options in the game”.
Matthew: So, there are a million indie games out there. I think there's something like 30 games going up on Steam every day. A lot of these games are very small and the developer has to work without a publisher and some of the benefits like marketing and budget support that comes along with signing with a publisher. Are there any common issues that you see with self-published games in terms of marketing?
Karim: Number one, I would say sometimes there is no clear marketing strategy at all. So whatever they put out there it's not tied to something that's predefined or strategized on and could feel like it is very random.
The second thing is not engaging on the right channels. A lot of indie developers out there focus primarily on Discord, which is an absolutely amazing platform to talk to other developers and your community. But then when it comes to communicating externally they don't know how to use, for example, all the features of Instagram stories or how to natively post on Twitter, or what the specs are to post on Facebook, etc., so they make a lot of mistakes and it's something that can be easily avoided when you just have someone a bit more experienced that comes in with the right marketing know-how.
And lastly, which is the most important one, is when you do not know your target audience, who you are trying to sell the game to, or who you are trying to cater to and try to listen to your biggest fans. The people on Discord are basically your ambassadors because they're usually involved throughout the entire game development and they are the first ones to vouch for you when your game goes live. So yeah, those three things are where I see most of the mistakes get made: a lack of marketing strategy, not engaging on the right channels, and then not knowing your audience or listening to your fans.
Matthew: Another question I had for you is, so, I come from a press background; I’ve worked in games press for over half my life now, so that’s the environment that I come from and know best. I know, press, I like writing, that's what I do. But I know over the last few years, we've seen influencers and streamers becoming much more of a bigger part of how you get your game in front of people. I was curious how you see that balance between press and influencers changing as the influencer market matures? What do you think the role is for press in indie game marketing?
Kalimu KC: So to put it very shortly, both will be absolutely critical for any video game marketing out there. I look at the press as being critical and fair because they are the ones that go after that mass audience and they are the ones that basically rate your game. It's very important to have a very good relationship with these people and give them access to your game: letting them play the game early, being able to write reviews for your game and attend preview events. All of these things are basically where people get information from before they consider buying your game. As for influencers, I have looked at influencers as being super key to your marketing campaign. They're the ones that put time and effort in creating content which will be shown to their followers and live as evergreen content on the internet.
Matthew: I've been in the games business for about 25 years now, and unfortunately being in the press, most of the big marketing moments in games that I remember I’m mostly remembering because something went wrong. But I was curious, if you have a good example from your own experience with an indie game marketing moment that went right?
Kalimu KC: Yes, the developer of Celeste, Maddy Thorson, I think she has really nailed a lot of this. The reason why I like her a lot is because she knows how to tackle very tough themes, not only in the game but also outside of the game. Celeste is all about being able to tackle things like mental health. So if you've ever played Celeste, it's largely based around that topic. The way that Thorson positioned that game, and the way that she so openly talks about feels very real and authentic.
She also does a stellar job at working together with her community and gathering feedback through the entire development cycle. The community has really cheered her on during development as she was going through some mental health issues and in turn she did some cool stuff for speedrunners (which are the most hardcore players in the community). She built an in-game clock to show you the timing of your run, built secret paths and more!
Matthew: I've seen other people play it. It looks very difficult. I want to give it a try, though. Thanks for your time, Karim!