Full Disclosure: I have never released a game before. I’m currently working on my first. All opinions here come from my experience working in a band not working as a developer.
So this link has been floating around the internet a lot this week. Lots of people seemed surprised by how a game without massive flaws could do so poorly. I was surprised that this was news at all.
It’s relatively common knowledge that getting your game on Steam is not the achievement that it once was. It used to be that simply getting your game into the Steam library meant that you got dedicated time in the limelight, people would see your game and you’d likely get quite a few sales out of the deal. When the green light system was introduced it meant that anyone out there could feasibly get a game on Steam. You can debate whether this is a good or a bad thing all you want, but the undeniable effect is that the Steam store is now a saturated market for developers.
The article making rounds this week reads like deja vu. Many people seemed to attribute the game’s poor performance to its design or lack of originality. Those may be valid arguments, but the quality of the game isn’t the focus of this post. I want to dig into a marketing problem I keep seeing. I read quite a few postmortems between all the dev blogs I subscribe to and I can’t help to notice a pattern in several of the failed game postmortems. There’s one idea I see over and over: “I reached out to all the press I could … No one was interested”. This line is always written with surprise, as though the developer couldn’t imagine how this could happen.
A while ago I used to front a thrash metal band called “Hypokalypse”. I eventually decided to leave because it got to be just too much, but I loved my time with those guys and would not trade away the experiences I had for anything. Trying to sell in a saturated market may be something relatively new to developers but it’s something musicians have had to deal with for decades. So I put together a list of things that I learned as a musician that we as devs NEED to learn in order to stay relevant.
- You aren’t special. – When you work so hard on something it’s easy to come to the conclusion that what you have made must be objectively important. While it is possible that what you created is the greatest thing the world has ever seen, there is no shortage of other people in the world who have worked just as hard as you to create something that they are sure is even better. Everyone and their brother is in a band. I doubt anyone reading this doesn’t know someone that considers themselves a DJ. The market is flooded and supply for music greatly exceeds the demand. Musicians know this, which is why they don’t just send their demo to press expecting to get written up. Indie devs have not figured this out yet, but they need to. With high end engines and tools continuously lowering in price and growing more accessible, the independent game developer market is only going to get more diluted.
- No one is going to help you unless it benefits them. – When you are in a band and you play a gig, the management didn’t let you play because they like your music. They didn’t let you play because they believe in you and they want to see you do well. They let you play because you convinced them that enough other people will come to see you play and buy drinks that it’s financially worth it for them to have you there. If you don’t already have fans, no one wants you. If no one wants you, you can’t play gigs and make fans. It’s a catch 22 scenario that bands have overcome by either playing opening gigs for other bands for free or sometimes even by paying the venue money.
As a developer you need to realize that if you want someone to help you, you need to make it worth their while. They need readers. A press site will be much more willing to write about a game if they know you already have a pretty decent following. They will also be much more willing to write about a game if you do most of the work for them. Why is your game different from everything else out there? Why is it great and why should someone want to read about it? These points need to be explicitly laid out in any communication with game press, and will make for more interesting reading.
- The time to start building an audience is right now. – A number of postmortems write about how they got through development and then started working on marketing. You can’t wait for a game to be finished before you start marketing it. Building an audience is a slow and often painful process. I started this weekly blog in part because I like to write, but mostly because every time someone gets linked here, I can count one more person in the world that has heard of Project Zed’s. It’s not a big thing, but it’s something. If I’m lucky, maybe a small percentage of them will come back and check in on my progress. Sure enough since I started this blog I’ve gotten steadily increased traffic. It still isn’t much, but every month the numbers continue to grow.
- A few loyal fans mean more than hordes of indifferent observers. – One of the key bullet points the developer of Airscape had was that he had been featured on a major Youtube channel with millions of subscribers, but that the video had only generated about 20 sales. Exposure is great but sometimes it’s not enough. In Hypokalypse we got pretty good exposure on quite a few gigs, but the real fans of the band–the people who bought our merch, the people who came to see us play, and the people who flooded battles of the bands so that we could win–were primarily friends brought in by our established fanbase. There is no better endorsement of a game, than for one of my buddies to go, “Hey that game’s awesome! You should try it.” I know and trust them, so I don’t feel like I’m trying to be sold something. If you can get a few good fans who will advocate your work, you can start to exponentially grow your audience from there.
- Sometimes you make a product. Sometimes you are the product. – This tip isn’t always required but it can definitely help. It always seems strange to me when I see a game get a sequel from a different studio. The idea that the game would have been just as great if a less competent studio had produced it doesn’t make sense to me. I wouldn’t buy a sequel to an album if the label had decided to give it to a different band. It has been the case for some time that developers are not as recognized as the games they create, so publishers have gotten away with passing IPs to different studios. I’ve been noticing lately, though, that that’s starting to change. Gamers are starting to take interest in who makes their games. For example, just take a look at the success of the film “Indie Game: the Movie”. Tim Schaefer, Ken Levine, Cliff Bleszinski, Peter Molyneux, Hideo Kojima, and John Carmack: love them or hate them, if you are into video games there’s a good chance you know most, if not all, of the names in that list. That’s because they made themselves the faces of their games, and when they talk, people want to listen regardless of what game they are talking about. Now I realize I picked an example using only famous devs, but there are indie devs who have done the same but on a smaller scale, and sometimes that’s all it takes.
I personally can’t wait to play “The Witness” and it has nothing to do with the game itself. I know Jonathan Blow is in charge of that project; I’ve played his stuff before, I’ve listened to his interviews, I’ve read his blog and at this point I’m interested in anything that man wants to put out. Still too big of a name? Then let’s go with a dev that is still in early access with his first game: Wilhelm Nylund. Known as Wilnyl on the reddit forums, he is practically still a kid and yet his game Air Brawl is killing it. On top of that he’s probably one of the most community-engaged developers I’ve ever come across. I know his name because he’s been at the front of everything I’ve seen about Air Brawl, and you know what? The kid seems to be an amazing developer. I want to see what he’s going to do with Air Brawl, so I gladly kicked him a few bucks when it came out on Steam. When someone is interested in your story or feels connected to your project, they are far more likely to buy your stuff.
I hope that some of these tips help. With the game market being what it is, we all need to realize we’re just garage bands, and have to play to whomever will listen. The great Steam record company doesn’t exist anymore. You got to sell your own shit.