24 August, 2015
Blaugust, day 24
For the game project today, I have a blank canvas. Time to ask some fundamental questions about what type of game I want to make. What are the fundamental decisions I want to make, and how will I make the best ones I can?
Note this will be a bit longer than the other posts, as this has a lot of ground to cover.
As a developer, you very rarely get to make these decisions. Often these are made for you by someone else, or at the very least have to be approved by someone else. But, someone has to make the decisions, and often someone has to research these decisions.
We’ll look at three basic issues: Audience, Platform, Genres, and Business Model. Each question influences the others, and the order you ask them in will make a difference. I’ll address them in this order.
Who do we want to play our game? Defining your audience is one of those things that seems contradictory at first; shouldn’t we just want to sell to everyone? Well, and this might surprise some people, not everyone has the same tastes. Middle class American teenagers will probably be interested in something different than middle-aged European working professionals. Having an idea of what your audience wants can help you define the game better.
This is commonly done by choosing specific demographic information. Age, gender, location, occupation, socioeconomic status, etc. Most at least define age and location, and sometimes gender. So, you’ll see games that will cater to the “18-35 American male” demographic, as a very common example.
There’s an art to picking your audience. The “18-35 American male” demographic group is easy to sell to because they’re pretty solidly gamers. But, you’ll be competing with every other game that picks that same group. Picking a different group means you’ll have to do more work to market the game in order to get them to be aware. Of course, we occasionally see missteps like someone wanting to draw a female audience, so they’ll make the same old game they made before only with a pink and pastel color palette, demonstrating a complete lack of understanding of that group.
Once you have an audience, it’s time to do your research. Even if you happen to be in the target group, you may not be representative; in fact, you’re almost certainly not because you’re a game developer, because game developers are a minority and we look at games a lot differently than other people do.
On the other hand, as an indie, you might not have a few thousand dollars to drop on a business whitepaper describing your ideal group. Sometimes you do just have to play it by ear and hope that you are able to tap into a desire your demographic has.
So, what is going to run your game? In ye olde dayes of game development, this question was basically, “PC, or one or more consoles?” Then along came the internet and made things more complicated. You might have a game that is played on a device, but with an online component (or even focus). Social network games were big, meaning the browser became a platform. These days, mobile phones are all the rage. You might focus on one, or even multiple platforms for the same game.
Platform is important, because it determines what tools you need. Developing on the PC tends to be the easiest, because the vast majority of developers will have a PC. However, the PC comes in a wide variety of configurations, so it can be hard to get something that runs well on everything. You might need to spend a lot more time on support after the game launches. But, when it comes to the software tools, there is a wide variety out there at a low price point.
Consoles often require expensive tools from the console manufacturer. You’ll get a special version of the console that runs development code better, and you’ll have to keep these secure. The manufacturers will often be very restrictive about who they let have consoles. The good thing about consoles is that the platform is pretty well known, so you can worry less about the game just not working. On the other hand, if you’re going to go cross-platform, it can be a real pain to get the same feeling across all the different consoles. However, the consoles tend to have loyal markets, so you will tend to sell more units even if some of the cost per unit goes to the console manufacturer.
Browser is interesting, but definitely a waning platform. Flash has been declared dead about as often as PC gaming has at this point, but it’s still holding on. But, generally browsers lack the power of a standalone client on a platform, and lack the ease-of-use and mobility of mobile platforms. Most browser games these days are played through social media platforms like Facebook, so you have to deal with another layer (and the costs that incurs) when developing your game.
Mobile is the big platform right now. It’s getting the most attention, mostly because it’s the least established right now. As platforms become established, it becomes harder for a new company to enter and dominate, because there is less growth. If an area is growing, then it’s easier for a scrappy new group to come in and peel off some of those new users. Eventually you either grow large to compete or become the target of acquisition for a company that did grow large enough. But, I think we’re nearing the time when the market is becoming established. At this point the channels are established enough that you have a hard time standing out from the crowd; “discoverability” has been the topic of conversations for a while.
The question of going cross-platform is another interesting one. I was in a discussion just this weekend where people were talking about how Naughty Dog’s PS3-exclusive games were really head and shoulders above all others because they were able to focus on one platform. On the other hand, you really have to have a game that will sell very well for that to make financial sense for your company. Each additional platform adds additional costs, additional overhead, and restricts the game design that much more to fit all the platforms.
And, yes, there are still other platforms. You might consider iPhone and Android two separate but related platforms. Handheld consoles are still a thing, even in the age of mobile, but they tend to get overlooked. VR and AR are up-and-coming, but hard to predict what will work.
Obviously your audience will influence what platforms you work on. If you’re targeting retirees, focusing on VR is probably not the best idea as they haven’t adopted that platform much yet.
As I wrote. games have two genres: setting and gameplay. These might have the most direct impact on your development. And, for many newbie developers, it’s probably the one that will take the most time.
I don’t think I need to spend a lot of time here because it’s a topic that probably deserves its own long-form blog post, really. The one bit of advice here is that you really need to understand what your audience expects and the platform can support. Especially if you’re targeting an audience that isn’t the typical gamer majority you really need to understand what works well. Again, do your research as best you can.
The Business Model
The final step in our discussion today is the business model. Picking this is important, because it’s how you make money and stay in business. Picking the wrong model can hurt you if it’s not appropriate.
The major business models are: one-time purchase, subscription, ad-supported, and free-to-play with additional purchases. Back when your choices for platforms were mostly “PC or a specific console?” most of the games were on-time purchases. Sometimes you’d purchase additional expansion or other content that was sent out. DLC was way for game makers to sell smaller bits of content directly to the player.
MMOs brought subscriptions to the gaming space. There was a brief period where people would pay per time unit used, but when Meridian 59 launched it made the subscription standard. This is a good model for supporting ongoing costs, such as servers. It also gives you predictable income.
Ad-supported and free-to-play are the newcomers. MMOs flirted with free-to-play before social network games and mobile games took the business model to dizzying new heights. It became the standard for mobile games, as it coupled a low barrier to entry with an evergreen payment model with a very high payment ceiling; in other words, if someone wanted to spend a lot of money on your game they could. Of course, there are concerns about about the model, particularly how it affects children, but it’s been pretty well accepted by now.
The big thing here is finding a business model that works well with your audience and platform. Keep in mind that conventional wisdom may not apply; some people make a reasonable revenue stream with one-time purchased games on mobile, for example. Also keep in mind that sometimes opinion matters a lot; a lot of traditional MMORPG players are suspicious of the free-to-play model in the Western markes, so you may not get the audience you want if use this business model.
So, there are the basics. As I said, the order matters a lot, as it will restrict options for later choices. And, sometimes you just don’t have a choice at all; a starting indie game developer is unlikely to get access to console hardware, so that’s probably not even an option to start. But, these decisions will influence almost every aspect of the game going forward.